Messes

by Todd

Brief: We don’t usually think of good interactive design as letting people mess up the way things look. But when it’s your mess, it means something more, and allowing people to create some chaos can earn more love than the most pixel-perfect design.

Clean.

That’s the one word we most often hear when we start talking with clients about design considerations. Nearly everyone will say they want a clean design (and almost as often, ‘modern’). It’s as if every interface is imagined like this:

A very clean room

A very clean design

Most websites and apps don’t end feeling like that, though. They have more colour, more text, more stuff in general than you’d expect when you think ‘clean design’. They can be balanced, pleasant to look at, and nice to use, but they’re just not really clean.

So what are people after when they say clean? Different things, all respectable, like avoiding the extraneous, or communicating a feeling of things being in control, even unblemished. And, because a design discussion can be new territory, saying it because they think it’s what designers want to hear.

It’s not that people asking for a clean design are insincere. At the start of the process they can’t imagine wanting an extraneous, somewhat random, or designer-infuriating element. Until, that is, it means something to them.

That’s where clean is forgotten, and the discussion changes to how ideas, preferences, and unexpected needs will be accommodated in the design. It’s a delicate process, and happens in most projects.

Personal meaningfulness changes how people evaluate the utility and value of their ideas. So no matter how many designery reasons you have for not using that shade of green, the reasons won’t make sense because they come from a different, likely incompatible frame of mind.

That’s because what looks like a mess to one person is another’s own expression of… well whatever, it’s theirs, and that’s what matters, whether it’s messy or clean.

Back in the day

Let’s look at some classic online messy spaces.

messy1

That’s messy

messy2

Oh, come on

messy3

No!

messy4

Crying+broken heart emojis

Who could love those? Everything is wrong with them. Admittedly, they’re all pretty old looks: Geocities, MySpace, MS FrontPage gone wild, hand rolled HTML. We don’t see those much anymore.

These days, clean isn’t a preference, it’s an enforced standard. Squarespace and even Wix sites are built with templates that don’t let you make much of a mess.

facebook

Not just clean, Howard Hughes clean.

Facebook’s orderly if antiseptic look dominates social. Clean won the day, no? No. The urge to make a mess is alive and well, and just hanging out in different places now. The hottest messes in town right now are in messaging, and specifically, stickers.

Forget it, Clean, It’s Stickertown

Remember social network app Path? Beautiful design, but had a tough time getting traction. When Path added stickers, it marked a pivot in design strategy and set it on the road to a successful exit.

Line has a similar story, where letting people slap digital stickers all over the place spawned a profitable culture that has turned it into a powerhouse in Asia. The business potential of these little mess-makers cannot be understated, as they earn millions per month.

But surely Apple will hold the line for Team Clean. iOS 10 will relieve you of that notion, with stickers and chaotic effects in messaging that will be sure to look ugly to everyone except those that matter: the people making the mess.

iOS 10 Messages

iOS 10 lets you make a mess of messages

That’s the thing about a mess. When it’s your mess, it’s yours. If you try to convince a designer that this shade of green is good, it’s because it’s your shade. It means something, and it’s a powerful way to build personal relevance in a medium that works through repetition and normalization.

Clean might be the first word people go to when starting a discussion about design, but it shouldn’t be the last. There are infinite beautiful moments that can happen by letting people make a mess for the right reasons. While the things they do might be an eyesore to designers, letting it happen can actually be great design.

Postscript

If being able to make your own mess is so powerful, why did Facebook win and MySpace lose?

Facebook’s rise is often described as a counter to the messy word of MySpace, that people craved predictability over the frothing sea of crazy that MySpace pages allowed. For some that’s surely true.

More broadly, in those years the number of people jumping into social networking sites was surging, alongside a proliferation of content types that they could create and share. More people to connect with bringing more stuff to see gave an edge to interfaces that could present it in a more streamlined way.

What efficiencies we might gain in the streamlined approach have costs beyond personal expression. Many designs veer so far from high information density that their simpler, cleaner interfaces may feel easier but under-service our actual cognitive capacities. That means that we’re often doing less than we could with a given screen. For the better in some cases, for the worse in others.