Design isn't What It Looks Like

Posted on Feb 23, 2007

Thanks, Peter, for pulling out this quote from the Wired article:

Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

-Steve Jobs

A large part of what I do when I design a web page is not visual at all. When I sit down to start designing a web-page, I first think about it from the user-agent’s perspective — a user-agent meaning a computer program that scans the document and does something with it: your browser for example, or a search engine spider-script. A fundamental concept to understand about designing web pages is that what you see represents only 20% (maybe less or more; it’s not a hard calculable number) of the information in your document.

To illustrate what I mean, one must look to the greater context of the Internet. It’s a global network of shared information. A repository of ideas; hyper-linked together into greater and more complex expressions. The idea behind it is that anyone (or anything) at any time can fetch a document containing some of this information on any device and read it. Whether it’s a traveling business person looking for your witty restaurant reviews on their cell-phone, a computer script parsing information in search of trends, or a blind person looking for public records; the same information is available to all of them.

In order to achieve this, web developers must be conscious of many different technologies. When they design documents, they shouldn’t just be thinking about the font-size or background graphics; but the structure, context, semantics, and meaning of the information it presents. They have to think about the devices that will be used to access the information, ways to make reading and navigating the content easier for visual and non-visual users; along with a myriad of other technical considerations. It’s in the later stages that they start bringing together the visual elements with the technical ones to bring you your iPod-ified web page of sweet action.

As Jobs has now so famously phrased his feelings about design; the iPod’s success was not based on what it looked like alone. Good design marries the functions of a system with its users in order to fulfill the purpose of the system. In the case of the iPod, the designers of that system married many levels of technology, interface concerns, ergonomics, and so much more to make it what it is. The same goes for web design — the success of a web page depends on more than what it looks like.