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Can a Website Be Art for Art’s Sake?

Our senior designer, Caroline, tackles a question sparked by a debate among our design team.

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The design team at FortyFour takes inspiration seriously. We spend significant time crawling Awwwards, Dribbble, Behance, Httpster, CollectUi, and Bestfolios, to name a few. We discuss inspirational art, type, and UI projects in our creative team weekly meetings. We share drool-worthy interactions and color palettes via slack. All of this preparation makes it easier to kick off new projects and bring fresh ideas to new pitches.

Recently, this practice sparked a heated debate across the team.

I found a particularly interesting site that I showed to my deskmate, Liz. The website in question had truly strange interactions, an initially imperceptible purpose, and an impossible layout on mobile. After several minutes of digging, we discovered it was site for designer shoes. Liz suggested we pull up another site, this time for a restaurant. The throwback styling of the site immediately conjured up memories of customizing my first MySpace layout. It had letters tracing the cursor, overlapping tickers, and a color palette that made your eyes vibrate.

Several other designers and UX’ers on our team gathered around my desk and distinct camps began to form. We heard the following:

“I can’t read it and it hurts my eyes.”
“This reminds me of a crappy MySpace customization.”
“It’s intentionally ugly.”
“The design defeats the purpose of the site.”

And then…

“This tells me more about their business than a traditionally designed site would.”
“This is interesting, trend-setting, and innovative.”
“This website is art.”

Essentially, we had camp one (this website is a steaming pile of useless garbage) and camp two (this website is art and art is cool). This is completely reductive, but reflecting on it now, I think there are merits to the underlying arguments.

The Function Argument

Websites are tools that serve a very distinct purpose. Usability is essential to any website. A website should never compromise usability for purely aesthetic reasons.

Anyone who’s studied a modicum of user experience has probably come across books like Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think. Krug defines “don’t make me think” as “…the overriding principle—the ultimate tie breaker when deciding whether something works or doesn’t in a Web design.”

Clients hire us to make sites that help users access their products. If they function properly, they drive conversions.

Extensive research has aided in creating human-centered design—a system that considers our digital devices as an extension of ourselves. Augmenting human capability, after all, could be the most noble cause of any digital product, websites included. It follows that creating products with seamless user interaction is essential to our progression.

Such advances have been made in creating frictionless interactions that users have grown to expect great usability. If a digital product isn’t easy to use, it’s dropped. Relentless competition has pushed us to create apps that learn our behavior and predict our next move. If we reject human-centered design in favor of visual interest, aren’t we actively impeding technology?

The Form Argument

Websites are art, and great artists reject convention in favor of innovation. They should be innovative, trendsetting, and push the industry forward.

If you believe that websites are art, which many do, the idea of “Don’t Make Me Think” should make you shudder. Great artists throughout history have railed against tradition, convention, and social acceptance to get us to think. The humanities push us to increased consideration of the human condition. Great artwork evokes emotion, challenges our beliefs, alludes to other great art. If websites are art, should they help us to do the same?

Every art form in history has a pattern of established convention, then rejection of that convention. Many of them are considered the greatest artists of their time. Fundamentally, artists like Picasso, Alexander McQueen, and Jackson Pollock took an established rule book and threw it out the window. If we have the same aspirations to greatness, shouldn’t we be following great artists?

Websites have been around for decades with very little radical change in navigation, probably because once the usability patterns were established, users learned the patterns. Creating and learning new patterns can be confusing. But are we content to continue using only slight variations on patterns and functions from the internet’s infancy?

So what’s the right answer?

It depends.

I think when given the freedom, we should favor aesthetic. Sites that are meant to convey moods or brand identity are particularly well-suited to this. Think of a multi-million dollar fragrance ad aired around the holidays: Does this shot of a famous actress diving into the ocean with a designer dress communicate how good the perfume smells? Hell no. Does it convey mood, style, theme, and lifestyle to a prospective customer? Hell yes. Big ad experts favor aspiration and style over everything and are willing to bet big on it.

When product and conversion are the focus, we absolutely should consider usability. If your purpose is to sell a great product and your users can’t access it, you’re doing yourself and your customers a disservice. That said, there are a ton of really beautiful sites that are easy to use and navigate.

Ultimately, as designers, it’s our responsibility to fully understand client needs. It’s also our responsibility to create something beautiful and innovative. Striking a balance between the two is the key to doing great work.

I’m glad that our team has this healthy tension between form and function. I’m sure we’ll continue to debate this issue and create work that balances artful trends, innovation, and great usability.

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