A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.
When I was younger, my ambition was to become a film director. To me, film making embodies the discipline of all art forms. A good director involves the use of fine art, fashion, sound, imagery, dialog and cinematography. All these elements come together to give people a gratifying experience. A good film can make you laugh, cry, scared or even angry.
I never pursued the film career path. Instead, I became a web designer.
I had a humbling experience in 2000. I met up with a client to show her a mock-up I was doing for her company site. A mock-up I was quite proud of. It had all the latest design trends. (yes, 45 degree lines were a trend at one time, so was tiny font and bar codes). She looked at the mock-up and seemed puzzled, “It looks pretty, but I’m not sure if our audience would feel it’s who we are.”
“Then your audience doesn’t have taste, and neither do you. You are not a designer…” My ego murmured silently. After all, I wasn’t used to rejection. I don’t remember how the rest of the meeting went exactly, but I do remember going to Barnes and Noble afterwards.
Flipping through creative magazines over a cup of coffee always put me in a better mood. As I was being marveled by the designs I was looking at, I wondered what made these designs great. “Because they look cool” just didn’t seem like a satisfying answer. In fact, some designs didn’t seem cool at all, they were rather subtle. I grabbed more magazines and books on photography, fine art and even architecture. I think I had a need to reassure myself of my taste. As I went on, the same question still lingered in my mind. What made a particular photo prevent me from flipping to the next page? Why were Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs so simple, yet so captivating? Why did certain rough sketches keep my attention longer than a fully rendered oil painting?
Then it hit me. All these great works from different fields captivated me because they triggered an emotional response. They did so not by looking glamorous, in fact some photos looked downright depressing. Like the one that captured the despair in a starving child’s eyes. Some figure drawings were so abstract, but they captured the body’s motion in full force. This is the key to great design and art: to capture the essence, to provoke an emotional response.
I felt rather foolish that it took me so long to realize that. The whole time I was so focused on chasing the trend and technical know-how, but ignored the fundamentals. Re-examining the mock-up I designed, I saw that it was an utter failure. All the design elements I used did nothing to convey the client’s branding, or the type of feedback they expected from people visiting their site. It was more of a showcase of my Photoshop knowledge.
Since then, I’ve focused on designing for humans. I know it sounds funny, but too often we forget this simple concept. To learn how the human psyche responds is a difficult thing to grasp. Once you develop a certain level of mastery on this subject, everything else is simply a means to an end.
People make everyday decisions based on emotions. This is why companies invest vast amounts of money in marketing and advertising. Successful products, movies, TV shows, books, music or even presidential candidates capitalize on these emotions. Web design is no different.
Graphic design is not art, for graphic design is visual communication whereas art is subjective and self expressive. Web design shares an undeniable bond with graphic design and art, but has its own intricacies that’s often associated with product design. Good web design requires multiple disciplines. We need to possess a keen eye for aesthetics, understanding of usability and technical skill to make it all happen.
Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.
-Frank Lloyd Wright
In order to trigger the appropriate emotional response we require a thorough understanding of the subject matter. Before we even start that napkin sketch, we need to know what the site is trying to do. Starting this thought process early helps us form the correct final picture. If we go straight to the aesthetics without thinking about the essence of a site, then no matter how strong our technical skills are, we’d only end up with a pretty wallpaper without any soul.
This is why I think as web designers, we need to avoid the use of templates, or simply mimic what the popular look is when creating sites for clients. What works for one site doesn’t always work for another. We need to figure out specifically for each site we build, what type of feeling we want to provoke. Once we nail that down, then use the full design arsenal at our disposal. The so called styles such as “grunge,” retro,” “minimalistic,” or even “web 2.0″ are simply byproducts of of a clear thought process.
Emotional response doesn’t have to be triggered by pure visual stimulations. Take Google for example, it’s known for its “non design” design. Millions of people use it daily because it’s fast and reliable. This is what people associate Google with. All the other popular web apps share the same essence. Web sites range so vastly in nature but as long as we go with the “design for emotion first” approach, we’ll end up with a good design.
In a way, we’re a lot like film makers. We command a slew of cast members from all aspects. Like film making, our work succeeds or fails, based on how much it affects the human psyche.