Loose notes on SXSW 2007 session: High Class / Low Class Web Design
Christopher Fahey, Behavior
Liz Danzico, Daylife
Khoi Vinh, The New York Times
Brant Louck, World Wrestling Entertainment
Fairly fascinating panel discussion re: Class-ism in design. Not particularly practical except for full-time designers working for clients from all over the socioeconomic map. What is the mystique of elegance and quality conveyed by good design? Why are so many hugely successful sites (craigslist, ebay) so badly designed, or barely designed? Do highly designed sites convey elitism to the masses?
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How many got here by airplane? How many flew first class? Airplane is one of the few places where class is made explicit in our culture. Sometimes we’re all equal – like when it’s time to get frisked/degraded.
craigslist, ebay – people look at sites like this and think “It’s not designed” or “It’s designed badly.” Well, maybe there’s a class system here – maybe the sites are designed for another class of people, not for the “elite designers” in this room. Last year at SXSW designers developed a free redesign for Craigslist, but it has not been adopted [I’ve personally talked to Craig about this – he said there’s no interest, either from his staff or from craigslist users – while we all thought the redesign was a huge improvement, the staff thought the redesign was “amusing.”]
Why talk about class? Because it lets us talk about education, economic power, cultural literacy.
When we think about class we think of a wealthy aristocracy, vs. the working stiffs – the class warfare structure. But the American mythology is that we had a revolution to escape from the aristocracy of Great Britain, but this is b.s. We don’t talk about it because it’s a dirty word. We use euphemisms. Instead of talking about good/bad design, we talk about blue collar / white collar; popular / underprivileged; Joe Six Pack vs. Latte-Drinking, Volvo-Driving, Sushi-Eating, NY Times-Reading …
Marketers talk about SES (socio-economic status) – which TV shows appeal to whom?
Many people think they’ve transcended class – they’re in Class X. “Oh, I can drink Pabst Blue Ribbon ironically. I can wear shorts to work…”
Aspirational design: Lending the mystique of a higher class to a lower class. Walmart may market a Tiffany look.
When designing, do you design for yourself, or for your audience? How can you get into the shoes of someone whose class experience is different from your own? Do you respect your audience? Are they your equals?
NY Times designer says they never talk about class: They talk about effective storytelling, talk about how to make a button findable. But World Wrestling Fed. designer (formerly designer for Spin Magazine) says they talk about “our guy” – the archetypal WWF viewer. “Will this picture of a dude with toothpaste on his chest make ‘our guy’ uncomfortable?”
Within the wrestling industry they call their consumers “marks” – they’re designing to their marks. Smarter fans are aware that they’re called marks and they’re fine with it. In cities where the smarter “marks” live you can do more stuff that pulls back the curtain on wrestling.
NY Times designer: If you become too conscious of class, disrespect your customer, distance yourself from customer, you’ll do damage to your business.
Sites that market to the lower end tend to rely more on statistical methods – which version of the mag cover sold more copies? It’s out of the designer’s hands. At the higher end it’s the opposite – less democratic – designers have the final word. Steve Jobs is not polling users to see how they react to new web designs – he just hires the best designers. But not exclusively true – some high class designs take analytics very seriously.
Do you move towards your audience, or draw your audience closer to you?
It’s moving like the evolution of TV – we’ve gone from Starsky & Hutch to Lost and Six Feet Under. Because designers stopped looking down on their audience. TV’s gotten a lot better…. web moving that way too.
The language of design: “The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with. The new becomes threatening, the old reassuring.” -Paul Rand
Class X is an emerging class, and it’s based on design culture. Business Week and business schools are focusing on design. “Interior decorators” are becoming “interior designers.”
Web 2.0 and user-generated-content: The cathedral vs. the bazarre. People making more and more themselves, not relying as much on design from on-high.
Adaptive Path questioner: Vernacular design (myspace is considered low class but is an expresssion of what the people are doing when given design tools). Are people who execute upper class design excluding the lower class?
Question: More fun to design for Spin or for WWF? A: More fun selling to wrestlers, because you can give them big meaty fonts, since they’re dudes.
Designing for another audience: How do you stop outside of yourself – must respect that other audience. You want to reach the fans, and you have to find a way to do that.