Can Functional Be Beautiful?

Whither Style

Article originally published on HOW.

Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini’s invective last fall against Apple in Fast Company was a notable salvo in the perennial debate about the role beauty should play in design. Beyond their specific complaints about too-thin fonts, lack of visual signifiers, and the way in which Apple has chosen to ignore a wide range of interaction design best practices, their commentary is fueled by a far deeper, more existential offense:

Apple is destroying design. Worse, it is revitalizing the old belief that design is only about making things look pretty. No, not so! Design is a way of thinking, of determining people’s true, underlying needs, and then delivering products and services that help them.

Norman and Tognazzini’s complaint is that Apple values form over function; that it celebrates aesthetics over usefulness. While they don’t say so, we can guess that the palpable umbrage in their article is so deeply felt precisely because of Apple’s success: How could the world’s most profitable company, which many people see as the world-leader in design, be so successful when they ignore elementary best practices for interaction design? And, what does this say about the decades-long effort in the design field—led by luminaries like the authors, among others—to shape the role of design as being about more than mere looks, and instead about meaningful utility and impact?

Even being sympathetic to Norman and Tognazzini’s arguments, there are a number of rebuttals one could make: collectively, users have more domain knowledge about gestural interaction patterns, so they need fewer on-screen affordances than in the past; higher-resolution screens allow Apple to get away with thinner fonts; haptic feedback and other technologies are evolving to support other affordances; the benefits favoring content over controls on a small screen outweigh the benefit of on-screen affordances; and so on.

However, any point-by-point argument does little to address the philosophical—or, perhaps more accurately, ideological—opposition that Norman and Tognazzini have to iOS, and, for that matter Google’s Material Design language: they perceive decisions being made that value beauty over function, and it perturbs them.

It’s not that they don’t appreciate beauty, per se; they talk often of its importance as part of a holistic strategy. This passage in particular is one every product manager, designer, engineer, and marketer would do well to memorize:

Good user experience can only flow from a system where marketing, graphic and industrial design, engineering, and usability all work together in a collaborative effort to make life better, more enjoyable, and more productive [for customers].

Still, it’s clear they don’t believe beauty should take precedence over functional considerations. Given this bias, it’s only natural that their critique of Apple focuses far more on an evaluation of interaction design fundamentals—discoverability, feedback, recovery, consistency—than a critical analysis of Apple’s aesthetics. This isn’t surprising, but, given that “beauty” is the thing supposedly winning out over usability, perhaps it’s worth asking, what is “beauty” anyway, when it comes to interaction design? And does beauty have value?

It was interesting to see Norman and Tognazzini describe iOS’s “beauty” as a given. No doubt that Apple intended it to beautiful—Apple’s intent being the target of the authors’ criticism—but is it necessarily beautiful? The way Norman and Tognazzini talk about beauty fits in line with Immanuel Kant’s basic tenets of beauty (crudely summarized below), as described in his Critique of Judgment:

  •   We enjoy something because we find it beautiful, rather than find something beautiful because we enjoy using it
  •   When we find something beautiful, we expect that others will find it beautiful
  •   We enjoy the beauty in things independent of their intended purpose

Thin fonts, low contrast—the things Norman and Tognazzini accuse Apple of favoring over usability—might be considered beautiful, but there’s nothing inherent in them that excludes different aesthetics that might also be considered beautiful. Have we all forgotten that Apple was the king of skeuomorphism not so long ago, and that we still see hints of, even today (the color picker in El Capitan, for instance, which looks like a fresh pack of fancy color pencils)? That glossy postmodern aesthetic, now derided, was also championed as being the apogee of beauty by Apple (and, notably, Steve Jobs).

While current aesthetics may (or may not) have levels of intrinsic beauty, it’s easy to agree that they are not exclusionary. Meaning, they don’t preclude other aesthetics. It’s odd to have to make note of this, since outside the world of interaction design, variance and evolution of what is considered beautiful is taken for granted: it’s called style.

Style evolves over time, and varies by cultural affinity. While different styles might all be judged to be equally beautiful in their own way, they are necessarily aesthetically distinct. We see this in the arts, with each generation of artists bringing a new sensibility and style to bear on aesthetics; styles vary between place; they differ among cultures. Fashion is a whole industry built around this continuing shift of sensibility. Or, consider advertising, furniture design, auto design, and architecture. Shifting and evolving aesthetics are a cornerstone of each of those fields.

Different fields within art and commercial design each have their own cadence of evolution: fashion moves relatively quickly, season to season, whereas architecture evolves more slowly, based on construction techniques and the development of building codes. Each field evolves at its own pace, based on the varying material, cultural, and economic specificities between fields. No different, the aesthetics of digital things (products, services, and communications) also evolve at their own cadence—in their case, as determined by Moore’s Law, the speed of networks, and the release schedules of devices and operating systems.

The primary difference in the field of digital products is that at any given point in time, there is far, far less aesthetic variation than in almost any other field of design. Think about almost any other designed object in your life: a chair for instance. If you’re inside, just look around you. Chairs all have the same basic purpose (to sit upon) and nearly all the same functional elements (a seat, back, and legs). Yet, the aesthetic variability of chairs is seemingly infinite.

By contrast, consider the interfaces of digital products and services you use on a daily basis: considering their vast range of features and functionality, aside from color palette, are they as stylistically distinct from one another as any of the two chairs you can see in your immediate vicinity? Or buildings in your city’s skyline? Or shoes in your closet? Or cars on your daily commute? Likely not. Whether interfaces for browsing of videos, email, messaging and social media, or listening to music, the uniformity of geometry, typography, layout, texture, motion, and other stylistic components is striking and far more than in any other field of design. There may be a great deal of functional difference, and certain nuances of aesthetics are different, but wholesale aesthetic departures from a common norm are few and far between.

There are many good reasons for this: in a world where startups struggle to have their apps gain quick traction among users, utilizing common design patterns and aesthetics lowers risk. Upgrade fatigue—i.e., the unending barrage of software updates for everything from our phone to our thermostat in an Internet of Things world—can be ameliorated through a lack of variation. Reliance on APIs to build connected experiences means that developers are building around the capability of data sources and formats, which can make invention and variation challenging. Development on monolithic platforms, such as iOS and Android, mean experiences on those platforms are subject to aesthetic principles inherited from the platform.

Digital things have a much shorter shelf-life than physical things, and when their aesthetics evolve, they often change wholesale in the category; there’s no such thing as a vintage car in digital products, services, and communications.

The open Web has long been a place for variation and experimentation, and is indeed where one can see the broadest range of stylistic variation in digital products. However, services like Squarespace, which make development of beautiful websites faster (I love Squarespace, don’t get me wrong), encourage a reliance on templates and predefined “themes,” rather than completely original aesthetics, which is moving the Web toward stylistic normalization.

All of this has led to an environment in which the design differences between experiences in digital products, services, communications are like the differences between Coke and Pepsi: different, to be sure, but more similar than not. Regardless of the reasons, the uniformity of style has cemented itself in our collective consciousness as being the way things should look. And, for better or worse, that current style is minimalism, which tends to resist the sort of explicitness for which Norman and Tognazzini argue.

Their critique of Apple was focused first and foremost on what they see as wayward design values; they argue that if Apple focused on more user-centered design principles, best practices, and guidelines, then their products would be more usable. Maybe so. But even if the design leadership at Apple (and Google, and Facebook) were to read their article, and say, “They’re right! We’ve been doing it all wrong. We’re going to do everything differently now,” this ignores the fact that aesthetics, and its corresponding impact on usability, exists as part of a cultural context.

While a whole-hearted embrace of design-thinking, as Norman and Tognazzini advocate, will almost certainly make user experiences more effective, focus on process alone isn’t enough—an approach to style also needs to be considered. When they dismiss style as a dangerous siren song tempting designers away from usability and toward disaster, they ignore how stylistic choice can be an integral part of making useful things; how it can be a wave to be ridden rather than a reef on which to be broken to bits. You have more means to achieve your goals if you are open to stylistic solutions that depart from the expected.

In my own design practice, I have pushed to create unique and inventive aesthetics, following the progressive design principle of MAYA: “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.” Some successes in originality include our work on Sony’s Xperia X10, with an ambitious 3-D interface that included force-touch interaction before Apple claimed it as their own; our collaboration with BMW DesignworksUSA on the i3 dashboard, where the power consumption/regeneration display in the driver’s display was able to escape the flat bar graph; and the Sony PS4, where we were able to get away from the expected geometries that you see in TV UI these days.

These are hard-fought exceptions to the rule. In the world of digital product, service and communications design, true variability is not embraced—and when you do try to do something different it’s often an uphill battle. But, if you embrace user-centered design, you’re selling your design process short if you don’t push yourself to be open to more solutions that meet the needs of users. To do so, you must be open to more types of beauty, and to more stylistic variation. If you believe design can always be better, it’s important to have the creative and aesthetic freedom to push boundaries—to continually advance our collective notion of style and beauty.

If we, as designers of digital products, services, and communications, are open to more aesthetics, we’ll also be open to new, more innovative, and more effective solutions for users.

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