Most of software development favors left brained thinking. Programming, in particular, is all about logic and being objective. For the most part, it is a learnable skill, even if the time requirements for being an expert can vary from the industry for which you are programming. Testing, too, is largely an analytical process of identifying the main and alternate workflows of the system. Crash testing, while allowing for more creativity, can also be turned into a boring process through codification of steps to find common errors.
These ways of managing software development fail when it comes to graphics design for web projects. I am not necessarily talking about every aspect of user interfaces, because many elements of user interfaces can be distilled into general principles. In the case of desktop products, adhering to the UI standards of the particular operating system can avoid most usability problems.
But when it comes to web applications, the user interface has many different aspects to it. Color combinations, fonts, font sizes, heading sizes, text alignment, dynamic styles, animation, 3-D effects, images/photos, ad placement, and a million other things. On top of this, the designer has to consider the changes in people’s tastes over time. So a design that was cutting edge 2 years ago is probably bland or, worse, outdated today.
When it comes to building web user interfaces, programmers are at a loss. Having a good eye for graphics design requires a different type of mental approach, i.e., using more of the right brain. Here is an interesting test to check if you are left-brained or right-brained. As the article explains, here are some of the differences between the 2 brain functions:
LEFT BRAIN FUNCTIONS
words and language
RIGHT BRAIN FUNCTIONS
“big picture” oriented
symbols and images
can “get it” (i.e. meaning)
This fundamental difference in thinking makes it very difficult for programmers to come up with good graphics layouts. They may even find it hard to distinguish between a good and bad design, often using comparisons with other popular designs to justify their reasoning instead of having an absolute taste for good design. In addition, programmers have little experience with the tools used by graphics designers, such as Photoshop or Flash, nor are they aware of the latest trends through reading graphics-related material and news.
What can a programmer do if they cannot or do not want to pay for a graphics designer? One strategy is to use a minimalist design. No graphics at all, a principle which is in harmony with low-bandwidth requirements of websites. Many popular websites, like Wikipedia, Google, Facebook, etc. are graphics-light. Yahoo, for a long time, was very sparse in using images during its initial success as an Internet directory.
Facebook does not even have a proper logo. The application name is imposed as plain white text on a blue background. When you consider how many companies spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for creating brand names and images, this is astonishing for a website that is now a household name.
So, one answer for programmers without graphics helpers is to eschew graphics as much as possible, and instead organize and present text using user interface principles such as those espoused by practitioners such as Jakob Nielsen who has deliberately used few graphics on his site since he started it in 1995, even though it serves 250 thousand visitors a month.
[Image licensed from csm2mk]