The user-centred aesthetic

So far this year, my regular reads on the Web have covered techniques in all the disciplines required to create quality web sites. All the disciplines bar one, that is. I’ve read about information architecture, client-side code, server-side code, accessibility, content and more. What’s missing? The visual design; the look; the skin; the surface.

While the folks I’ve been reading seem to have avoided writing around this issue (deliberately or otherwise), collectively they and others seem to have contributed to a new style of Web design; a user-centred aesthetic.

For example: Kicksology, Fossil Rim, Bibliotheek Leeuwarden, Landschaftsarchitekturen, PeopleSoft, Charlotte Gray.

What we’re looking at is elegant, bold, colourful and intuitive. Visual design combining with the planning below the skin; engaging interest, reassurance and reward.

Design has expanded the HTMinimaLism philosophy to incorporate stronger ideas of resilient logos, larger eye-catching text and well defined grids giving order without boxiness. There’s the welcome return of imagery (but graphics with a purpose) and the copious whitespace provides more than a hint of Swiss.

All these ideas are found in other media, but now they are being combined in ways specific to the Web. Quality magazines and newspapers punctuate stories with snippets and sidebars; these Web sites construct the story from snippets and sidebars – reflecting the tendency to scan rather than read. The visuals ensure that narrative still flows and the typography makes for an easy reading experience.

On the face of it, the progression is slight, but it is significant. There seems to be a new found maturity in the medium; a move from self-consciousness to self-confidence.

The examples were all created by different agencies, whose own sites are worth a look too: Happy Cog, Cinnamon, Adaptive Path, Mule, 37 Signals and Homeless Pixel.

A case to watch might be the overhaul Adaptive Path and Mule are giving to ReliefWeb. ReliefWeb is the coordination site for international humanitarian relief. It currently looks pretty tired, with no discernible identity or structure, heaps of links from the front page and a difficult, uncomfortable experience. An interesting challenge.