Is Good Design Invisible? · Questioning The Maxim
“Good design is invisible; bad design is everywhere” is an axiom held dear by many graphic designers, architects, typographers, web designers, UI designers and marketers. In other words, design is good when it does its job without being noticed. It guides the eye to relevant places, provides a pleasant user experience (UX), but doesn’t get in the way or distract. But should design be completely transparent and are there cases when you should design to be noticed?
Visible vs Invisible Design · A quick rundown
So that you can understand why this aphorism came about, here is an example of good ‘invisible’ design versus one of bad ‘everywhere’ design. See if you can guess which is which:
ǝuo ǝlqᴉsᴉʌuᴉ ǝɥʇ sᴉ (∀) :ɹǝʍsu∀
The first house is painted in mellow tones. It may strike the visitor as being ‘nice’ but doesn’t catch the eye of the casual passerby minding their own business and distract them from what they were thinking of.
But the second house is a different story. It is painted in the gaudiest of colours, hot pink fuschia, basically the notorious #FF00FF. The colour may not be bad in itself, but it is an extremely bright colour, so should be used only for highlights. Possibly not at all on a house which is generally too big to have small details viewed at close to highlight. Houses should be painted in mellow tones. Moreover, the poor colour choice conflicts jarringly with the traditional thatched roof, creating an uncomfortable colour clash and a sense of to some extent debasing a nice heritage building.
The Theory Behind Invisible Design: Modernism, Minimalism and Conservatism
Invisible design is aligned with three theoretical concepts that should be kept in mind when applying it: Modernism, Minimalism and Conservatism.
Transparent design is a tenet of Modernism—a philosophical movement of the 19th–20th century that valued rationalism, science, progress and efficiency. Invisible design is above all things efficient (as we will explain), and has an appearance of sterility that is a stark departure from the naturalism of the Classical period/movement prior to modernism. It is also in high contrast to the Postmodern philosophical movement, in which rationalism and order are flouted for effect.
Minimalism is also a key concept in invisible design. It is the style encompassed by the adage “less is more”. The belief is that clutter is unattractive, let alone less functional. Therefore, beauty lies in being functional and without stylistic flourishes. The opposite is maximalism—in which large amounts of detail are used for effect.
Conservatism is the stance that favours tradition and stability. It opposes change. It is inescapably political, and yet it plays a part in design. Invisible design is based on the belief that things should be predictable, standardised and not expressive if it means getting in the way. Hence the inextricable link between invisible design and corporations. And visible, progressive design often marks more progressive organisations or ideals.
But is Invisible Design Always Good?
Invisible design can be quite nice, as with the house in the example. It can have the following benefits:
- Undivided focus. Focus is on the content/architecture/user interface/etc. rather than the design elements. The viewer looks straight through the design (because it is transparent) and straight at the content.
- Undetected influence. Invisible design can influence the viewer subtly without the viewer noticing. (That sounded a little bit creepy but anyway . . . it’s not.) For instance, transparent typography may highlight important points in a paragraph in bold to catch the eye of a skimming reader.
- Unimpeded usage. The invisible design user experience is one that is so effortless that it isn’t even noticed. You click the button on a elevator without thinking about how to use that particular elevator user experience anywhere around the world because it is a good example of a predictable, intuitive, not eye-catching, not mind-blowing but very sensible and easy-to-use interface. The same goes for documents that are easy to read, writing that is unpretentious and easy-to-follow and ads that sell the product, not the advertising firm.
- Unoffensive to individual tastes. Everyone has their own stylistic preferences, and these preferences really differ at the extremes. Not everyone is down with gangster rap, gothic fashion and Art Deco. But most people aren’t opposed to ambient jazz, normcore and grey cement-rendering. So if you’re a designer wishing to please a client, it’s easy to see which are the go-to options.
These are strong, clear benefits, but invisible design is not completely positive and surefire. Here are some of invisible design’s potential downsides:
- Boring. Invisible design may be perceived by some to be boring and drab. Even if it is nice. If you are looking for a new home and are viewing many nice homes, all with white cement-rendering inside and out, you may be prompted to opt for an old-fashioned brick or avant garde sandstone house just for something different. Boredom can turn the ‘niceness’ itself invisible.
- Not eye-catching enough. Sometimes, design intends to attract attention. In advertising for instance, billboards constantly vie for attention by doing something different and different again and more different and etc. Billboards do maximalism above all. It just needs to be extreme enough to catch the eye from an angle. Hence why invisible design is not the first choice for billboard designers. It is design, not content that catches you out of the corner of your eye, so they want their designs to be as visible as possible.
- Not fancy enough. Sometimes something more than invisible design is required. Like for curriculum vitae, wedding invitations and the designs of luxury apartments. The design wants to impart elegance and sophistication of a noticeable, out-of-the-ordinary degree. So a fancy, curly font may be used, or a large chandelier. These elements may seem kitsch or over-the-top under normal circumstances, but in these circumstances they are appropriate.
- Perceived as overly-corporate or conservative. Invisible design is a customer- and client-pleaser. It is the design of the corporate world, and many people have come to identify invisible design with this—either consciously or subconsciously. So for instance, a new trendy, young, hip, alternative juice company wouldn’t do well to use Helvetica font in their logo. Something more quirky, vibrant and visible would be a better option, like the multi-coloured cartoony Boost Juice logo:
So in many cases, design that is actually quite visible is a better option. In others, design that is somewhat visible or in some ways visible is an appropriate and tasteful option.