So, is good design invisible, or not?

The debate about invisible design is heating up again, thanks to a recent interview with Oliver Reichenstein in which he said this:

Good design is invisible. Good screen design happens in the subatomic level of microtypography (the exact definition of a typeface), the invisible grid of macrotypography (how the typeface is used), and the invisible world of interaction design and information architecture. Minimum input, maximum output, with minimal conscious thought is what screen designers focus on. And just as type designers and engineers we do not try to find the perfect solution but the best compromise.

I’m going to assume that this tweet from Dan Saffer is in response to the interview, and not some amazing coincidence:

So, uh, which is it? Well, they’re both right — because I think they mean different things when they say “invisible design”. See, we talk about this stuff, but we rarely define the concepts before we do, and then we get into arguments and don’t even realize that we actually agree. So instead of just talking about invisible design, we have to discuss visible design as well, and how they’re different from each other.

When we talk about invisible design, I like Vitaly Friedman’s description in his excellent talk The Invisible Side of Design (my emphasis added):

Some things are so well designed that we don’t notice them any more. Our experience of them is invisible; almost beyond form and function… unless they break. The same holds true for Web design. Users stop noticing Web design if it works. Users keep noticing design if it’s broken, or when it gets in the way. Good design strikes a balance between elegance and invisibility. Invisible design relates to function and purpose, rather than appearance.

Invisible design is about the decisions we make about what goes into a product, what stays out, and how to get users through the experience as efficiently as possible. If those decisions are made well, and users can just do what they need to do without scratching their heads about where to go next — that’s when you get invisible design that works well.

But there’s also a striking visual layer to design that, in many cases, shouldn’t be invisible because invisible can be boring and soulless. Craig Grannell gives a good example of this in his article Office 2013 shows that user interface extremes aren’t the way to go:

The problem is, not all interface design scales, and when you go very minimal, interfaces can lose any sense of tactility and make it hard to focus. Peter Bright of Ars Technica’s shot of Office 2013 highlights that the opposite of Apple’s current design aesthetic isn’t necessarily any better. Acres of white space lead the eye to flick all over the design, making it hard to focus on the content (which is the smallish box on the right, with “This is an inline reply” in it). It’s unclear which components are buttons and which are content areas. Worse, there’s no sense of warmth at all. This feels like an email client designed to appeal to people bereft of emotion.

Look at sites like Slavery Footprint or MailChimp. There’s a very strong visual aspect to those designs, full of humanity and emotion. There is still an invisible side too — in MailChimp’s case, the functionality to create newsletters needs to be as invisible as possible — but it’s not an either/or situation. Invisible and visible design go hand in hand to create an appropriate product experience. In the case of Outlook 2013, there should be an invisible part of the design (the functionality you use to send email), but also a visible part that makes the software usable and relatable at more than a machine level.

I’m once again reminded of Matthew Butterick’s call to arms in Reversing the Tide of Declining Expectations:

Because what does design want from us, as designers? I think it wants us to take these items that are sort of mundane or boring on their own—like an annual report, or a website shopping cart, or a business card—and it wants us to fill them up. Fill them with ideas, and emotions, and humor, and warmth. Really everything that’s in our hearts and minds. Design wants us to invest these items with our humanity.

What it all comes down to is a term I first heard Karen McGrane use in her essay for The Manual called Ear Trumpets and Bionic Superpowers:

Designs that make technology completely seamless to the user often deserve admiration. But can we balance our desire for intuitiveness with a wider recognition that some tasks are complex, some interactions must be learned, and sometimes the goal isn’t invisible technology but appropriate visibility?

Instead of striving for purely invisible design, or design that is “stunningly, beautiful visible” but unusable, our aim should be to balance the decisions we make and the aesthetic we choose to arrive at a state of appropriate visibility. Now that’s good design.