First, let me say that I'm not against artistic expression on the web. I do believe that design can contain elements of art when appropriate, but the main purpose of design is to solve problems, or prevent them from happening in the first place. Art serves it's own purpose and much of that purpose is inviting the viewer to reflect, think and interpret. Not exactly the type of thing users want to do on the web when they are in a hurry to find something or make a purchase.
But the idea that web design should be art comes from designers who don't understand the needs of users and instead believe that this is about finding an outlet for their creative expression. But with the ruthless impatience of web users, this is clearly not the medium for that outlet. That's not to say that designers shouldn't utilize creative problem solving when preparing a layout, it's just that flashy does not always equal profitable.
The task of design, at least on the web, is to help users easily navigate, find and consume content while facilitating certain behaviors such as making a purchase, or booking an appointment. The job of the designer is to build a bridge between the needs of the user and the goals of the client (business). And yes, sometimes even clients can destroy a project with their own artistic aspirations.
But perhaps the biggest argument against the art idea comes from the people who run the usability tests to see if users can effectively use the site and accomplish specific goals. As usability expert Janice Redish put it,
Creating that appearance (designing the web page) is about more than aesthetics. It's also about usability. The design of your web pages can help people find what they need and understand what they find. It can also hinder them... Designers must understand the needs of the content. If you want a successful website, you cannot, at the end, pour content into a design that was created without detailed considerations of that content.Janice Redish, President, Redish and Associates Inc.
So design must support content which means it must ultimately be an exercise in usability and conversion, not self expression. Creativity can certainly be used to solve problems, but that is the point of design: to solve and prevent problems, not create them.
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