Ghost in the Pixel

Uday Gajendar's musings on interaction design

Design integrity

Lately I’ve been pondering this notion of “integrity” as a central ingredient in a well-designed communication, product, or service. This came up in a big way recently with the online outrage over IKEA’s decision to change their official font from a variation of Futura to Verdana, a commonplace font for web/screen usage by Microsoft.

Of course, ordinary non-designer folks may never notice or even care–it’s just a few letters, right? So why does this issue matter anyway? It’s just a font, for goodness’ sake! As an IKEA spokesman explained, “It’s more efficient and cost-effective.” I’m skeptical but OK fair enough, but just as with the adverse side-effects of “data-driven design”, the distinct voice & potential of a design becomes smothered, lost amid a haze of mundane, mediocre, “me too” sameness in the marketplace and cultural landscape. A font matters because the character, elegance, aesthetic quality and signature identity matter. A decision like this matters because of design integrity: Even if only a designer will notice it, as designers we have a moral duty, a noble imperative if you will, to establish and defend the emotional, cultural, aesthetic qualities that manifest in the structural proportions of layout, the harmonies of color and image, and the details of alignment/typography, and (increasingly) animation/interactivity.

Integrity matters for coherence, quality, and consistency–bound by a personally and professionally-held value of holistic connecting of elements into something that stands on its own, distinctive and memorable–something worthy of pride and envy. Integrity matters because it’s quite simply the right thing to do, even if only a few designers will notice it or it seems like “designers just being designers”–whatever that means :-)

After all, deep down, I believe that is why a designer is hired or design is “brought into” a company or project–to help a company stand out, demonstrate a significant value, and impress upon customers a positive impact with both immediate commercial and long-term cultural gain. When a company like IKEA succumbs to the short-sighted business-induced pressures of mediocrity, it forsakes the higher value of design integrity and thus diminishes IKEA’s standing as a hallmark for “good design”, in the pantheon along with Apple, Dyson, Virgin, Nike, etc.

Relatedly, this makes me wonder if Apple’s constant and pervasive championing of design (ie, in their interfaces, hardware, and service ecosystem with the Apple Stores, Genius Bar, etc.) is what designers like myself actually envy–not just their products’ “hip sexiness”–and wish our respective clients/employers placed more value upon that. It’s not so much about copying the Apple style as it is about emulating their total commitment to design integrity and thus serving as exemplars for the field.

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