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by Eric Sharp on May 28, 2015

Topics: User Experience (UX), Visual Design

is-web-design-art-aesthetics

When you hear the word Art, what comes to mind?

Breathtaking visuals? Personal interpretation? A search for meaning that leads to that desirable human sensation we call a warm fuzzy?

What about “Web Design”? Does the design in web design conjure up a similar emotional response?

To the people and companies that own results-driven websites, “Absolutely not”. If you’re thinking “Yes”, or “Maybe” — this blog is for you.

Don’t get me wrong. A website’s aesthetics plays a big role in a website. However, personal artistic tastes and warm fuzzies have no relevance when designing a website.

Web design is NOT Art. And here’s why.

Design is polarizing because it’s sometimes misunderstood

In my 15 years of helping clients design websites, I’ve never seen another word have such an impact on a working relationship.

Design is emotional. Design is personal. And that’s OK — when design is understood.

I believe web design is often misunderstood because it’s confused as Art. Rather than a meticulous process of calculated micro decisions backed by qualitative and quantitative data, it’s sometimes viewed as though it were an acrylic painting hanging over a couch.

Have you ever interacted with a painting?

Bare with me. I realize this is an obscure example, but it’ll help illustrate my position.

office-art
Though this artist’s photograph reminds me of Chicago (my favorite city), and I’m quite fond of his creativity, I never take it off my home office wall to physically interact with it.

Think of any piece of Art hanging in the place you call home. When’s the last time you took it off the nail, touched it, and expected feedback to help solve a problem?

Never, right? (Please say never.)

Yes, good Art is powerful and motivational. But, Art — for the average person — hangs, decorates and beautifies a home, apartment or office.

Though there’s plenty of mental interaction (“Gosh, this painting reminds me of…”), there’s no physical interaction (“When I touch here, I’ll expect…”).

Now we’re getting to the core difference between Art and web design.

Interaction.

When people start interacting with computers, things get messy.

Web design is not decoration (because people need to use a website to do something)

jtfolkart-artist-painting
Art evokes “Do you like it?” type of questions, but Web Design doesn’t get off that easy. Websites exist to solve communication, marketing & sales problems (img credit: JTFolkart.com)

A website comes with the fundamental understanding that people will use it.

For a website to be a website, it requires human interactions such as:

  • searching
  • clicking
  • tapping
  • reading
  • scrolling

When people start interacting with computers, things get messy, and subsequently requires the principles of interaction design (IXd) (e.g. goals, usability, feedback, learnability).

Furthermore, these interactions exist to solve a problem ultimately. We can precisely measure if web design does its job. With Art, we can’t because of its subjectiveness.

Joshua Porter’s Design is Not Art, Redux nails it:

Designers create something to use. Artists create something to appreciate.

What the “Design” in Web Design represents

The design in web design is not just about colors, textures, shapes, photography, and fonts. In fact, these elements (Visual Design) make up just 1/5 of a website.

That’s right, just ONE-FIFTH.

A website that solves problems embraces all 5 competencies of user experience design:

  1. Information Architecture
  2. Interaction Design
  3. Usability Engineering
  4. Visual Design
  5. Prototype Engineering
5-competencies-of-user-experience-design
When a website focuses exclusively on Visual Design, it neglects the other critical competencies of user experience design (img credit: UXmatters)

If design isn’t thought of holistically, there’s dangerous cross-over into the Art-centric mindset and the whole “Do you like it?” will rear its ugly head.

This is why web design becomes misunderstood. Maybe because of simple ignorance, or possibly — and, sadly — stubbornness (a big reason Brochure Websites continue to exist).

You might like:

Is a Poor Visual Design Killing Your Website?

People make snap assumptions (good or bad) of your website within 50 milliseconds, and its visual design could lead to a bad first impression.

What are the consequences of treating a website like Art?

When a website reduces its design phase to meet an ambiguous goal of “what feels good” (thus treating it like Art), it becomes void of:

  • goals
  • research
  • solid structure
  • the application of psychology (such as persuasion triggers)
  • correct technology decisions
  • usability
  • valuable content
  • calls to action
  • measurement & ROI analysis

This myopic approach (prioritizing just the visual design) deflates a website to a rudimentary level and consequently never satisfies any real business objectives.

new-home-construction
Could you build a custom home by giving your contractor input on just the exterior’s color, landscaping & driveway pavers? You could. But the home won’t meet your needs.

In Review

As I mentioned earlier, design is polarizing. This topic (“web design vs. Art”) only adds to the polarization, but also introduces some ambiguity.

Let me combat that by summarizing my position:

  1. A website solves problems. Art doesn’t have to solve a problem to be considered successful.
  2. A website experience and an Art experience are vastly different because of the interaction element.
  3. You can measure whether a website’s design is successful. With Art, you can’t because of its subjectivity.
  4. The process a designer takes to create a useful website is significantly different than the process an artist takes to create a beautiful piece of art.

Don’t design for fleeting warm fuzzies, design to solve problems

Warm fuzzies come and go with ease. Business problems do not. They need fixing.

When a website’s design becomes more holistic, accounting for all 5 competencies, it alleviates chronic issues in a company’s communications, marketing, and sales.

That’s a website designed for people. Not a feel good moment.

You might also enjoy this:

“I Like It!”: How to Nail Your Website’s Visual Design with Research, Activities & Collaboration

To perfect a website’s visual design (look & feel), it demands research, activities, and collaboration. Our formula works, and has these 6 ingredients.

Author Info

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Hey there, thanks for reading! My name is Eric Sharp and I’m the Founder of ProtoFuse. Learn more about me, follow me on Twitter or find me on Google+. Oh, and I’ll call you family if you’re a Chicago Bears fan. Daaa Bearsss.
  • Jayne Dutra

    Hey there, a good article. However, in a bit of irony, the floating social media side bar on the left of my browser screen is obscuring the text and making it hard to read. It’s sort of a, ahem, usability issue.

    • Hey Jayne. Thanks for reading, and appreciate the comment (touché by the way). :) This social bar is actually a third-party service provided by SumoMe. We embedded it in a location that wouldn’t overlap the content for ~95%+ of our desktop traffic (based upon screen resolution found in our Analytics). You unfortunately might be in that ~5%. I’m curious, what resolution are you running? On a smaller desktop screen? Thanks again for sharing.

      • Jayne Dutra

        Hi Eric, Having been a webmaster for a long time, I know how devilishly hard it is to get a display right for every single browser/resolution/device scenario, so no worries. I’m on a PC with Windows 10, screen resolution 1440 x 900. Again, a good article pointing out that design for the web is focused on ease-of-use, navigability and an underlying strong information architecture. Thanks for posting!

        • Thanks for the feedback and thanks for passing along your specs! We put a lot of hard work into our content so anything that disrupts that consumption is bad design for sure. We’ll certainly look into adjusting this social toolbar. Thanks for talking it through me. Cheers!