Good Design is Long-Lasting (Part 7)

The following is the seventh in a ten-part series exploring legendary industrial designer Dieter Rams’ ten principles for good design as they relate to digital products.

Good design is long-lasting. It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.

– Dieter Rams

“Long-lasting” means different things in different fields of design. Great architecture still works centuries after its construction. Some graphic design styles never look out-of-date – just ask the pioneers of Swiss Typographic Style. And great fashion? Well, it’s got a decade at most.

Digital design is still too new for us to understand its longevity. So far, styles have come and gone as necessitated by the technical limitations of our medium. 8-bit games had a particular style because there was no other choice. The Windows 95 aesthetic was a way to acclimate new users to the digital landscape through visual cues they’d recognize. And the heavy skeuomorphism of the Web 2.0 era was a result of plunging headlong into a newly-unlimited canvas. We had so much freedom, so suddenly, that we didn’t know what to do with it.

The Legend of Zelda (NES)

For most of the digital era, aesthetics were dictated by technical limitations.

Any discussion of long-lasting digital design will naturally gravitate towards a discussion about trends. Even design neophytes can make a reasonable guess when a website was last updated based on its appearance. Flat colors, rounded buttons, parallax background? Definitely from the last two years. Ribbons, drop-shadows, and buttons that look like jelly beans? Probably coexisted with MySpace.

Digital moves so quickly that we’ve barely had time to step back and ask ourselves the essential question: What makes a piece of digital design long-lasting?

In a medium as ephemeral as ours, can there even be such a thing as “timelessness?” [1] Or will we always be constrained to making something fashionable, since all our work will be replaced in a few years anyway?

What Makes Digital Design Long-Lasting?

For a piece of digital design to be long-lasting, it must:

Adapt to new technologies.

The web is unpredictable, and there’s no telling what the device landscape will look like in five years, or even five months. Digital design can only be long-lasting if its built to withstand seismic shifts in the technological landscape.

Maintain aesthetic neutrality.

Simple visuals tend to last longer than complicated visuals, if only because fewer elements leave fewer opportunities for something to grow unfashionable. In other words: legible typography is timeless, while drop shadows and jelly buttons are the digital equivalent of bell bottoms and flared collars.

Be easily maintainable.

No matter how well we’ve prepared, anything that lives in the digital space will need occasional updates. The simpler our work is to maintain, the less likely it is to be killed by a change in technology, and the smoother it will be to make visual tweaks to keep it feeling up-to-date.

Use as little technology as possible.

Nothing on the web is as long-lasting as pure HTML. It’s completely responsive, works on every web-enabled device, doesn’t require plugins, and is fully semantic. It doesn’t care if Javascript is turned off. It doesn’t care if the browser supports a particular CSS property. It doesn’t have vendor-specific prefixes. Under the hood, the closer we are to pure HTML (or Objective-C, or whatever the native language for the medium), the more long-lasting our work will be.

Building for Longevity

We’ve spent too long designing for the web that used to exist. There was a time when we could predict screen resolutions accurately, and knew that our users were at a desk and seated. We could design websites under the assumption that the viewing parameters wouldn’t change. Those days are gone, and most of us have wholeheartedly embraced the principles of responsive design.

For the sake of longevity, we must take that flexibility a step further. Responsive visuals are a great start, but if we continue to design for individual instances of a product rather than focusing on the long game, we avoid the larger opportunity to embrace the fluidity of our medium. Instead of creating designs, we should be creating design systems.

Design Notebook

Building modular design systems, rather than discrete pages, is a more future-friendly way of designing.

Building flexible, adaptable systems is among the only ways to ensure a digital product maintains its overarching values while retaining the ability to change.

Designs may break, but design systems bend.

Designs are short-lived, but design systems are resilient.

Designs are locked to the present, while design systems prepare for the future.

Design systems are nothing new on the web. Laura Kalbag wrote about them on 24Ways back in 2012. In 2013, Brad Frost introduced the idea of Atomic Design, in which tiny units of design are combined into increasingly complex structures until they form a cohesive page. And Tim Berners-Lee even discussed the importance of modularity on the W3C blog in 2008.

Long-lasting digital design is about more than just aesthetics. It’s about how something is built, and how easily it can be maintained.

Longevity and Style

We’ve grown self-righteous in our defense of particular design styles “Flat design is more authentic to the medium,” we say. That’s probably true, and authenticity is nothing to scoff at. But it’s dangerous to get polemical about the design trend du jour, as if we’ve stumbled upon the One True Design Style and all others are worthless.

There was a time, not that long ago (in real-world time) and ages ago (in internet time), when a button had to be glossy to look clickable. Everything had to appear tactile, whether through a grungy concrete background, faux stickers and ribbons, or buttons that were also a light source. There were discussions about which direction the global light source should be focused (the answer was always “from the top-left, like the sun”). Now, in an era where colors are flat and depth means parallax, all that seems silly.

Web 2.0 Glossy Badges

Remember these?

Three years from now, what will we be saying about the era of flat design?

There’s nothing wrong with following a trend, especially if you think that trend is a step in the right direction. I have no interest in slamming flat design. There’s a case to be made that it is more authentic, since it reflects the biases of the medium without pretending to be something it isn’t. When a trend becomes a fad – when we follow it for its own sake – we need to take a step back and consider our motives.

We’ve written about design fads vs. design trends before. Trends emerge organically — as the digital landscape changes, similar design problems will naturally result in similar solutions. Fads are the design equivalent of peer pressure – they happen simply because “everyone else is doing it.” They borrow solutions from elsewhere, even when that solution isn’t necessarily the best fit for the problem.

The design echo-chamber too often fosters a culture of blind following. Oh, [designer with a huge Twitter following] is using ghost buttons? I should too. Wait, [renowned web studio] is using parallax full-width headers? Ditto.

Conclusion

To ensure the longevity of our work, we should focus on building systems rather than products. A product can grow outdated, falling out-of-sync with the rest of the design landscape. A system, however, can shift and adapt to match the requirements of its environment.

We used to build in pixels, and then we moved to ems. The web trends towards flexibility and modularity — it’s biased towards systems. Long-lasting digital design embraces this fully, and its creators recognize that bits of design will fade while systems live on.

No matter how ephemeral the web might seem on the surface, it’s built to last. Technologies may change and styles will go in and out of fashion, but as long as the underlying architecture of the web stays consistent (remember, cool URIs don’t change) our work could be here for a very long time. It’s an exciting time to be designing for digital — if all goes well, this is just the beginning of the web’s storied history. Architecture can crumble and fashion can fade, but we design for the future as well as the present.

[1] We’re falling down a logical rabbit hole by using the word “timeless.” How do we define timelessness? Is it something that doesn’t look out-of-date, doesn’t feel out-of-date, or both?

We can’t go by what looks out-of-date, because our own perception of a design’s appearance is colored by whatever we’re accustomed to seeing. Fashion from the early 60s might not look out-of-date anymore because of Mad Men, but ask again in twenty years.

Judging based on what feels out-of-date is safer, because human behavior is more of a constant than our aesthetic choices. Pinch-to-zoom, being based on our innate understanding of space and contact, will remain logical centuries from now, just as it would have made sense millennia ago. That’s getting closer to timelessness.

True timelessness would be a combination of both – a design that looks and acts just as well at any time as it did when it was created. This remains subjective, since it’s still up to us to recognize a design as timeless, making it subject to our own experience and preferences. It’s impossible to judge true timelessness.

Are you still reading this? Go outside or something, this can’t be that interesting.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6 / Part 7 / Part 8 / Part 9 / Part 10

The ten principles of good design are published on the website of Vitsœ, a furniture manufacturer with whom Dieter Rams has had a long-standing partnership. The principles can be found here, and are licensed through Creative Commons.

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