The web: Beauty and the geeks

The web hasn't merely revolutionised the way we work and play, it's changed our view of what's attractive and appealing, says Rhodri Marsden
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The Independent Tech

What stops you in your tracks and makes you think, "That's beautiful"? In the past, it might have been a wonder of nature or an exquisite piece of architecture, but today, it could just as easily be something from the world of technology. Indeed, a new survey by Microsoft shows that 58 per cent of British people believe that technology has pipped fashion into first place as the thing that most alters our perception of beauty. We coo over the sleek lines of smartphone design, we admire the engineering that's gone into producing a widescreen 3D television set, but it's the huge quantity of media that we consume via the internet that's pleasantly distracting our gaze most of all. Some say that the amount of time we spend focused on screens to absorb information is instilling us with a kind of design literacy, while the words and visuals that combine to form internet content are creating a new language. And it's a language we lap up enthusiastically, are becoming more sophisticated at interpreting, and are increasingly fluent in speaking ourselves.

Aesthetically pleasing web content doesn't stimulate only our pleasure-sensors, however; it's crucial to help us to process and sift through the colossal amount of information that's being pumped at us via broadband. "If a website is inelegantly organised and makes it hard to find basic things," neuroscientist and television presenter Dr Jack Lewis says, "it's going to exacerbate that feeling we experience of being overloaded with data – frustration and impatience – particularly if we have to go back and start looking for something over again." Beautiful website design isn't primarily about making things pretty, according to Paul Annett, creative director at Supernice Studio; it's about making small improvements to the lives of those consuming it. "In the context of using the web as an information resource," he says, "it's all about making information faster and easier to find, and easier for people to consume once they've found it."

Images are pivotal in aiding that consumption. "Interpreting written words is something you learn to do," Lewis says. "And while interpreting images involves a certain degree of learning, it's largely intuitive. If you put someone in a brain scanner and compare the activation when they're naming an image to, say, reading text, you get a degree of overlap, but there's always extra activation when they're reading. We'll always take longer to process word information." This is a fact not lost on the new wave of information journalists, who have become adept at getting complex messages across using diagrams, colour, space and shape. David McCandless, whose book and associated blog Information Is Beautiful provides numerous examples of how beautiful design has huge communicative power, believes that there's something magical about seeing information presented in this way. "It literally just pours into you," he says. "And there's a demand for this condensed information in visual form to suit fast-moving modern minds. We don't have time to take it all in, so we need to see it visualised."

Striking a perfect balance between beauty, text and images in order to optimise our intake of information is something that web designers are constantly battling with – and it's not made easier by the recipe wildly fluctuating depending on the subject matter. "We know from user testing that people like to scan lists, for example," says Hannah Donovan, head of the design team at music website last.fm. "They like to scroll down the page, hit the down arrow key and skim the text. But on last.fm people might prefer search results to be clustered visually by albums; then we need to think about things like differentiating pictures of artists and pictures of album covers – so we make the former rectangular, the latter square. And, of course, people learn as they go; they take in information constantly about where things are and where they interact. But if you get it wrong, you'll lose them. Because they're choosy. They're consumers."

Microsoft's survey of our attitudes to beauty was prompted by its work on adapting its search engine, Bing, to satisfy fully our brains' desire for images with our information. Any challenger to the ubiquity of Google's search engine will inevitably have a fearsome task ahead of them, but Alex Payne, head of search at Bing UK, believes that there's a need not being addressed, and that incorporating more image content – in essence, more beauty – is the key. "Our research shows that one in four search queries go unanswered," he says, "and that a typical search could easily last a couple of days across a number of search engines. But using images can help a great deal." Such image content doesn't need to be rich and complex to be useful; for example, the appearance of a number of stars next to a movie listing would immediately give us an idea of how well it's rated. "We're trying to clear up the clutter," Payne continues, "and put in front of people what they want. In old versions of our search engine we've just had 10 blue links, and it hasn't been enough for people. Now, certain searches on Bing – for example, restaurants – will present you with a variety of images that can help users make more informed decisions." While Bing's visual search tool is eye-opening in its presentation and efficient with its display of information, McCandless isn't convinced that it's always the best way. "As far as Google is concerned, the brilliance of its design isn't so much that it's beautiful, but that it's simple. It's taken away as much as it can, while still remaining immensely powerful."

We'll all vote with our clicking fingers, of course – which are in themselves powerful research tools for businesses trying to work out exactly what we want from the web. Websites learn something every time we follow a link or close a window, so their design becomes a constant process of evolution. In addition, the technical restrictions that might previously have stopped development in its tracks, preventing use of images and slick design to enhance our experience, are now largely absent. "A lot of what we do, in terms of data visualisation and data-driven design, has only really become possible in the last year or two," Donovan says. "Firstly, you can pull a piece of information out of a database in a fraction of a second, like when last.fm instantly compares two people's musical tastes. But there's been a big change in the way we deal with images, too."

For years, bandwidth issues meant designers had to be incredibly careful about the size of images, and quirks in web browsers meant that alignment was often tricky – but now they have far greater control. "We can use full-page photos," Donovan says, "which no one would have dreamt of doing a few years ago. And we can use proper typography – the medium is just much more sophisticated. In essence, great design can be transferred to the web much easier." For McCandless, these recent technological developments have heralded a cognitive shift in the way we perceive websites. "I don't know whether we've learnt it through using them, or whether there's a mental process that designers are addressing, but things like side-navigation bars just seem intuitive. They're nuts and bolts of design that have become our framework."

The world of advertising has known for a long time that beautiful design has great power and can be incredibly convincing. "There exists this 'beauty is good' stereotype," Lewis says. "If a person is good-looking, you automatically imbue them with more positive character traits, when there may be no correlation in real life. In the same way, a company can be rubbish in what it does, but design an exquisite website that doesn't reflect the quality of service it provides." Information design has even greater power because of its potential to mislead. "There's definitely a relationship on the web between beauty and trustability," McCandless says. "Visualised information has to be twinned with transparency. I always publish the data alongside my work; to do otherwise just seems irresponsible to me." Therein lies the paradox of our greater appreciation of beauty and technology; while 87 per cent of us believe that the internet has made us more intelligent, the way that beauty seduces us could lead us to make incorrect assumptions and decisions. Looks may be alluring, but they aren't everything.

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