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Symbols and Success: Detroit, Web Design, and the Power of Simplicity

“Detroit, right now, is a cocoon. Driven to metamorphosis by one of the greatest economic catastrophes of all time, what was once a caterpillar industriously trundling along has retreated, wrapped itself up, and is in the process of deciding what it will be when it emerges.” ~ Anon.

When you put it in those terms, it kind of makes the place sound hopeful, doesn’t it? Welcome to one of the chief powers of (in the above example) Detroit, web design, and in fact almost any form of art: the power of symbols. It’s hard to translate into words, because words don’t have the immediate visual impact that symbols do — the phrase ‘leftward-pointing arrow’ just doesn’t say “LEFT” to you in the same way that this does:

Arrow SymbolSymbols are power to the web designer — even the terribly simple ones like the horizontal lines we often use to separate one piece of text from another. Every symbol on the page communicates something to the reader, and we have to be careful to avoid over-communicating and confusing our user base.

Once you have decided what your design goal is, you have a balance of power and responsibility — the power to use your symbols to communicate at a glance what could take a paragraph or a page of words to convey, and the responsibility to use only those symbols that enhance, rather than interfere with, communication.

Every element that isn’t part of the raw content should be justified. Why is it there? How does it help the user understand?

As web designers, it is our business to understand that every element we design is a representation — an implication. Every image we choose to put on the page is there because it conveys a value that is relevant to the core content. Every text box we put alongside the main content implies that the content therein is valuable to the message in some way. Every drop shadow we employ adds gravity to the words it holds within it’s grip. And the less we use, the more powerful each implication becomes, because the message is purified when there’s less clutter.

That’s the power of simplicity, of symbols, and of truly good web design.

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