Cutting the Space, Site DesignApril 14, 2010
Way back when I was in art school my sculpture teacher told us the most uninteresting shape (sculpturally) was that of the Hershey’s Kiss. It’s flat and wide on bottom and skinny on top, like a pile of dirt or a pile of (insert your own word). As a shape, it is safe and predictable with little visual interest. It does exactly what gravity wants it to do and attempts nothing else. So that shape is boring because as a structure it takes the path of least resistance in the environment it was formed in.
As art students we are directed to ask questions that defy natural conventions to create the unexpected. So you begin taking heavy shapes and propping them up on skinny legs to see how an ordinary form can have energy and a new meaning. In our world today we see so much of this in architecture and consumer goods that it’s fairly commonplace, but structurally defying gravity is something learned. And applying it in today’s world makes things more interesting.
Being a digital creative, I can draw parallels to these lessons and Web site design. The first thing to know is that both disciplines have rules. With Web site design, usability grounds what you can do. Ignore usability and no one accomplishes what they came for on your site. Irritating users will cause a site to fail.
With sculpture, gravity grounds (literally) what you can do. You can’t place a two ton object on top of a paper cup. Gravity wins that game. Sometime you can fake the look of something incredible, but it is done with a lot of careful engineering and there are real limits.
Once you understand the constraints, you can then think about design. If the most uninteresting shape in sculpture looks like a Hershey’s Kiss, the most uninteresting shape in Web site design is a long rectangle. That’s the shape of your computer monitor. So mimicking that shape with an interface design is simply applying the most conventional approach.
For me the difference is seeing your screen as a picture plane verses seeing your screen as one giant frame. Information design is built on grid to make things easily scanned, but it doesn’t mean everything has to feel like it’s in a box, even if it is.
My remedy is to think about how to cut the space. It’s sculptural in essence. I am looking at what I can take away from that rectangle to make it not look like a rectangle. And the nature of the un-rectangleness depends on the brand. Each brand necessitates its own look and feel so I work toward cutting away what isn’t in the nature of that brand.
In 2004, while working on an entertainment magazine site, I used some fun curves to break up the space:
About 3 years ago, the logo for Mixaroo inspired the look of the primary content area being outlined with the shape of an “X”:
And most recently the Rawlings redesign took on an atmospheric ballpark look and feel: