The Invisible Aspects of Design

Noah Stokes shared this sentiment on Twitter yesterday:

I feel like responsive design has sucked the soul out of website design. Everything is boxes and grids. Where has the creativity gone?

His follow up post explains how responsive design is resulting in soulless design. It sparked Jay Fanelli to start a conversation on Branch about it. Here’s my thoughts reposted here:

The Invisible Aspects of Design

“Does it work?”

It’s a simple question really, but I’ve always found myself having to fight to make just basic functionality a priority. I’ve spent years making what I call Beautiful Pieces of Shit—designs that look lovely but are barely usable and/or useful. And it’s sad to see otherwise wonderful content rendered entirely useless for the sake of “design.”



There are invisible aspects of design. Accessibility is a design feature. Performance is a design feature. Intuitiveness is a design feature. And thanks to the rise of this whole host of connected devices, those invisible aspects of design are finally coming to the forefront.

So it’s not that “creativity” is gone, it’s just that we’re starting to move beyond simple aesthetics and understand design in a holistic sense.


Here’s the kicker: this conversation happened on Branch, a poster child of fine design work that “holds the promise of a new platform for dialogue on the web”. But here’s the rub:



Is this good design?

No it isn’t.

A big goal of design is to evoke emotion from the person interacting with whatever it is you create. These scenarios certainly evoke emotions, but they’re definitely not the ones creators had in mind.

I’ll take a “soulless” design that I can actually access over a Beautiful Piece of Shit any day. I’m confident that we’ll be able to address the invisible aspects of design while still being able to craft visually-stunning experiences.


  1. There’s an awful lot of conflating “design” and “aesthetics” that happens whenever this debate comes up. I’d urge everyone to be clear which it is they’re actually talking about.

  2. I agree with David that we need to clearly define what Design is. I’ve been pushing an ongoing conversation on the Twitters with #WhatIsDesign, gathering input from other designers, and sourcing quotes from some of the great minds of Design(pardon the shameless plug).

    I definitely subscribe to the school of thought that, if a thing doesn’t properly serve its function, it is not well designed. Thank you, Brad, for giving it a name.

    I’ll end my comment with this—Hasn’t Design always been about finding a solution within a given set of constraints? Isn’t RWD just another set of constraints for us [designers] to address?


  3. When any new set of tools comes along, or any new coding paradigm, the first wave of executions sort of suck – in this case, the soul is gone for the sake of getting the responsive code to work right. As we cope with the new technology and get better at using it, the creativity and soul can take the forefront again.

    I think @BeardedStudio’s new site for the Pittsburgh Glass Center ( is a great example of responsive design principals and beautiful aesthetics, and within a useable experience.

    And there will be more…

  4. Thank you for addressing this. I feel that to many people don’t care about who accesses their site as long as it looks good to them . I would take the simple less creative site that functionally works any day over some crappy interface with a fancy aesthetics.

  5. @mikegallay

    I think you are walking a fine line between aesthetic and UX “design” on purpose. What constitutes good and bad graphic design is often subjective. Bad UX tends to be bad to everyone. The irony of UX is that it should go unnoticed when it is good.

    To suggest that a graphic designer (by trade) will somehow incorporate flawless UX on his/her own is a novel thought, but we are not there yet. The vastly changing landscape of what is possible (desktop, gesture, accelerometer) should be enough ammunition to argue against most cynics. How can we be “perfect” everywhere when there are new interactive opportunities introduced everyday?

    In larger agencies, the designer’s task is usually dictated by other strategists and wireframes. Unfortunately, I found the process doesn’t really allow for much revision once it has gone past a certain point. It can be attributed to a lack of time or budget, and can also boil down to a failed tech assessment.

  6. Brad, I ran into that same problem on Branch! The emotion it invoked was (I’m sure) not what they intended. I chalk that up to a technical limitation that they are either a) unable to overcome or b) just to lazy to overcome. In my blog post I do talk about not letting the technical limitation restrict design, even subconsciously, but I also challenge devs to find solutions so that functionality isn’t sacrificed.

    All that to say, I agree with your point, a soulful site that isn’t functional is no longer soulful.

  7. Stuart McCoy

    Far be it for me to speak for Noah, he does a fine job on his own at Es Bueno, but I believe Noah was commenting on the fact that RWS has placed some constraints on the aesthetic aspect of design. Perhaps it’s process, limitations of HTML/CSS, required browser support, client budgets, or RWS itself, but so far there isn’t a lot of really inspiring examples of RWS out there. RWS is continually evolving and our understanding of it is as well but there’s definitely a disconnect between the aesthetic appearance and the technical implementations we’ve seen so far. This site was mentioned when Noah brought up the issue a while ago on Twitter, While it’s certainly a beautiful example RWS and a pleasing aesthetic based on the game world itself, I wonder if it was actually necessary? That site is pretty “heavy” for a mobile device on a limited bandwidth plan.

  8. Wasn’t this the first lesson at design school?

    form follows function

  9. I was following this discussion yesterday, and everyone involved raised some really good points, and I agree with what Brad is saying here.

    As I was reading it, I thought the same thing as Adam Robertson

    “form follows function”

    RE: Form

    I can see where Noah is coming from. If you take a cross-section of the products being shipped at the moment, and look at it from a styling/aesthetic point of view, it’s all starting to look sterile and indeed soulless.

    I think this has been largely influenced by trends toward a more minimal style to UIs – a characteristic that just so happens to compliment new frontend development techniques.

    RE: Function

    We’ve been overwhelmed by the multi-device ecosystem that people have started using to view/access the web.

    It’s thrown a lot of challenges at us – we’ve solved some with design, some with technical development.

    In an effort to keep up, we’ve had to create new tools, techniques, and patterns. Our community has embraced a lot of the same techniques and best practices which has also created a more standardised approach.

    We’re still learning, but that’s the best bit about this industry.

    Trent something said yesterday, about it being an exciting time and how’s there’s even more opportunity for creativity – and I agree

    But, before we can go off and play, we need to get the basics right.

  10. Hey brad,

    Great thinking, but its a little short sighted in my opinion. I’m sure for instance that Branch will not remain accessible via Safari only for long. This is a limitation of growing quickly. You’re spot on in terms of where it should end up, but if we waited till we had everything lined up and perfect we’d never ship anything. My views on this have changed a good bit since being a part of companies with large product visions.

    I’m known for details and that’s where I want to get things, but I find that you have to practice flexibility and the long view to get things to that point.

    Just my 2¢. Good thoughts overall 🙂

  11. I think everyone will agree that in order to have a good experience, you need the appropiate conditions for it to be enjoyed.

    You may go to the movies for the most wonderful movie ever made, but if the chair you are sitting on is unconfortable, you have bad seats and can barely see the screen, people talking, you get it right? 🙂

    There are things that we don´t have the power to change (not having a good 3g connection for example) But it´s in our hands as designers to do all that it takes to bring the best possible conditions. And that means performance, accessibility…

    And then we can worry about designing great experiences.

  12. I’d say it isn’t sterile or soulless at all Jim. The greater question that seems to get lost along the way is “what is the web for” or “what is my particular website for”. Generally the purpose is to impart information, advice or ideas. Or perhaps to be a forum for receiving information, advice or ideas. Sure you might be an e-commerce related site looking to sell stuff.

    My point is that the web, ideally, is about the content and sharing it widely. I think rather than people finding RWD “too difficult” they’re slowly realising that “the simplest solution is often the best one”. This means clean layouts, minimal aesthetic fluff, attempts at making the content work on my screens and platforms and making it fast.

    For a decade we had “designers” willy-waving about how skilled they were when producing monstrosities in Flash and/or tables loaded with spacer.gif’s. For a while being all textured or having chintzy illustrated animals all over your site was a badge of the “skilled”. Throughout people espoused their pixel perfect layouts slathered with gradients and complicated navigation. Most recently a trend that I’ve been seeing more often is over-the-top javascript used for all manner of sliding effects, parallax, cumbersome navigation and the like. Take a trip around and see how long it takes to load (and how much data it uses). Far from being derided as a complete joke it appears all over the place in “best design galleries”. As mentioned earlier – modern day flash-esque willy waving. “Look what I can make the screen do!”

  13. For some reason I find Noah’s remark about RWD and the lack of creativity due to boxes and grids related to

  14. I do think the functionality/usability of a site should come first and then the “visual” design should be used to reinforce the functional decisions. This doesn’t mean the design can’t be creative, some just seem to stop too early in their design thinking.

    In terms of accessibility as a design tool, Derek Featherstone has some great things to say in this UIE podcast.

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