Dishonest Webdesign

Last week on A List Apart I read the article “Material Honesty on the Web” originally relayed by Hteumeuleu. It’s really been a while since I read such a load of bullshit about my occupation, especially on a quality website such as ALA. The author talks about material honesty on the web, but really lacks some intellectual one.


This post is a translation of “Webdesign malhonnête”. The articles from this blog are usually rants (but relevant ones) and often include swear words (but we’re all adults, so that shouldn’t be a problem). Italic signals english words or phrases used as is by the author in the untranslated article.

Translators :

Marie-Cécile is a multi-skilled designer focusing on web strategy and solving communication issues using the web. Follow her on @mcpaccard (FR/EN)

David is a community manager with a little bit of spare time, which he uses to help strangers translate their articles into English, or draw. He also tweets, mostly in French (@davidnlambert)

Material Honesty on the Web VS Intellectual Honesty on the Web

In case you did not read the article that is at stake, the author, Kevin Goldman, explains in broad terms what is considered as honest to be designed, and what is not. The guy has a very clear-cut opinion about it, and as soon as it becomes a bit cr4zy like for instance when you set a background picture, well it’s not honest (I’m not making anything up here). His criteria are rather specific yet totally arbitrary. We wouldn’t give a single fuck if the article was not featured on a website like A List Apart, together with yes-men commenting all along.

So all background images, list-item pictures, custom borders, shadows, graphic elements created with a software like Photoshop, along with all the “decorations” that could overload the pure code beauty are declared dishonest and impressed with the seal of infamy. His theory says that all those fancy details are not directly related to pure code and steer it away from the right track, and this is really dishonest.

No need to go flat-out

There is a popular trend to which this article belong, that makes people preach that graphic choices are just aesthetic decorations, that “DEKORACHUNS ARE LEYM” and that only “pure interface” matters. Coincidentally, this trend pushes in-browser design to its climax, allowing shitloads of frontend devs without any design skills whatsoever to start thinking “Joy to the World, we’ll soon get rid of graphic designers for real and finally be able to make good and honest websites freed from all the usual and useless frills, this developping pain in the ass”.

What does not come straight from the code is dishonest

Kevin Goldman feeds us with a nice intellectual scam (what a dishonest boy!), because he fakes to base his fuzzy concept on existing theories about object design and architecture. Even if clever architects from 1850 did theorize the importance of raw material over decoration by promoting contact with the matter, are we allowed to apply this concept to a medium such as the Internet? The answer is NO, and the justification clear: there is no tangible material on a website.

About the popular swindling of architectural comparison

Here is something that I noticed concerning webdesign: since the birth of this hipster-flat-hype thingy, people think it’s fashionable to justify their uncertain choices by declaring that they belong to a nicely named artistic movement that kinda looks like what they design. Poor Bauhaus suffers the most in this story. I even attended a conference at Paris Web where unlucky Bauhaus was torn again and again until its first meaning was eventually erased.

Maybe you noticed that minimalistic movements are often praised because they convey a perfect model. But what if someday I decided that Art Nouveau is the truth, and that starting tomorrow, anything that does not resemble a Hector Guimard metro entrance in the middle of Parc Floral is deliberately dishonest.

Yep, everything that I said is subject to personal bias, not talking about the millions of artistic movements in the race. Here you go, just pick your favorite and submit your post on ALA!

If you want to understand and harness all those art movements, there is a discipline for that, it’s called art history. Most of the time, it’s included in the Artistic Director or graphic designer course (unfortunately in my case I had only few), but even with this, it allows them to say the biggest art bullshit ever and justify anything and everything. But it IS art history mastery that actually makes them AD or designers, not (big news here!) Photoshop.

So basically, if you produced a certain piece of design just because it’s the current fashion (and that’s OK), please do NOT try to label it with the name of an architectural movement. If you’re that inspired that you just threw 3 colored squares on a white page, please don’t claim you’re Bauhaus. Give it a little respect, it will be grateful.

About the popular swindling of object design

It is very fashionable to say that if your website is minimalistic yet firstly user oriented, it’s because you are from the object design school. The alibi is to say that design is only function, but that’s a mistake. Of course, design must be functional and it is part of its essence. But design is also made of form and all the work around it to give it a meaning, altogether taking usability into account.

What makes it really funny, is when this kind of argument comes from the mouths of people worshipping Apple, which almost made a religion out of the aesthetics/functionnalism couple. If design was to promote only the functional aspect, neglecting any other, we would all work on Thinkpads (and we would be forced to use Finder, which would remain unchanged :D) Design is made of form, function and meaning, and no one said that we should drop “meaning” on the way. It all depends on your objectives.

Breaking news : a brick is a brick, CSS is CSS

In the introduction to his essay, the author quotes art historian and theorist John Ruskin as saying that “to cover brick with cement, and to divide this cement with joints that it may look like stone, is to tell a falsehood”. A valid point. Tangible objects (the bricks) are disguised into something else. A verifiable dishonesty : scrape the cement and the brick will show, leading to a very unpleasant discussion with your contractor. Pwned.

But then, does this principle apply to the internet, the world wide web and computer sciences in general? Short answer : no. Otherwise you would only be able to design computers with bare parts such as motherboards or hard drives. Tying those together nicely and hanging them from the ceiling would make for great mobiles, but good luck spreading information or doing your groceries on the internet with that.

And that is why using this Ruskin quote is dishonest : computer sciences at large are a massive abstraction, where nothing is honest (not even the kind Nigerian prince Désiré M’bala who sent you an e-mail yesterday asking for your help recovering his inaccessible riches).

Kevin Goldman himself, his ass on his honest leather chair, writing his article, is dishonest. He is using tons of abstractions (bios, OS, browser, word processor, communication protocols …) in order to explain to us which way to use abstract concepts is more honest than the other. If he was really honest, he would have used a typewriter, with real paper and real ink ; then he would have typed it a hundred thousand times and sent it to town criers all over the world in order to explain to us how important it is to be linked to material stuff.

But even this would have been too dishonest. Had he been true to what he writes, he would have traced his article on the walls of a cave in Dordogne with his bare hands, his balls tightly tucked into a warm bear-hide loincloth (bear-hide being, as we all know, as honest as it gets).

That’s right guys, we do what we want, whether you like it or not.

Based on the principle that the tool we are using is made of layer upon layer of abstraction, it becomes obvious that no method is more honest than any other. I think the author had ingested pretty dishonest mushrooms when he came up with the idea that it was totally logical and sensible to state that a solid CSS color is more honest than a color gradient, or that using a symbol-based typeface to make a pictogram is more honest than using a pixel-based image made with third-party software (by the way, where does the symbol typeface come from again?).

He even goes so far as to justify the dishonesty of faking shadows on a site by making a point that comes from outer space:

Even lighting effects like drop shadows, form shadows, specular highlights, and reflections are dishonest because there’s no light source inside a digital screen that’s manufacturing these lighting effects.

You read that right. This is so outlandish that it has become some sort of joke between us. Of course there is no light source manufacturing these lighting effects, but guess what, there aren’t any leaden sorts in there either, or spray paint cans, or tiny engines. Should we, then, assume that the use of typefaces, colors or animated elements is dishonest ?

On his website, the author has icons that slide on your screen when you scroll. But the icons don’t have any wheels, or any means of propulsion whatsoever. WHAT SORCERY IS THIS ?

This makes no sense, and I wonder how such interstellar bullshit came to be published on a reference site that I thought of as respectable.

It appears that the author has lost his train of thought and doesn’t quite understand what he’s talking about. The initial intention of the author (don’t be too heavy-handed with the effects, kids) is quite understandable, but it is drowned in a delirious mist of going through what is honest and what isn’t, based on questionable principles.

Time for a bit of Extreme Makeover : Web Edition

But let’s forget about Kevin’s shaky reasoning for a minute. Reading between the lines, it appears that a lot of people believe that the art director or graphic designer’s goal should be limited to adding a wee little layer of paint once the “truly honest designers” (integrators, UX designers …) have designed the site.

It seems unfathomable for some, but many sites need to be designed in terms of image even before functional design can occur. If your client is a big brand, it is very likely that the bulk of the job was done beforehand, and that you’ll be handed down a brand platform. All this depends on the site’s target audience, but it is rarely negligible.

Small digression : to those out there who boldly state that “my target audience is the web”, I would advise you to attend a bit of night school in order to avoid confusing target audience and medium, and in the meantime to please stop making no sense.

It is then our duty as art director, graphic designer, web designer to find a concept that makes sense, so that the target audience lands immediately in a universe that speaks to them, and so that the objectives are reached. It shouldn’t prevent us from the added bonus of sticking to an ephemeral trend in order to anchor the website in its era (or on the contrary to playfully stray from this path).

Even though some people deny it with all their heart, the visual always has, is and always will be a vector for meaning. Such is the case everywhere, but for some weird reason this rule shouldn’t apply on the internet. One day a few front-end developers decided that the visual component of the web shouldn’t convey any message. Just like that, they made up their minds, crossing off millennia of human history and creation.

I always wondered why. Why, oh, why should the things we see be stripped of meaning on the internet ? Because some of us are blind or otherwise visually impaired ? That’s a bit simplistic, don’t you think ?

Human beings are conditioned by what they see. A simple visualization can carry the same amount of information as hundreds of lines of text. The way we feel is immensely impacted by the visual component of our perception. It can be shown very easily with the Kuleshov effect: three identical images can take on three different meanings depending on their context. Whether you like it or not, the internet is also subject to this phenomenon.

Under these conditions, I am having a hard time getting the point of this search for a “100 percent honest design” and this need to strip websites of everything that could set them apart. What would be the added value of not knowing if the website you’re viewing belongs to the ACME company or Vogue ? What would be the added value of bare websites that communicate nothing?

I am not saying that a bare website communicates nothing in and of itself ; on the contrary, it does communicate something, but why make this the norm, given that all sites don’t have the same meaning ?

Oh, and a few words on the popular myth of full separation between content and form on the internet : I would love to know how many of you only had to modify their CSS to make their site undergo a major overhaul. If the message is different, a lot of the pieces will have to be shifted around and rearranged, and not just painted over.

On the “This ugly site is functionally acceptable, your point is invalid.” argument

Every single time I bring this up, someone will talk to me about “ugly sites that work very well”. The likes of, Craigslist, Amazon, Wikipedia and so on … Well, first : how do you know if they wouldn’t work better if they were designed differently ? And second : what makes you say that they have no design ? Don’t you mean that they have no decoration, although even that could be subject to discussion ? Ugly or not, decorated of not, they give off something, signify something, something that fulfills its goal. So, the visual side of things does play its part.

When you go to the French classifieds site, it is made abundantly clear that you’ll find cheap objects there, and an ornate design with a shiny leather texture would clearly harm the site and make it lose part of its audience. That doesn’t mean that a shiny leather texture on another site would have had the same effect in terms of traffic.

What’s also very important to understand is that not all websites are meant to have a great conversion rate and perform at all costs. Some are just meant to convey a brand’s image, and that may mean a somewhat unusual interface. I know that this state of affairs is heresy for some people, who think that a good website has a flat UI with no more that two clicks between the home page and checkout, but tests have shown that, for high-end products, a buying tunnel made of a large number of steps made the chances of conversion higher.

No, humans are not always rational, and there is a huge deal of “it depends” that comes into play, no matter what the partisans of the One True Web would have us believe.

Our job as webdesigners is to be dishonest

Simply because the phrase “honest design” doesn’t mean anything. It is our duty to convey meaning to a specific target, to guide people to the designated objectives by any means necessary. We are on a constant search for abstractions and graphical subtleties to make the user’s life easier, sometimes through reproduction of palpable elements (skeumorphism), sometimes by stripping down the interface as much as possible. ACTUALLY, IT ALL DEPENDS (on the target audience, on the objective, on the viewing device…)

That is why it is dangerous to define what makes or breaks honesty in webdesign, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few months, I read an article on ALA explaining that all sites look alike, and that it’s better for the user to design all our websites using chrome and rivets, in the tradition of Art Deco (or, more seriously, by including more animated visuals like video or gifs).

There are already a few “flat” designs out there implementing isometric elements, tiny shadows and countless other subterfuges in order to pop out and stand out more. I can almost see the return of the revolving 3D @s in contact forms by the end of this cycle.

Instead of trying to define what is honest and what isn’t, let’s all work together and try to make good websites, with everyone bringing his own expertise to the table, be it on UX, design or code.

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