Design for design’s sake: when it loses the purpose

There is one, most important measure of a good design: it should serve its purpose, and should serve it well.

If something is created to reflect its purpose simply, logically and self-explanatory, it automatically becomes good-looking, and everything falls in the right place. When, however, a design is there merely for the sake of “design”, it often renders itself impractical, illogical and difficult to use, especially for new users. For example, if a button looks like a button and is placed where the button is required, it is a good button, regardless of its artistic rendering. It may not be called a “cool piece of a great new interface” by reviewers of the latest gadgets, but it is still a good button that serves its purpose; and not a single new user will have any problems figuring out what to do with it. A button is for pressing, it’s that simple.

With the release of iOS7, the mankind asserted its move from the era of unnecessarily complicated, illogical, overloaded, bloated ubiquitous 3D shine, gloss and sparkle to the era of equally illogical and difficult to decipher flatness, stylisation and oversimplification. Perhaps, it does look “new” and “cool” to those who love new things, updates and re-designs, no matter whether they are necessary or not, those who, for example, buy every new smart-phone model as soon as it is available. But the logic and good interface is not a thing of fashion or a measure of “coolness”.

As one of my art mentors was saying, “If a painting isn’t working, there are usually one or both reasons behind the failure: painting something that isn’t there, or not painting something important that is there.”

In the modern design, the human civilisation seems to have moved from one bad approach to another.

Overcomplicated and oversimplified book icons
Perhaps, a simple picture of a normal book would be better?

Both detailed 3D and simplified 2D design approaches have their place and purpose, and, when used correctly, one can’t substitute another. A piece of text, an information block, or an image of a flat object don’t need gradients, inner shades, sparkles, highlights, shine and bubble effects. On the other hand, a button, a slider, or any other control element that the user is expected to treat like a tangible 3D object — to press, to drag, to move — should look like a 3-dimensional thing.

3D flag icons
A flag should look like a piece of flat fabric, not like a glass pillow, plastic brick or a rubber ball.
iOS7 slider switch pictogram
And iOS7 switch would be less confusing if it looked like a switch rather than a pictogram of a moon phase.

iOS 7, described by Apple CEO as “a stunning new interface”, was a radical departure from the previous design. But whether the new design is a good design, that is an entirely different story. For the sake of achieving a new and totally different look, Apple moved from the familiar shapes to the weird ones; and this change caused its users much confusion. While the release of something entirely different may feel like a good excuse to buy a new iPhone, and the garish colours and motion-sickening animation may convince someone that this is how the real progress manifests itself, if the users have to learn again(!) from scratch how to use the device they have had for a while and have been successfully using until the “upgrade”, when it takes too long to figure out what they are supposed to click on just to do a simple thing, that’s not good at all.

Bad design usually occurs when a designer deliberately tries to create something new, original and extraordinary.

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