Web of uniforms vs. options

The thing is, I despised LiveJournal’s shoddy features and MySpace & Friendster’s tendencies to fill profiles to the brim with crap. And I have zero tolerance for any Tumblr that blasts autoplaying music.

But I appreciate Tumblr’s battlecry to make social networking profiles less of a uniform. People who care enough about beautiful design and code, and are okay with people using their tools to “make a mess” instead of imposing restrictions to mitigate that mess.

There will always be crappy design and code, of course, and I will still switch gears to lament them, but tools are more robust now, and their default settings should be harder to eff-up now.

Tumblr login screen
Tumblr’s login screen features popular art made by its users.

Versus control

Why, the Tumblr team wonders, do these restrictions still exist?

“On Flickr you can post photos, and on YouTube you can post videos, but now the major services have started to say, ‘Post your square photos,’ or ‘Post your six-second videos, or ‘Post your 140 characters,’” says Karp. “As far as modes of self-expression, they’ve gotten more and more restricted … Do we want every visual thing we enjoy from here on out to be square?” — David Karp

“It’s really tempting when you have hundreds of millions of [users] to say, ‘We need them to fall into these categories and we need them to fill out this form,’” says Vidani. “What we’ve done from the beginning is keep a pretty simple philosophy, that Tumblr is this place where you can come and we have no right to say who you are or what you should look like.” — Peter Vidani

Yep, it’s quite sad to have to crop your pic or add extra bars just to make your Instagram photos square. If they aren’t gonna budge about that, they should’ve incorporated the feature now instead of having 3rd-party apps that sacrifice image quality. People compromise the memories they share online because the social networks say so.

Could Karp and Vidani be simply pandering to their younger demographic? Are Twitter and Facebook the “grown-ups” to Tumblr’s “immature” swarm of fangirls, hipsters, emos, and “creatives”, who are under pressure to “look professional” because they gotta keep raking in the money? (Although Facebook did introduce custom layouts before they started suiting up and IPO-ing out. It almost reached the nightmarish looks of MySpace and Friendster profiles.) 

Do social networks need to avert risk and profit loss by going for this A/B-tested button color and that heatmapped layout?

Image cropping apps on the iOS App Store
Image cropping apps on the iOS App Store

Versus aesthetics

Still from the article:

“Posts on Medium, on the other hand, are near-objectively beautiful and legible, but do they not tease a world where every book is bound in the same leather, and printed on the same paper with the same margins and typefaces? Perhaps sites like Medium provide a non-chaotic vision of the internet, one that has finally settled down to embrace real-world conventions that actually work. Or perhaps we’re ready to lose the training wheels these sites have imposed.”

The Verge

Is the comparison to Medium’s stately design fair when it, too, only wants the Web to look the best it can be (this quest for the perfect underline is one of the finest attention to detail I’ve seen) while people can focus on their writing?

Maybe you don’t need to settle:

“We can’t say that Medium et al. are of­fer­ing minimalist de­sign. Only the ve­neer is minimalist. What they’re re­ally of­fer­ing is a shift from de­sign as a choice to de­sign as a con­stant. Instead of minimalist de­sign, a bet­ter term might be ho­mo­ge­neous design.

“[…] A nec­es­sary side ef­fect of Medium’s ho­mo­ge­neous de­sign is that every story looks the same. If you agree that the role of ty­pog­ra­phy is to en­hance the text for the ben­e­fit of the reader, then it stands to rea­son that dif­fer­ent texts de­mand dis­tinct typog­ra­phy.”

Matthew Butterick, The Billionaire’s Typewriter

This WYSIWYG-customization trend is also noticeably evolving in the web design industry itself, with tools like Macaw, Webflow Interactions, Canva, Studio, and Squarespace Logo.

Once upon a time we had more social networks that let people customize the smallest bits of HTML, CSS, & JS. About a decade later, the tables have been turned: it’s the designers that are getting trivial, idiot-proof tools, and seem to be playing it safe.

Versus all-knowing

I think that in a way, the Tumblr team’s concerns are coming from a place of “X is not the answer to everything”.

The current triumph (emphasis on current) of “flat” over “skeuomorphic” (an oversimplification) is not about a new aesthetic becoming more desirable because the other had become dated, but because it pushed to the point of overuse that the metaphors were getting in the way of accomplishing tasks easier. “Skeuo” is not the answer to everything, and neither is “flat”.

140-character posts or square images don’t tell the whole story. Medium’s design patterns and typographic choices are not the answer to every website from here on out.

Neither is a particular graphics editor, programming language, framework, CMS, operating system, or brand of hardware (or are we calling it “lifestyle brand” nowadays?), adored in cult-like, fetishistic ways.

It’s 2015, and instead of making the conversation about what you can’t do (with your Twitter profile) and what you might not be able to do soon (because computers could gobble up your job description soon), the conversation can become: what are you able to do with the new-fangled stuff?

The answer can be: embrace options. See what else is out there. The popular choice of most does not always make it the right choice or the only choice for you.

If you’re in a position to design systems that interface with users, acknowledge that they could have a choice. Options that do not paralyze their decision-making, but empower them, inspire creativity & innovation in ways that you may not have even dreamt of.

NYC - MoMA: Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans
NYC – MoMA: Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans by Wally Gobetz

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Design × code × words for a better web,
made in the Philippines by Sophia Lucero.