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The Web Designer’s Theory of Relativity

This post is part of a series called Web Design Theory.
Visual Direction in Web Design
Unity in Web Design

Relativism is the concept that points of view have no absolute truth or validity. For web designers, this has monumental implications. What is beautiful? Which typeface is perfect for this design? Red or Blue? The questions that we have to deal with on a regular basis often leave us, knowingly or not, returning to notions of relativity in order to walk away from a project without going insane. For the perfectionists among us (and most of us are perfectionists, are we not?!), this is little consolation though. Today we’ll discuss the theory of relativity as it applies to us... Read on Young Einsteins!

My grandfather told me this story once: He was buying some cloth and when looking at one of the cloth designs... and he thought to himself "that is so ugly!" He barely finished the thought when another customer came running in with her fiancé and mother-in-law and went directly to that same design he was thinking about shouting, "Here it is, the design we were looking for!" and bought the whole lot!

What if I showed you this drawing and asked your opinion about it?

The designers theory of relativity

Most probably you would say it’s very poor – however if I told you it was done by a 3yr old child, you would probably change you r mind and say "WOW, that’s very nice!"

Relativism is the concept that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration, Clearly what some people may think of as "ugly" others see as "beautiful" – so how does this "Relativism" apply to the design world?

How then, can you ensure you’re creating a beautiful design? Understand your target audience through 4 main points before implementing your design: Goal, Culture, Demographics, and Technology.

1. Establish a Goal

Imagine that you were asked to design a tall tower building, and you came up with a few great designs - yet all were refused, and you had to go back to the drawing board only to keep on failing! Then you find another maybe not-so-beautiful design winning, why?

The main goal of that competition was not beauty, but it was length – so the main approval criteria was being the highest, then beauty comes second, without high length all other features of your design don’t matter.

The designers theory of relativity

Sometimes as designers, we focus on different aspects of our designs, yet our client and audience really want a specific goal, and if it’s not met, then whatever else we do in the design will never count until we first meet that goal – so in this case a successful design relative to the client’s point of view, is the design that will meet their goal.

2. Consider The Culture

Symbols, Body Language and Gestures have different meanings across different cultures.

The designers theory of relativity

Take a look at the example above, for most people the gesture means "2" but for a German it would mean Victory, a Frenchman it would mean Peace and for Brits and Australians… well you’d better just not do it  - the same principle applies to design and color, and if you’re working on an international design or for another part of the world – then you must be familiar with such cultural differences.

Such differences are apparent in the design of Airport signage for example, millions of different ethnic groups and culture backgrounds pass through airports daily – signs must be easily and globally understood and have the same meaning across the world. (See ISO 7001)

The designers theory of relativity

In order to achieve this designers have to conduct several field tests with random passengers and specific methods of testing the comprehensibility of graphical symbols are available on the ISO.org site (ISO 9186).

If we apply this to the world of design and color, studies done by Medical News Today in 2007 confirm that East Asians and Westerners process visual information in different ways. For example, East Asians are more likely to pay attention to the context and relationships in a design than Westerners, who more often notice physical features or groupings of similar objects. Westerners are more attentive to central, or dominant, objects, while East Asians pay more attention to the background.

The designers theory of relativity

Colors also have different meanings across cultures, for example while White is usually associated with the following in most of the world: spirituality, peace, purity, cleanliness, innocence, youth, goodness, light, fairness, Marriage, ...etc. , in Eastern cultures such as in China, India or Japan, the color white is a symbol for Mourning, Death, Unhappiness, and Funerals.

The Chart below encompasses 10 different cultures, and 62 emotions. The cultures are represented by concentric rings, and the emotions are represented by slices of the circle. Thus, if you want to understand about Japanese color sensibilities, you read around the graph. And if you want to learn what colors mean "danger" across cultures for example, you just read vertically.

The designers theory of relativity
Source: Information is Beautiful – Colors in Cultures

3. Understand The Demographics

In my article How to Get the Right Creative Requirements From Your Client I talked about knowing and understanding your target audience and gave a sample on how designing for Adults is different than designing for Kids who generally prefer large icons, bright colors funny fonts…etc. , the same applies to Gender, and Education level.

Less educated audiences for example may find it hard to understand simpler and cleaner designs, they tend to judge the design by the amount of "bells and whistles" and tend to like strong colors – I used to tell some of my clients "it’s not how many liters of paint you put in a design, it’s the amount of thought that matters" – usually a highly educated audience would appreciate clean and simple design concepts and want more thought done rather than just a colorful painting.

The example below shows how gender could have an effect on color perception and choice

The designers theory of relativity

4. Adapt to The Technology

As a designer, you might think what has "technology" got to do with my designs? I would answer "everything".

The designers theory of relativity

Imagine you were the designer of this very cool car in the image above, yet you were not aware that it will be used off-road on rugged terrain – this beautiful car just does not have the "technology" to handle such roads – however what do you think about these "ugly" cars?

The designers theory of relativity
The designers theory of relativity
The designers theory of relativity

The same concept applies to your web designs, if they don’t work on all platforms and devices, then no matter how "beautiful" your designs are, they will simply just not work!

Don’t preview your designs on a 24" 1920x1080px screen while they are intended for use on average 1024x768px screens, don’t use a desktop or laptop if your designs are intended for a mobile or tablet device.

I have a friend of mine who just recently did an application design for a 1024px tablet, however he was working on a laptop and previewing the work in 1024px screen resolution on his 15" screen, they application was initially rejected because while both the tablet and the laptop were 1024px in size, the tablet had only a 7" screen while the laptop had a 15" screen, so the objects turned out too tiny for the application to be functional.

The designers theory of relativity

It is very critical that you understand and test on your target devices - there are several platforms and form factors out there, so you need to be sure that your design functions the same on all platforms and sizes.

Conclusion: Context is Everything!

Designs are not absolute. Our job is not to become Picasso’s or Salvador Dali’s, we are not creating paintings or artwork, we can’t design without taking into consideration our limitations and our client’s goals – design differs from art in that designers create something that should be functional, usable and suites the culture and environment of the people who will use your design.

A successful design is one that meets the expected goals and functions flawlessly as expected – a beautiful design that does not work is a failure. As with all things in life, context is everything: taking the time to understand the contextual filters that stand between you and your audience will help prevent you from creating "beautiful flops".

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