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« Sunday « March 29, 2009
Google calls it 'minimalist aesthetic' but it's a euphemism for ugly
(caught |n between blog)
Earlier this month, Google's lead visual designer left the company, and shared some of the reasons for his departure: "When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data...that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions."
Earlier this month, FaceBook changed the visual look and feel of its site layout, leading to ongoing and vociferous outrage from more than 600,000 of its engaged and loyal users, and counting: "[J]ust one newly voiced opinion from the company's 'Vote on the new Facebook layout' app, which seems in keeping with consensus among the 624,665 comments there so far: 'this one is really confusing.'"
Earlier this month, Twitter, perhaps the hottest of the hot social networks, revealed that it paid a mere $6 to acquire the "tweety bird" logo that introduces their service: "The bird on Twitter's home page, familiar to millions, is small, cute and fun, and implies communication and anticipation. One might say it's the perfect graphic for Twitter. Yet the company paid its designer at most $6, without attribution."
Besides being anecdotes from three of the trendiest and (arguably) increasingly influential technology companies of our day, they are stories of engineering cultures which pay scant heed to visual design and creativity. Instead of integrating visual design into their core product development strategies, it becomes something that gets tacked on after the process of turning out products has already begun. So goes it with engineers. Ultimately, I think that end-users and consumers pay the price, in that they receive less-than-optimal experiences and things that are not very pleasing aesthetically, perhaps even just plain ugly. At the end of the day, this will affect customer loyalty and hurt bottomline growth, because no one really wants to buy ugly, unless they have to because there's no other choice.
I'll give Google a little credit, in their self-published "Google User Experience" document, they call their visual style a "minimalist aesthetic," but when I read one of their own employees (now former), someone originally hired to raise Google's visual design to breakthrough levels, say: "Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions," all I can say of their minimalist aesthetic is: lip service. Their definition of minimal aesthetic is really shorthand for "no visual design at all." It's just not that important to them, it doesn't matter what label you slap on it, it's an afterthought, not a strategic initiative
Some will argue that in high technology companies, visual design really isn't that important, because what separates the winners from the losers in this game is superior engineering. To that, I also say: lip service. Technological excellence will get you a lead, but it won't sustain it, because everyone's technology is always improving; that competitor in your rear-view mirror is closer than you think. Innovation never sleeps. Still, the recent history of consumer technology is a nothing but a graveyard of superior know-how that's been beaten by lesser know-how. If you're old enough to remember videotape, recall the battle between Beta vs. VHS - the superior technology lost. Or what about a more contemporary example: the Nintendo Wii vs. XBox360 and PlayStation3? The latter two, with all of their CPUs and GPUs, raw computing-horsepower and ability to draw millions of polygons and render photorealistic vistas were supposed to crush the under-powered, toy-like Wii: but look what happened - the little videogame engine that could, did. Superior engineering doesn't always guarantee a winner. So if tech companies are to get an edge that goes beyond luring the best engineers away from the competition, why don't they take a closer look at visual design?
What happens in technology companies when visual design - and the deeply creative thinking it embodies - gets a seat at the big table with engineering? What happens when visual design is integrated into the product development process from Day One? I don't know for sure, but I think you end up with something like Apple's iPhone.
Since so many technology companies covet and would love to emulate the kind of phenomenal success Apple has had with the iPhone, maybe the time has come to begin taking visual design seriously. Perhaps now is the time to focus on transforming visual design into a competitive advantage, a way to build relevant differentiation into products. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that makes beauty relevant. Without a focus on visual design, all a technology company can do is churn out products that have minimalist aesthetics, and that's just a euphemism for "ugly."
Customers know ugly when they see it. And it's not really a trigger for driving purchases, or a recipe for premium pricing. Did you notice, by the way, that Google, Facebook, and Twitter also have something else in common? They're all (currently) free.
Like I said before, people don't buy ugly. But they'll certainly scoop it up when it's free.
Want a business model? Sell beautiful.