Why Design Matters (And It’s Not What You Think!)

thinking-designAs you peruse through my musings here at darrenbrettking.com, you’ll find that I am a major advocate for good design. But perhaps you’ll protest. Perhaps you’ll argue that design trends are always changing; and that design is nothing close to a science. And, if that’s the case, what’s the point in spending so much time on design to begin with? After all, design has nothing to do with what the web application actually does, right?

Indeed, for those approaching these things with the linear, crystal-clarity of a developer’s mindset, these considerations can make the entire enterprise a little, well, shall we say, wishy washy? Well, there is much to concede here. Is good design hard to define? Yes, sometimes it is. Is it inherently subjective? Yes, of course; that’s true, too. Does it change from year to year? Well, maybe not quite year to year, but it does tend to ebb and flow, yes. For instance, right now flat and minimalist is really in. But of course, that itself is a trend that will eventually ebb in the other direction.

So if I’ve just conceded all that, why am I still insisting that design really matters? And what on earth am I getting at with the title here – suggesting not only that design is important, but for reasons you might not initially assume. Well, let me begin with a little story – a true one at that – that I always like to share when engaging in just these kinds of conversations.

Back in the day I had a couple of friends who opened a coffee shop. Being a major java enthusiast myself, I was, well, enthused. I enjoyed watching them plot out every little detail of the process; from dreaming up a name, to finding the perfect space, to imagining the kind of ethos they wanted to offer their clientele. I loved all that stuff. I ate it up, while sipping on a steaming cup of joe, of course.

All went well with the progress of this new coffee shop. Everything seemed to be coming together, as they say, swimmingly. But then one day I stopped in, only a few days before they were set to open. And while they’d managed to gather some pretty cool retro furniture to deck out the place, one other aspect of the interior immediately caught my attention. It was the wall. And specifically, the color of the wall. And it wasn’t just any wall. Certainly not the “accent wall”, as it’s known in interior design circles. No, I’m referring to the main wall, that carried all the way along the length of the narrow, long coffee shop space.

This long wall, the most prominent part of the entire building, was splashed with a rather hideous shade of nauseating, mustard yellow. I mean, this was a shade that you would only ever use ever so sparingly, as a highlight, and nothing more. But these friends of mine had painted the entire length of the main wall this color. Yikes! I could hardly take my eyes off it, and for all the wrong reasons.

I thought about enquiring – ever so passingly – as to why that particular shade of yellow had been chosen. But then I found out, without having to ask. Because, only a few days later I dropped by their house, and found that the main wall of their living room was painted with that very same shade of mustard.

Yes, as it turns out, this was my friend’s favorite color. And that’s why she chose it for her home. And, of course, that’s why she chose it for the coffee shop. It was as simple as that.

What didn’t occur to my friend is that that particular shade of yellow didn’t endear the same kinds of feelings to others that it did to her. I mean, sure, there was probably one person in thirty who might like that color – maybe even as much as she did. But what about the other 29 people!? And what happened to caring about ethos? After all, when it comes to coffee shops, ethos matters even more to people than the coffee itself.

You see, my friends knew all that, and they STILL chose that particular shade of yellow.

Why? Because, to put it simply, they were clueless. At least, clueless as to what rather basic, run of the mill market research will tell you about what the particular shade of mustard yellow “does” for most people, especially in large doses. Bottom line: it’s not pretty – the market research on that color, I mean. People do not respond well to that shade. Period. In fact, they almost run from it.

So, that being the case, why would you dress your coffee shop up in it? Why, indeed. Simply put: you’d only do so if you didn’t know any better. And that was exactly the case with my friends. They didn’t know any better.

Now, this particular example is rather glaring. But, truth be told, I see this kind of thing happen all the time with design for web applications – both large and small. And here’s the thing, often the way color affects people is a little more subtle than the example of the coffee shop. But effect them still, it does. It’s just that, most of the time, it’s on an unconscious level. In other words, people’s behavior is being shaped, without them even realizing it.

And that’s the point I’m hinting at in the title of this post. Color, and design in total, matters – precisely because it shapes behavior. Now usually, marketers, entrepreneurs, start-up teams, business people, etc. – are eager to eat up analytics when it comes to user behavior. But all too often this one area is overlooked. And that’s often because, especially for those who are not so design savvy, they themselves are unconscious about how much this aspect really shapes interactions.

So, all that is to say, learn the lesson of the mustard wall. Make good design a priority. Please your audience in ways they can’t even thank you for – because they’re not even fully aware that they’re being pleased, and certainly not why! In so doing, you’ll immediately be giving your web application a virtual leg up on the competition. And, just think, that way you’ll be laying a firm foundation for success before even a line of code has been written.

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