The beginnings of what might soon be an ongoing dialogue in design has happened over on Design Observer. It began with a Dmitri Siegel’s article called Design By Numbers, a synopsis of the themes explored in Stephen Baker’s book, The Numerati. According to Siegel, the book discusses the huge amount of data we leave behind everyday — via computers, credit cards, cell phones – and how this data is being stored in databases, and in turn used by mathematicians, engineers, and subsequently marketers to target, and personlize messaging.
Essentially, numbers based advertising relies not on the subjectivity of aesthetics, in determining how effective a design is, but rather on the data collected. For a designer, this means a few things. 1. Defending a design choice becomes extremely difficult when arguing against numbers. 2. With the ability to test solutions dynamically, projects become more of an ongoing process, than a problem/solution equation, resulting in multiple versions of the same design, slightly tweaked to target a specific audience. 3. The best design may not always be the best ‘performing’ design, which more often than not leads to the degradation of aesthetics as a whole.
Siegel’s stance is that it is up to the designer to offer a counter-point to data-driven design solutions. The dialogue begins when Hal Siegel challenges Dmitri’s stance, in the comments section and in his own blog. Check out the thread as well as Hal’s insight into the topic.
My goal here isn’t to rehash what both men have already said, but to speak on the matter from my own perspective. Having worked for more than one social networking site, I am well aware of how data driven solutions affect the aesthetics(I use aesthetics and design interchangeably) of a project. The main issue that arises, and it’s one that both Dmitri and Hal touched upon, is the issue of brand identity. In order for a brand to remain successful, it must uphold its identity with an iron fist. This means ALL, not some, but ALL of its communication should be carried out with the same tone, voice, and appearance. Design plays a great role in making sure this happens. What sometimes happens when data becomes tantamount to design, is that identity is thrown out the window, and the communication gets lost, for the sake of “clicks.” I’ve seen many of my designs get kyboshed for ones that are just plain ugly, simply because data has proven that a big red button, with a huge call-to-action will garner better results.
Too often a marketer, relying on the numbers, assumes the audience is stupid. Granted, it is the designer’s job to clarify, and make things as simple as possible, but that doesn’t always mean designing for the lowest common denominator. Part of our job, as someone with the ability to inform change through communication, is to promote a higher level of understanding. Sure, it’s a lofty ideal. After all, we’re talking banner-ads here, but when you consider how you developed your critical thinking skills over the course of your life, was it not through what you were inundated by from a very young age? Design should not only communicate but also excite, and in some cases challenge its audience. Think about how far cell phones have come along. Would we have an iphone today if developers and industrial designers decided the cell phone was already hard enough to use, so why bother making more innovations?
I find that I agree completely with Dmitri’s stance on the issue of the Numerati.
“There is a great and growing need for designers who can have a critical dialog with the Numerati. These designers will be able to not only digest and learn from the statistical analysis, but will offer a counter-point to the short-term incremental gains that it can offer.”