It’s a classic case of ‘everything new is old again’. Print design is enjoying quite the resurgence online — but not because we want digital publications to look like print publications.
That’d be silly, because digital publications are not print publications. But print design has a venerable history and is built on hundreds of years of insights into how humans read. I’m using ‘read’ here in the larger sense of ‘understand’; we ‘read’ entire pages at once by scanning them and understanding what we want to look at, where we’d like to start reading (in its narrower sense).
Take Apple. The home of slick interface design, right? Then why does the contacts app look like a leather-bound notebook?
Or Microsoft. The master of stodgy, cluttered design, right? Then take a look at outlook.com for a taste of a cutting-edge interface.
Separating content from its context is an interesting idea; skeuomorphic design attempts to embed information in a familiar context (knobs and dials on a music app, pages and binding on a note taking app); the International Style attempts to free information from its context by presenting it in the cleanest, least cluttered style possible.
What’s interesting to me about this tension is the different uses to which the two design styles are being put.
Skeuomorphic designs are clustering around simple, single-use interfaces that need to communicate basic information – often just a single fact or data point – quickly and easily. So we’re all downloading WthrDial onto our iPhones because it looks like an easy-to-read weather dial (in the style of Dieter Rams, to boot).
But when it comes to digesting bigger chunks of information, the International Style comes into its own. Drawing on the principles of print design (clearly-delineated hierarchies, use of negative space, lack of ornament and an emphasis on typography – i.e. letting the words speak for themselves) it makes reading and understanding long-form information simple. And it removes the need for buttons and icons and gradients and chrome effects and all the paraphernalia of ‘real world’ objects.
So what does all this mean for businesses? Well, as always, the key to any decision-making is a solid customer insight (or insights). Once you understand your audience and the purpose of your communications with them, you can start thinking about how to design it.
Simply put, you need to choose the right tool for the task. Apple’s ‘leather’ contacts book may have caused a major punch-up behind the scenes at Cupertino but its use and purpose is immediately apparent. Outlook.com’s sleek interface is ideal for navigating spaghetti tangles of email we end up accumulating.
And isn’t that – improving usability – the whole point of design?
Richard Parker is the head of digital at strategic content agency Edge, where he has experience working with leading brands including Woolworths, St George and Foxtel. He previously spent 12 years in the UK, first at Story Worldwide then as the co-owner and strategic director of marketing agency Better Things.