We're Better At Design, And That's Not Good

Everyone is getting frighteningly good at visual design. The skills dispersed, our hardware improved, pixels shrank, and big companies began putting muscle behind their Dribbble stars. Every year, without fail: more, better, and easier. The last decade had some missteps, but overall a greater proportion of software just got really damn good-looking. And that kind of worries me a little.

It worries me that really good visual design is becoming commonplace. It used to be that you could just glance at a website and get a quick feel for its quality and recency just from its visual identity; look at Facebook versus Myspace, or Svbtle versus Wordpress. Visual design can add important interaction cues and serve a greater purpose than eye candy, but its role in branding shouldn't be underestimated.

And over the past few months, I noticed most newborn products look fantastic from day one. It could be from Bootstrap, or readymade iOS templates, or a better freelancer they found on Scoutzie, or 99Designs, or whatever; there are now a myriad of methods you can use to launch your service and make it look great for cheap or even free.

So what's wrong with that? The problem is we judge books by their covers. We're more likely to pick the prettiest object up first.

I know someone might shout, "No! The important part isn't the visuals, it's all about the interactions and the core product!" And that's exactly right; but to get a feel for those deeper aspects you need to spend time with it, and we usually don't have that time. People decide whether the phone they might buy sucks based on a few minutes of noodling, and that impression is dominated by the graphics and flashy animations. And consider the app economy without free trials, where the only thing you see in search results is a few carefully picked screenshots.

When everything moves toward beautiful, it chips away at our "product survival" instinct and makes it harder for us to tell the gold from the crap. We could be looking at a dangerous, privacy-invasive service and still have some trust because it's wrapped in lickable buttons and subtle gradients. Or you could be walking down the grocery aisle and pick an unhealthy cereal basically made of high-fructose corn syrup because the box made good use of whitespace and a bold sans-serif font. What was once our compass for quality now points in every direction.

That doesn't mean we should drop everything and make plain, styleless software again. Instead, we need to remember it's an arms race: you use TypeKit, they license directly; you spend $5,000 on an icon, they hire an entire consulting firm. More impressive visuals will offer diminishing returns against competition.

So what's the solution? Just make sure your product doesn't look terrible, and then move on. Build the things people care about, talk to your customers, and iterate. There is no silver, reflective, radial-gradient bullet to success.