Holistic design vs tacked-on design

An illustration of a blackbird

The Shiny Forager has written a great blog post about the crossover between content and design. And she (correctly, in my view) takes issue with the idea that content and design are separate things.

The idea that one can do the content bit, then do the design bit. Or vice versa.

Her example is a presentation with slides. Should one do the talk first then create the slides as backup? Or create the slides first and write the talk to narrate and link the slides together?

But she concludes that one should do neither. One should conceive of the two in tandem; work on the slides and narrative together, organically, allowing each to feed into the other.

Absolutely right.

All great designs – be they presentations, websites, products – started off with a blank page. This has always been my problem with the notion of design-by-customisation. Handy though design-by-customisation may be – say in adapting another’s WordPress theme to make one’s own site – it unavoidably narrows your horizons.

Prejudices you to accept the status quo. To take the easy route. To imitate. To do what is conventional.

If you want to come up with something different, something that stands out, it’s probably not the best idea to take as your starting point somebody else’s framework.

Because it’s only the blank sheet of paper – the brainstorming stage at which anything goes – that allows true innovation.

And true innovation comes from integrated thinking.

This is what I’m calling holistic design. It’s what Apple’s Jonathan Ive did, creating the iPod: a product that wasn’t just a better mp3 player, but was a reinterpretation of an mp3 player. An mp3 player designed from the ground up, no preconceptions.

Great design demands that the designer be involved at all stages of a product’s conception – whether that product be a brochure, a website or an electronic device.

In the same way, great ads were created (typically) by a designer and a copywriter. In tandem. Not a copywriter doing the content, then handing it over to the designer for some visuals. Not the designer making a great image, then giving it to the copywriter to come up with some words.

But holistic design.

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