Style and Substance

Do web designers spend too much time focused on style at the expense of substance? Have we become distracted by the superficial to the point that we’ve stopped looking below the surface? Are we so focused on how things look that we’ve forgotten about how they work?

foundation and brush

A few articles I came across recently all raised similar questions about style and substance. All argue for more substance, which is hard to disagree with. Still, there was something in the articles that didn’t quite sit well with me. Here are the articles in question.

All are good and worthwhile reads. Below are some central themes I took away from the combined articles.

  • Designers are too focused on style, the superficial, the slick
  • Designers should be more focused on the deeper stuff, the content and how to organize it and make it easy to find
  • There’s too much copying of the cool technical stuff for the sake of showing off the cool technical stuff
  • The copying is leading to a sameness across sites, a technically impressive sameness, but sameness nonetheless
  • There are arguments in favor of stripping all the aesthetics away and there are arguments that your site should be different to survive and thrive, especially in a market where web design is being commoditized

I think I’ve argued all of these points myself over the years. Still, something didn’t sit right with me when I read these articles. I think what’s putting me off is the idea that what’s being observed is really any different than the way things have always been. There came across to me something in the articles that suggests any talk about style is wrong because it’s not a talk about substance.

Style plays a huge role in everything human beings are connected with

This idea of style being wrong or bad in some way isn’t necessarily in the articles. I doubt any of the authors are suggesting style is always bad. It’s more likely something I’m bringing to the articles that’s leaving me with that impression.

We’re all influenced by style, by what we see on the surface. That includes you and it includes me. I like to consider myself a deep thinking person who’s concerned far more with substance than style and yet I know I’ve made choices over the years based on style. I’m sure you’ve done the same.

We Are Superficial

Have you met humanity? Style plays a huge role in everything human beings are connected with. Look around and you’ll see much of the time we’re focused on style over substance.

  • Who was more popular in your high school, the head cheerleader or a member of the science or debate club?
  • The last time you went on a date did you shower, change clothes, and do everything you could to improve your appearance?
  • Why do corporate employees dress in suit and tie at work and change clothes shortly after getting home?
  • Have you ever gone to a movie because you thought the lead actor or actress was attractive? Ever see one based on the special effects regardless of the story?
  • There have been plenty of artists throughout history who’s work is more important for its style than its substance

The surface is more important to most people than some of us would like to think. In many cases it’s perfectly fine too. Does it really matter if someone chose to see a movie for great special effects on top of a poor story? I prefer the story, but have no problem with someone who opts for the special effects.

The design of anything is a multi-layered process. The outermost layer is the most visible one. People see the surface first and from the moment they do, that surfaces influences them.

More work is required to see beneath the surface to the deeper substance. I suspect the effort required to see each layer below the surface takes exponentially more work than what went into the layer before. Fewer people will always see one layer deeper, regardless of which layer they’re focused on.

If you can’t see that people focus on and are influenced by style, you haven’t been paying much attention to humanity. Look around you. There’s a seemingly endless number of examples that show the superficial tendencies of human beings.

This isn’t meant to be a condemnation of humanity. There are valid reasons why we don’t look deeper into some things. There’s only so much we can focus on and we have to pick and choose where to spend our mental energy. We might look deep in one place and shallow in another. The point is our species is often more interested in the superficial than the deeper layers.

To deny style’s place makes no sense. People are always going to see style first and we’re always going to talk about style and be concerned with style when we design. That doesn’t mean we as should ignore substance. It just means it’s unlikely we’re ever going to ignore style.

Why the Current Focus on Style

There was a suggestion across the articles that our industry is more focused on style now than it has been in the past. It wasn’t every article, but it’s something that came across to me. I disagree with this suggestion.

In part, the greater number of people talking style is simply a matter of there being more people online in general. I’d be willing to bet there are more people talking about substantial topics today than there were during some imagined time frame in the past. There are also more articles about style too. More people creating content online means more of both.

A decade or so ago when less people were talking online about design, it probably was easier to find content of substance. There was less content and so the signal was easier to find amidst the noise.

Aside from there simply being more of everything online as compared to a decade ago, is there another reason why you might see more focus on style recently? The last couple of years have seen some pretty big changes in design trends. Moving from a skeuomorphic to a flat aesthetic is a larger change than many design trends. Doesn’t it make sense that there’s going to be people talking about it?

If every website on the web was predominantly blue and then a a large number of sites changed to predominantly red, wouldn’t you expect a lot of people to discuss that cosmetic change as superficial as it might be?

We Are Talking Beneath the Surface

Style can influence how we perceive substance and talking about style isn’t always just a discussion of style. In many cases it’s a discussion about substance and how style can contribute to substance.

I’d argue the biggest change taking place right now in the industry has to do with responsive design and all the changes that come with it. Other than the articles arguing that responsive design lacks any style, much of the talk I come across has to do with the deeper significance of responsive design.

There’s talk about reworking content so it’s more modular and able to be structured differently for different devices. There’s talk about the new flexible and dynamic paradigm we’re now working in. There’s talk about putting more thought into how people will use our sites in different contexts.

Perhaps the ideas above and others get obscured at times, but they’re there and not too hard to find if you’re looking. There are plenty of conversations going on beneath the surface, but you always have to look harder for those conversations. The majority of talk is going to be on the surface. Again, have you met humanity?

Closing Thoughts

Despite my arguing in favor of style in this post, I hope you know I’m someone who thinks substance is far more important than style. I’m not only willing, but happy to put in the effort required to get at the deepest substance. I think the payoff is worth much more than the effort.

At the same time we should understand that style is also important. It’s what people, even those seeking substance, are going to notice first and it will then influence their journey to the substance.

Look around you. The majority of the time people will be focused on the surface, even those who claim otherwise. This isn’t a web design thing. It occurs in every industry. It’s a human thing.

Substance is important. So is style. Both can be found online. Both can be found in design industry talk. The substance will always be harder to find, but that’s normal. That’s how it’s always been.

If you can’t find the substance, it’s probably because you haven’t looked as hard as you think. If all you seek is what’s hot in web design then yes, you’re going to find the slick. That’s what lands on the hot and trendy lists. If you don’t look any deeper, why would you expect to find anything deeper?

In the end the information we take in has more to do with what kind of information we seek, than what’s most immediately visible.

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