On Critiques

by Jin, 09-09-09 // 8 comments

Jason Santa Maria, New York: jasonsantamaria.com
Dave’s critique: Trying to be tooclever creatively – red type writer?? What’s that all about and you are forced to scroll beneath the fold (600pixels from the top) to read any content. Actual have to scroll about 2000pixels to get to the meat which is ridiculous.

Eric Jordan, California: 2advanced.com
Mckillen’s critique: Serious overuse of flash and falls at what is probably one of the basic no-nos of Webdevelopment and that is having sound load when you visit the site. All they are missing here are the spinningelectric guitars. Although I will saytheir client base might be for high end Flash development (puke) so this typeof site would be a good business card for that.

The quote above, spelling errors included, is an excerpt from a web design blog post I read recently. I use the words “web design” and “blog post” very very loosely here. The blog was written by a self-claimed “Web Development Specialist” from a design firm. He basically Googled for the “top 20 web designers” then gave his review for each of designer’s site. His post drew quite some attention from the web design community, and was taken down after many angry comments. The owner of the firm posted an apology post soon afterwords. I won’t post a link, because I don’t think they deserve anymore attention.

What struck a nerve with me about this particular post isn’t the author himself. I assume he’s young, lacking in design/writing skills and humility.  We all were there once, no biggie. For all I know, it could’ve been a clever scheme to draw attention. If it was, it succeeded.

Jason Santa Maria and Eric Jordan are two of very few web designers I consider truly skilled at creative design. The accolade they receive from their peers are solely based on their skills, not because of their e-fame. Both are excellent at creating superb designs for their perspective targeted clients, using their own media of choice. So I felt a bit personal when I saw these two being ridiculed.

More importantly, it made me realize how difficult it is to critique someone’s design fairly and how saturated this market has become.

I recently read an article written by Jeffery Zeldman on Adobe Design Center; I definitely agree with many points he made. In fact, I’d go on and say this is probably the best article he’s ever written, IMO.

Many young web designers view their craft the way I used to view pop culture. It’s cool or it’s crap.

When Style is a fetish, sites confuse visitors, hurting users and the companies that paid for the sites. When designers don’t start by asking who will use the site, and what they will use it for, we get meaningless eye candy that gives beauty a bad name — at least, in some circles.

I’m increasingly growing weary and bored of most web design related sites. I find there’s too much regurgitation and fluff, not enough originality and personality. Much focus are on tools and techniques, rather than fundamental design principles and the human side of design. Unfortunately, some of the really good design sites with quality content get very little visibility in the web design blog-sphere.

I rarely critique any sites’ design I visit these days. The reason is simple: it’s hard for me to give a fair judgment of the site as a whole. For general sites, I typically just glance through the usability and pay far more attention to the content. I can’t comment too much other than that because I don’t know the business behind these sites well or who their audiences are.

I tend to not judge designer’s personal sites. I feel a designer’s own site is his/her sandbox. I can overlook the quirkiness and unorthodox UI for style and personality. I think a designer’s site should reflect his/her personal branding and style. When I see a standard template design(whether it’s overly eye-candy or bare-bone minimalistic), I have to ask, “is that really you?” I don’t know. But graphical design is merely a shell, what keeps me coming back is quality content, and that’s all that matters really.

I apologize this post is somewhat rambling, but since I got this far I’ll end it a few more random thoughts I’ve had lately:

8 comments

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Aaron 09-09-09

The critique of 2advanced.com makes me want to cry and shout with anger at the same time. To this very day, when people ask how a full Flash site should be done I instantly load up 2advanced.com as the perfect example.

And I’m guilty of your McDondald’s blog template critique. Drifting away from the early 1.0 versions of Expression Engine and static HTML design has been the death note on my personal designs. I don’t even try to design websites that think outside of the box anymore, I just spend 1 hour googling for WordPress templates and another hour picking out WordPress plugins.

Gosh, I even host with Media Temple. They flip burgers too ya know.

I’m going to end ranting here, and perhaps use my current state of disarray to actually DESIGN a website…

Good post Jin.

Teck Hua 09-09-09

I like the last sentence most — “Don’t be a designers’ designer.” Concise & powerful (to me at least). Triggers ponders.

Janko 09-09-09

I don’t recognize any constructive criticism in quoted comments. Perhaps it’s the best to ignore them.

Great points, Jin!

David Lantner 09-09-09

Excellent points, Jin. This was my favorite: “it’s hard for me to give a fair judgment of the site as a whole. For general sites, I typically just glance through the usability and pay far more attention to the content. I can’t comment too much other than that because I don’t know the business behind these sites well or who their audiences are.”

There are many facets of design on the web and we, as designers, have different constraints that we have to accommodate. The flip side is that there are particular features or technologies that we want to accentuate. I agree with Aaron that 2advanced.com is a great example of a full-on Flash site; it’s a far cry from useit.com but isn’t that the point? For each of them?

Jason Santa Maria’s site is a personal site for a personal audience. I had the exact opposite reaction than the reviewer in the blog post: Jason isn’t *trying* to be “too clever creatively” – he *is* clever and why? Because the overall creative design fits together beautifully. Do I have to wait a little longer for the sIFR to take effect? Yeah. Red typewriter image? Sure. But, is it *worth* it? Yes. In fact, his site is down right now, but I have a clear image in my mind from the last time I saw it (at least a month ago) undoubtedly a result of the design and it is the designer’s job to weigh the value of each element and use them accordingly – to be “clever.”

Now, I see your point, Jin, that catering to the masses by designing templates means being more generic with less personality. Effects such as sIFR become costlier because of scale; but that’s a constraint that doesn’t apply to Jason’s personal site. It’s clear he knows his audience and what they’re willing to “pay for” in terms of site design, such as downloading images, fonts, etc.

In a recent Wired article, “Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess,” Craig Newmark and Jim Buckmaster defend their design decisions in maintaining and expanding their site (and they are indeed decisions) based upon the needs of their audience:

http://www.wired.com/entertainment/theweb/magazine/17-09/ff_craigslist

But again, craigslist.org is the opposite end of the spectrum from a designer’s personal site precisely because the content is different. I agree completely with your point that “what keeps me coming back is quality content.” For Jason’s audience, the design *is* the content or a sizable chunk of it; for a Craigslist user it’s not about the site but the listings. So choose your audience wisely because you will serve them.

Nathan Bowers 09-09-09

I know this post is all about not passing judgment, but I just have to say that the 2advanced.com site is usability hell. This is mostly because of the tiny type, ambiguous (and tiny) click targets, and lack of actual linkable pages.

That said, I’d never hire them for web work, but I’d consider them for video game menu design. And that’s what they’re going for I guess.

Anyway, yeah, don’t pass judgment, but some rules like “don’t make content that should be HTML into a proprietary inaccessible binary” shouldn’t be broken.

Jin 09-09-09

@Aaron, regarding use of templates: it’s a quick solution for people who can’t afford too much resource for a site *designed* specifically for them. Many templates are very pretty, but they don’t always serve a site’s purpose. As for designers’ personal site, as I stated in the post, they should create their own. Of course, limited free time may be a factor sometimes.

@Teck, @Janko, thanks.

@David, you “get” what I’m saying, thanks. /tears. :)

@Nathan, agreed with your critiques on 2a site. But are you their audience? Looking at their portfolio over the years, Eric Jordan’s clients are those who want rich-media, for their own audience. I think advanced.com serves its purpose by showcase what an advanced flash/animation studio it is.

Regarding flash, I’m not a purist. Although I acknowledge that Flash is often misused. With the advancement in html/css/js, there’s less need for Flash. (also mobile browsers don’t support it.) But there are things html/css can’t just offer yet. For elements that can enhance the user experience (as in the WOW factor), then Flash can be useful. It really depends on who you’re designing the site for IMO. I don’t see it as a black/white type of thing when it comes to the use of Flash.

I do hate sites don’t have a non-Flash version for mobile browsing though. Thanks.

Nathan Bowers 09-09-09

I’m not their audience, and clearly they’re doing something right, they’ve been around forever.

Still, they are all sizzle, no steak.

I’ll go out on a limb and make a religious pronouncement: “Flash (and other plugins) should only ever be used for rich media games or delivering audio or video.” Anything that can be HTML, should be HTML. Hell, 2A should go HTML if only for SEO reasons.

Dmitry 09-10-09

Nathan: Here’s Flash used very well to present the function and features of an app: http://backpackit.com/ (above the fold, on the right). Problems arise when Flash is used as the technology to deliver stuff that HTML and CSS does well — replacing site’s navigation and so on.