What does fashion actually do? It sells you a suit made of a material that could last five years, and as soon as you have bought it tells you that you can’t wear it any longer because a newer one has already been created. The same principle can be used to sell anything. The motto of styling is ‘It’s Out’. As soon as one thing is sold they must invent another to supersede it.
– Bruno Munari, Design as Art
A redesign is a symptom of a deeper problem. A good design works to make the thing perform well and to communicate how it works to the user. It’s an expression of function. A well designed thing is beautiful to us precisely because its design is optimal for its purpose—its form is in harmony with its function.
A good design doesn’t need a refresh or a redesign unless the function dramatically changes. If the changes are subtle, the design should be able to accommodate them effortlessly. What we’re seeing though with website redesigns around the Web isn’t a change in function, but a change in style.
The cause of a redesign is an imbalance—a strong focus on style over substance. By focusing on style, you give way to trends, and by their nature, trends come and go. When you imbue your design with the latest trend you sentence it to death. As the latest aesthetic fancy flies away, it will carry off with it that which makes your design so appealing. It will become boring and old, and a redesign will be in order.
Redesigning has a sibling by the name of realigning. They may seem similar, but their nature is not at all alike. Cameron Moll wrote a great article on realigning, Good Designers Redesign, Great Designers Realign, in which he lays out the reasons for realigning a site. As he points out, a realign isn’t a redesign, it’s an evolution of your current design that adapts to new requirements, such a shift in your brand. It’s not a restyling of your site to match the latest trends, it’s a purposeful shift in the design direction that reflects the underlying requirements of your website.
Water and Ice
I really like the following passage—Chapter 76—from the Tao Te Ching:
Men are born soft and supple;
dead they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.
I think it carries much meaning for the world of design as well as life. The more you focus on style and visual effects, the more baggage you build up. Your design becomes inflexible and brittle, unable to bend to accommodate even the smallest change. Paul Scrivens wrote an excellent article over at Drawar called Dinosaur Design vs. Cockroach Design where he explores just this problem. He explains how the tiny, but resilient, cockroach survives changes in its habitat, as the mighty but unyielding dinasaur perishes.
Scrivens' metaphor is great, but I’m not sure I want to associate good design with dirty cockroaches, so I propose a different metaphor: water and ice. They are both the same thing of course, but in different states. Ice can be sculpted into intricate designs and sculptures, fit for exhibitions and shows. But ice sculptures are frozen in time, and making any big changes to them after they are finished is nearly impossible. Ice is also easy to crack and melts with the seasons.
Water on the other hand itself is formless, yet it’s able to take form. It takes form when it’s poured into different containers, and its shape in that moment assumes the exact inner space of the container. Think of ice as the domain of the stylist. He follows the latest trends and builds up his ice statue to impress. The focus is aesthetics and the latest fashion. The goal is beauty for beauty’s sake. He builds up something that will never change, and while the original may be perfect at that moment, the goals and functionality of a website oftentimes change. This visual heavy, trendy design will not be able to accommodate those changes because it is too far frozen in place.
Think of the water container as content, and water as the design. It fits perfectly, and adapts to all changes. Water design is timeless because it doesn’t try to make its mark, it simply embodies its content. It’s beautiful exactly because it expresses function with such seeming ease.
Don’t decorate, solve problems
To escape from the redesign trap we have to fix the underlying imbalance—that overly strong focus on style over function. When you focus on style, you inevitably jump on the latest trends. You want your site to look great, and so you start creating elements that serve no purpose other than to prop up the rest of the design. You know what I’m talking about: little content frames, background textures, button treatments and so on. Now, I’m not saying your site should be bland—aesthetics have an obvious benefit of making the experience more pleasant, building your brand image and giving your work a certain character—but when the focus of your design is on aesthetics rather than solving the problem you’re in danger of creating something that will not last.
If the design does its job there should be no reason to redesign down the line. When we get bored with sites it’s because they were built with the designer spending too much time on decorating and too little on problem solving. A good solution never goes out of fashion, and so it is with timeless design, precisely because it is a solution and not a trend.