Through the ages people have refined everything we do in everyday life. Change is the key to our progression as the human race. We have come out of the trees and caves and jumped straight through to the stars. Why would we stop there? There are those who want to keep us from progressing for fear of what’s to come, but this article isn’t about politics or religion.
Specifically, with advertising and design we’ve progressed through many evolutions, and now there's well-needed position specifically for bridging the gap between application development and design, with the end users experience in mind. In this field we've also had to keep up with many iterations of mediums as well... from print/brochures/fliers, to personal computers, to laptops, to smartphones, to watches, to... refrigerators and toasters. Each iteration has something new to contribute, something new to learn about and a new way of viewing, experiencing, and interacting.
HTML, for you Millennials who probably don't care, was initially created for particle physics research papers. Collaboration is a large part of any scientific organization and these guys were probably frustrated with printing documents out and physically passing them around. I imagine a dark tower where people are running up and down the stairs with papers and blowing things up in the basement. Probably not exactly the case, but it fits the purpose. I'm sure that the dude with the idea for HTML never had any idea that it would be adopted as a base for such an integral part of everyone's everyday life. At that time it was very basic, though: headings, paragraphs, lists, tables, bold, italics, maybe a few more tags and that was it. Super easy.
Fast-forward a decade or so after the release of the internet and the mass adoption of HTML by large companies and ad agencies. They needed a way to make their webpages look more like newspapers or brochures. A quick hack was to layout your page in a table, which was used a lot but totally taboo, because it kills the original purpose and makes your code messy. Tables are for tabular data, not layout. (I bolded that because there are a few surly developers who still refuse give it up. I'm not even going to get started with the font tag) Then, there were frames and then iframes, both with their own set of problems. So, CSS was born.
At first the design style for sites was gaudy, and people were okay with that. But then they weren't. Crazy colors, clipart graphics, safe fonts, and nothing really special. There was a grey period where some people tried to segment into specific trends, but it was really just people trying to find what actually made sense based on what they had to work with. Someone decided to point out "the fold", which is a newspaper term for the top half of the front page... translated to web as what you see on your screen when you open a web page... but it's really not as important as they make it out to be because everyone's instinct, once they open a page, is to scroll anyway.
Meticulous Realism is a term I made up for the design trend that started around OS X. That's where modern design really started to find it's footing. Interfaces tried to mimic things in everyday life, in granular detail, down to buttons that looked like buttons. People used gradients, glares, textures, and shadows in their design. Pages would look like pieces of paper, radios, televisions, computers, phones... You could make an interface resembling anything, or you could have a solid color website with meticulously detailed graphics of your products, I'm not talking about a high-res photo. Apple actually had a guy dedicated to sitting there and recreating vector images of apple products in such detail that they looked like perfect photos.
A lot of work went into these so people asked themselves, "why?" You could easily create a more impactful presentation using flat, bold representations of images, which led us to Flat Design. Flat design came with the use of custom web fonts and font icons, which optimize the user experience, making it easier to get where you want by replacing some text with icons. Icons can represent what the user might be looking for without adding another level of text, you can contain them in an SVG font, which allows you to dynamically change colors and they all load faster than the sprite method, which was a complete pain to manage.
Infographics were created to eliminate as much reading as possible. They use tons of simple vector-based graphic elements and generally try to tell a story, only in a more visual way. Maybe there's more scrolling than if you'd just wrote the story out, but the point is that you don't have to think about it much.
Along side the Flat Design trend came the smartphones and wearable interfaces. Icons vastly contribute to the ease of use of these newer "everywhere" devices. The mobility and responsiveness of this new design trend make it so that these smaller devices are becoming more and more important to everyday life.
There's this hamburger menu controversy where some dude decided to use [icon name="bars" class="" unprefixed_class=""] as a button for a mobile menu. People were making fun of it at first and a bunch of people actually hated it, giving it the name hamburger menu... but now, everyone knows what that means. Trends come and go. Some stay and become part of everything and some are more of a cry for attention.
Screens are also packed with more resolution now so when we don't use SVG fonts or graphics, we use images at 2-3X resolution than we normally would. It would've sucked on those 14.4 k - 56 k modems back in the day, but now we're using an average of 38 Mbps, sometimes a lot more. So, image size issues aren't as important as they use to be.
As we progress and get more technology and innovation with user experience, what's the next trend? What will it be based on?
I recently had the privilege of sitting in on a usability test for Atlassian's new design concepts. I'm sorry if I'm wrong, but I believe that it was geared towards their enterprise offerings. At one point they mentioned something along the lines of, "we're trying to determine how much businesses focus on design elements." Then they started showing us all these concepts that were mostly a bunch of lines and simple shapes that didn't necessarily resemble anything. If they did, they were more of an abstract design of an abstract concept from an abstract image of a subject that was more abstract than the actual context of the piece.
At first, I was upset. We're trying to marry our brand with theirs and they're changing it up, again. But after the call, I thought about what they mentioned: "We're trying to determine how much businesses focus on design." And really how important are design elements. I do think it's off if it doesn't make sense, but as long as the design grabs your attention and makes you look at the content, it still serves its purpose, right? It's still only for their enterprise offerings, which are part of our offering, but we offer so much more than that to continue our design approach respectfully... but it's definitely something that got me thinking. Consistency is important for brand recognition, but change is also important for innovation. Change gives us that extra POW and pulls our thoughts from monotony.
So Where IS it Going?
The way I see things going is that imagery is driving people to smaller amounts of content in order to start the conversation. There's less of the "secret sauce" up front and more imagery driving the conversation. There are case audiences like C-level people and business owners who think that more of the information up front is the key to their decisions. Not to be stereotypical, but this is partially due to a primarily older age and people stuck on trends from the past. But sales of services and larger complex, user-based applications mostly seem to rely on it being sold in person. Business representatives want their specific questions answered and they don't want to do a lot of searching through sites to find that information. More importantly, companies want custom solutions. So imagery is important to get people excited about small amounts of content.
Users of applications generally seem to also prefer performing actions they want more visually versus textual indications of interactions. Interfaces contain more icons and people understand what they mean.
The Post-Literate Humans
Dan Simmons is a best-selling author of science fiction with a base in classic English literature. The Hyperion and Endymion series are some of my favorite books. There was also a series he wrote called Ilium/Olympos which tie in works from Homer, Shakespeare and a few others and they're totally fascinating.
These books are set in the future. I won't get into all the details, but getting to the point: there are talks of "post-literate humans." And I think of them as humans in a future where people have become so reliant on technology, that they've phased out learning how to actually read. I think that's hilariously the probable truth. The less we have to read, the less we "want" to read. If we don't have to worry about it, why should we? Is it that design has completely taken over content, or is it that we are injected with knowledge? Or do we even care and are we dumb because AI is running everything for us?