On Pretty As Design

Let’s talk about “pretty”.

Let’s talk about “pop”.

Let’s talk about “dynamic”.

Let’s talk about subjective and fashionable qualities of design. In visual design of communications media(think websites, user interfaces, video productions, billboards, book covers, book layouts, that shirt you wore five times in a row that one summer…), we are tasked with developing a message that considers culture, climate, and criteria.

Disclosure: I did not enter this field for ANY of that above. In fact, my first program at Ranken Tech(Yes, I am a Ranken Man, thank you for asking) was HVAC. I was extremely practical, and focused on my money. And then I met Flash.

Now, sure, these days she is a lot less popular, something something about being poisoned by an Apple, but in those days, she was capable and jQuery was too young for me. I saw a bouncing red ball, and I chased that red ball to my first six-thousand dollar client, and I have been chasing that ball in one way or another ever since. I believe most people in this field have a story that is similar.

We often start out as graphic designers, enamored by recreating compelling images and blending emotionally triggering colors. And then we get a bill. Or we get a quarterly from our supervisor that suggests our creativity is appreciated, but not converting properly to our company’s bottom lines.

“Pretty” became a liability.

So, many of us learned “style”. We applied a modernist and Swiss approach to our layouts. Our images over a digital medium borrowed styles from print mediums. Our animations became “micro-interactions” following a style guide of 12 rules developed by Disney for, yes, another medium. We gave up our easels for analytics.

“Pretty” went from being our objective, to solely being subjective.

Artistic expression eventually gave way to design direction. Our instincts stepped aside for user profiles and case studies. As Flash faded into that shadow of JavaScript libraries, so did our understanding of visual communication.

While this may seem a languish over creative talents gone corporate, it really is not. I am not upset that my reason for a particular color scheme is less reliant on my own internal reactions, more on what that color means to a client and more important, who my client needs to communicate to. In my early days, I attempt to sell a business owner a site with an all red overlay. He became my client, but he also informed me that he was originally from Long Beach, that he had been Cripping his entire life, and that an all-red site would be disrespectful to his base.

“Pretty” is not a language, it is moment
In closing, I think it is important to remember that most of us are inheritors of a craft primarily nurtured by early 20th Century graphic designers. We do not employ sans-serif and grids because they are “pretty”. Ironically, we do not even employ them because they provide symmetry, “pretty’s” scientific alias. We employ them because designers like Jan Tschichold and Paul Renner were involved in a psychological war against Nazi Germany. It was not a “pretty” reason, it was an ideological, and given that price they paid, a noble reason.

Design is about communication. From interface to database, we are tasked with forging messages, not pretty. Pretty is an aroma we bring to our dishes, it is a quality we consider with regard to its offensiveness, that is, its potential barrier to communication. Trendy or fashionable styles are implemented only as they facilitate that conversation we are having with our client’s base.

We are not paid to do “pretty”, we are paid to converse, to communicate.