Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian wrote an interesting blog post about his feelings toward the trend of making reading platforms and apps “beautiful” and minimalist. UIs have been tending toward clean designs with lots of white space and easy-to-consume content for the past few years now, but Oliver doesn’t think that’s necessarily a good thing.
You hear the word “beautiful” all the time, these days, when web design’s being discussed. Medium, the blogging platform created by the Twitter co-founder Ev Wiliams, was conceived to be “simple [and] beautiful”. Likewise Svbtle, another “beautiful” stripped-down publishing system, was designed to “get out of the way”. This is the aesthetic of Jony Ive’s iOS7, with its flat icons and defiant lack of adornment; it’s an aesthetic for a world that does its reading on smooth pieces of black glass with curved corners. It’s the aesthetic that’s rapidly coming to dominate the web – which is why I feel some nervousness in poking my head above the parapet to say: what if I don’t want my reading experience to be this beautiful?
The post was inspired by Facebook’s new app, Paper, which is “uncluttered, slick, minimalist, polished. As one of the project’s engineers put it: ‘Paper was designed on a principle: content should be respected … [and] if content is to be respected, it should be beautifully presented.’” Beauty is usually a good thing, something that designers in every field strive for. But Oliver wonders if a beautiful UI is overshadowing, and maybe even hurting, the actual purpose of these content-focused apps and websites.
There’s some evidence to suggest that when you make the reading experience too smooth and glossy and beautiful, you make it less engaging and satisfying, too. The key concept here, explored in depth by the psychologist Adam Alter, author of the book Drunk Tank Pink, is “cognitive disfluency”. When information glides by too frictionlessly, we’re liable to find it harder both to understand and to retain.
The basic concept (boiled down to a very, very simple level) is that if something is harder to physically read it makes you concentrate on the content more, thus helping you process and retain the information better. There’s also an argument that design decisions that make content harder to read might signal to your brain that it’s filled with important information you should pay undivided attention to. On the flip side, if something is easy to read, it’s also easy to skim without deeply processing the information.
[T]here’s an unbearable lightness to the slippery minimalism of Medium, and sometimes it gets in the way. Writing presented like that is wonderfully easy to consume, yet also wonderfully easy to forget. By the time I get to the end of even a short piece, the first paragraph has faded not just from the screen, but from my mind.
Oliver admits that he’s likely in the minority when it comes to this opinion, but it raises a few good questions. Beyond wondering if he really is in the minority, his post makes me wonder:
- When you think about it, do you retain less information that you read online on a minimalist site?
- Should companies take these studies into account when designing their websites – especially the important pages that tell visitors what the company does, why it’s important and why they stand out? This is information you want visitors to absorb and retain.
- Or does a beautiful design stick in a visitor’s head and make it easier to remember your site?
- Does minimalist design (and the apparent consequences) go hand-in-hand with apps like Paper and other sites that feed us ultimately inconsequential information? (Let’s be honest, no one spends time on Facebook to become knowledgeable about world events or important topics – you’re too distracted by all the cat pictures and memes.)
- Can you have a beautiful design that’s not too minimalist? Something that pleases users but makes them struggle just enough to be effective?
- Should I write this post in a hard-to-read, tiny font so you remember it?
The internet has put a world of information at our fingertips and people have the ability to be more informed than ever before. But does it matter if we’re not retaining that information? What happens if we all become ‘jacks of all trades, masters of none?’ Or maybe we just need to change the way we approach information.
Oliver links to a Time piece that looked into whether or not e-reading made content harder to retain. Topics like recall methods and how quickly people learned the information are discussed. Links are made to the effects of spatial context and even screen size. But the article was written in early 2012 and one expert the journalist talked to found no difference in the long run between e-reading and paper-reading students. Is it just a matter of adjusting? Will reading on a neat, clean web platform become second nature and just as effective after enough time?
Beauty is a definite trend right now, and all the web best-practices tell us to keep content short and broken up into easy-to-consume pieces. Is this the right call or are we ultimately hurting our cause? Will our brains catch up to this new method of content delivery? (After all, newspapers are filled with white space compared to their counterparts from a century ago.) It’s a great topic that might just open a Pandora’s box and spark a great debate. Thanks for bringing it up Oliver!
What do you think about “beautiful” web design?