Online Aesthetics

The pinnacle of web design (source:
The pinnacle of web design (source:

I’m almost positive I don’t have anything coherent to say on the subject of aesthetic design of web tools, but as usual I’ll just ignore that and start writing.

What I’d mostly like to talk about is the interesting way that our ideas about computer application design aesthetics are changing because navigation is shifting and evolving based on the need for mobile sites which work well with touchscreen hardware like the iPhone and iPad. The idea of having the viewing surface be the user interface at the same time is really causing some exciting things to happen.

It’s been interesting for me to see how, for example, Apple has been evolving the navigation of its Pages program to fit the iPad format. (Pages isn’t primarily an online tool, but I think many of my points apply to browser-based navigation as well).

In the past, word processor programmers seem to have mainly thought about encrusting a central window with as many navigation buttons, bars and panels as they could cram around the increasingly-obscured typing area. Designers must have imagined they were in a sort of features arms race, where the more commands that could be clicked on at any time meant that their product was the more advanced.

In the heyday of the mouse, this was an irritating but understandable navigation layout strategy. In the touchscreen milieu it’s obviously the last thing you want. Designers still have to attempt to minimize the number of “clicks” (gestures, whatever) it takes to get to any individual command, but I think this consideration has been superseded by the more important idea of keeping the screen as clear as possible as often as possible.
Navigation in Pages for iPad. Note that it's invisible. source:

I think this shift toward mobile / touchscreen considerations has been a very healthy and interesting process to watch. I think it’s generally led to an increased clarity of navigation on any one visible “page”, and then the mobile site clarifications often lead to more clear design of the non-mobile site – look at Google’s complete recent redesign of all of its services like Calendar in order to present a cleaner and more uniform appearance. Calendar wasn’t *ugly*, but it’s much cleaner and easier on the eyes now. I’m not sure how much of this redesign was done specifically with the thought of mobile / touchscreen sites, but I think it played a big part:
old. source:
new. source:

I really like the new look. It seems restrained, mature and simple. The weird thing is that Google is constantly trying to be simple, and they probably used to think the old look was clear and calm, but I think the world of mobile / touchscreen navigation spurred them to new heights of clarity and restraint. Long story short, I think we’re soon going to be living in a mini golden age of invisible or extremely clear onscreen navigation, if we aren’t already, and I think it’s interesting to watch as changes in the way we use our tools change the way our tools look. And thinking about this trend from an educator’s perspective, I think it’s a positive one which will encourage more interaction and experimentation with our tools. If navigation is invisible until we perform the right swipes and taps, isn’t that better than just being handed everything on one cluttered screen or page? I think iPad babies are going to be more creative and take more risks than babies who just had to use old-fashioned magazines or watch TV. What do you think?


One thought on “Online Aesthetics

  1. The differences between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ images you share are a good reminder of how quickly online aesthetics change. I’m starting to forget the appearance of a lot of the technology I used years ago (other than having the vague idea that it wasn’t as pleasing or as helpful). Now I wonder, if everything’s constantly improving, is there a point where it can’t get any better? Your focus on the impact of touch screen navigation connects design to both aesthetics and functionality… the iPad babies seek the interactivity but I also think they’re entranced (as we all are) by a glowing screen…

    As a postscript on old and new design, the pictures on slide 2 of this presentation are worth a look:

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