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Design

Everything Is Gorgeous and I Am Lost

What happens when aesthetics aren't telling on us anymore

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Photo by Petar Petkovski

If you’re reading this on Medium, and arrived here from another Medium post, there’s nothing to differentiate this entry from a… better one… apart from the art I paste around it. Medium’s part of a wave of sites that have brought large, readable, attractive typography to the blogaday web. My eyes appreciate the break from wee gray type, and my attention span appreciates the whitespace.

Lately, though, I’ve often found myself halfway through a poorly-considered post before realizing I was devoting reading time to a hack job. We’ve developed a sense of the signifiers of thoughtfully-assembled web sites in the last decade, but these days it’s all a wash of 21px #333 Georgia.

It’s like the phenomenon Mary H.K. Choi lamented in a 2010 piece for the Hairpin:

I can’t figure out how old anyone is. I can’t figure out how gay anyone is. On silent subway morning commutes there are no tells. The brogues, desert boots and quickstrike high-tops not only have me manic-fantasy-banging every well-dressed dude on the F BECAUSE IT IS ALL SO GODDAMN GOOD but the fact that so many are suddenly well shod plus the prevalence of hard-bottoms straight CRIPPLES my ability to tell how rich anyone is. And that is fucking my game up major.

When every post looks good, we lose the heuristics that let us know how seriously to take each one.

How it was

Consider the kneejerk trustworthiness summoned by the aesthetics of:

  • YouTube comments
  • USENET posts
  • Facebook comments
  • the default WordPress theme
  • a hand-rolled programmer’s blog with wee green type
  • the articles on a national newspaper site

They each command a level of attention, and of charitable reading, even if separated from their original context. You’ve developed quiet internal rules about how much to skim a post before ignoring it or diving deeper. Or, at least, you had, before everything looked the same.

It’s the first impression that matters

Here’s the thing: I like reading giant walls of undifferentiated text, all chocked together like classified ads. In the days before Instapaper, I’d copypaste a day’s blog posts into TextMate and print them out 4-up in Deja Vu Sans Mono. Heck, I use Mercury Reader daily to make scruffy sites easy to read.

That’s after I’ve deemed a piece worth reading, though.

The democratization of design is a good thing

This is not “who let the normals have nice things?!” As far as nice type can bring clarity to the presentation of everyone’s writing, I’m all for it. What I haven’t figured out, though, is how thoroughly we should recalibrate our expectations to compensate for it.

It was comforting when you could immediately spot Non-Ridiculous Person With A Competently-Designed Blog. Without doing a reasonableness background search, you could let yourself slip into credible, charitable readership, reserving critical defensiveness for Snopes-worthy email forwards.

Well, my sidelong glances and raised palm are back. I’m not nodding at my screen and sharing a link until I’ve mentally double-checked every conclusion.

A return to form

This pendulum has dangled at this maximum before. In earlier days of networked computing, you’d read every newsgroup post and every mail message in your terminal’s monospaced font. The brief, optimistic, naive pre-font-tag Web was similarly typographically homogeneous.

Then people who cared got better, and other people who cared noticed and copied what worked, until you could put a little craft into a site and show you were a competent communicator.

Some services, like Twitter, seem to be taking steps to make the default avatars, colors, and settings look more like defaults to compel folks to spend some time customizing them. There’s the tension: make it easy to make things that look good, but still leave room for expressiveness.

Where from here?

Sooooo what’s next? If we don’t want to give up the convenience and reach of a hosted platform with a nice editor, is there a path to… better? Where does the weird come in? Can you transcend the framework? Or is the content the only differentiator?

I know I’m picking up on smaller details: avatars. Custom header art. Art that’s not that one code-on-screen pic from Unsplash. What are your favorite signifiers? Leave a comment.

Story published on Sep 13, 2017.