Cormac McCarthy and Bad Web Design

On the inevitable failings of an “optical democracy.”


Landscape With Clouds  (1870–1889), watercolor by William Trost Richards

Landscape With Clouds (1870–1889), watercolor by William Trost Richards

While reading Cormac McCarthy’s beautifully, brutally bleak novel Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, I came to be reminded of some principles of design.

In the passage below (no real plot spoilers here) our sociopathic protagonist and his vile cohorts are once again on the move across the unforgiving terrain of America’s and Mexico’s untamed western territories circa 1849. At this moment in their wanderings, the landscape is described as washed out, producing in the characters an unsettling inability to see or understand their surroundings, all described in a way only McCarthy can:

In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence. The very clarity of these articles belied their familiarity, for the eye predicates the whole on some feature or part and here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinship.

And so, our band of antiheroes were faced with the same dilemma encountered by innumerable visitors to poorly designed websites the world over: They had no idea what they were seeing, where they should be looking, where they were headed, or even what to do, except resign themselves to muddle on through the merciless gray wash. A “strange equality” indeed.

I have been fortunate to have worked alongside some highly talented and artistic designers and illustrators — and so, as anyone who has collaborated with such professionals would understand, I have been subjected to countless claims about the potential, the philosophy, the indispensability of design. (Not to imply that the zeal of such claims makes them untrue.)

So, although admittedly I lack any formal visual, web, or UX design training, through osmosis from exposure to their quality work and designer-think, I’ve learned that it’s worthwhile to at least try to consider things as a professional designer might.

I’ll leave it to others to call out particular examples of poor design. Perhaps you can think of a site, app or product that gave you an impression similar to the scene described above.

Regardless, it’s easy enough to imagine one. Think of a site or product experience designed with no natural or imposed hierarchy of information, an interface with little padding between elements, where everything bleeds together in a contrastless, monochromatic blur or, worse yet, clangors about in a mess of awkwardly bordered elements, inappropriate imagery, and animated flashing text or other unsettling typography. A site or product that leaves you feeling dizzy, with no clues to guide your eyes and actions sensibly through an orchestrated experience with its own internal logic. (OK fine, here’s an example, but in fairness this site may have superseded awful and lapped all the way around back to outstanding.)

Without thoughtful design, things go down much like in the Wild West glimpsed in the excerpt above. It creates an inhospitable environment in which no one would much prefer to stick around, and it is never even clear what the parameters are that set a visitor’s expected behavior.

In that light, bad design is not just unsatisfactory in an aesthetic or functional sense. Bad design is a faux pas. It makes visitors feel unwelcome, unsettled, unsure. It probably prematurely speeds their departure, even if they had intended to stay awhile. And it’s not just casual visitors who are inconvenienced. Think of those poor, brave users who sought out a site or product for a specific reason, whose research led them directly and optimistically to their destination of choice, only to be accosted with a nonsensical mess. Maybe they’ll wish to plow through and figure it out anyway, because they’re that convinced in a site's or product's potential to help them, or perhaps it is for the moment the only option available to them that offers what they want. Worse than making them feel unwelcome, bad design can make the people who ostensibly represent a business’s most ardent supporters and likely conversions feel like they’ve wasted their time or been hoodwinked.

The more terrible the design, the more egregious is the sheer rudeness of it. It’s not good manners and it’s not good business.

If anything akin to optical democracy is to be avoided, how would we describe something that’s designed well? To extend the whole political-order metaphor, perhaps an ideal design would resemble a constitutional monarchy. The site's, product's, and/or experience's main content (or function, or purpose, or all three) would serve as a benevolent king, overseeing all aspects of his kingdom while remaining properly restrained within a set logical system.

(Continuing the thought experiment, some other political models come to mind. A site ruled by ad revenue would be a plutocracy; perhaps Facebook is an example of that. YouTube could defensibly be deemed a meritocracy in theory, though it has perhaps devolved into crude direct democracy and mob rule, with a paradoxical tinge of oligarchy all its own. Twitter might also be considered a meritocracy, and arguably even a high-functioning panocracy — but if the company makes enough poor decisions, it too could suffer from becoming a plutocracy. And as an example of barely-coherent-but-nonetheless-serviceable anarchy, I’d suggest

As some designer probably muttered passive-aggressively in my presence at one point or another, design is not about making things look pretty, but about imposing an order on the world (digital or otherwise) that makes invisible the very fact that anything has been designed at all.

So be a gracious host. Hire knowledgeable designers, and heed them.



Posted on January 29, 2014