Gone are the days when digital aped print’s static nature. Today’s web and mobile landscapes require designing for the unknown. Templates are provided for users to populate with content, and frameworks for designers to use as foundations for systems optimised and fine-tuned for clients.
This contradicts traditional design thinking – the argument you need content in order to design. UX expert Karen McGrane calls this the "myth of real content", and says solutions where you lack final, actual content are increasingly common. This removes a safety net – SomeOne co-founder Simon Manchipp quips that creativity is "freaky, scary, poo-your-pants stuff," and designers have therefore spent plenty of time "making scary stuff contained, to feel more comfortable when creating something new".
Constraints focused around content, elaborates designer Laura Kalbag (left), are genuinely helpful for rapidly narrowing down potential solutions. Without them, you must make assumptions: "I create my own constraints that are as non-arbitrary as possible. And choosing constraints for content changes the dynamic of the project – it means content will have to be formed to fit the design, rather than the design being formed to fit the content."
Karen believes this is less problematic than we assume, explaining that whether you’re designing signage systems, magazines or websites to be populated by a CMS, you’re never working with complete content anyway – only representative content.
"The trick is to make sure this content is actually representative," she advises. "Look for boundary situations – the longest element that can appear; what happens if nothing shows up; what occurs if you’re expecting one object but two show up. Use content modelling to define types of content and relationships between them".
This reasoning was crucial when creating digital magazine system TypeEngine, says co-founder Daniel Genser: "Whether building a website, app or publication, think of what you’re designing as a system, and have a content strategy. If you’re blindly guessing, you’re probably guessing wrong.
"With TypeEngine, we took the idea of primarily textual mid-to-longform articles as a starting point, and this allowed us to make core decisions. It’s fruitless to create an ‘Everything Machine’ – instead, create something great for specific things and apply lessons as you expand the scope of what your tool does."
Once content strategy is clear, Moonfruit creative director Kevin Foster says an agile approach is an option when designing for the unknown: "Get stuff out there, see what works, collect user data, and refine."
He admits this can frustrate, because you’re designing without the full picture in mind, putting out an essence of an idea, and seeing what gels; however, it can work if you "define the problem and have a clear hypothesis of what your design solution is trying to achieve".
From a technical standpoint, Kevin reckons there are further hurdles, such as increasingly varied viewports on which websites and apps are viewed. He’s noticed visual strategies designed to cope: "The central layout has become king, with images cropped and scaled and the main message remaining visible. It’s trendy but can be limiting."
It’s arguable such design homogenisation is likelier – or at least a risk – when working on templates and frameworks.
"There’s an inherent tension," says Daniel. "On one hand, you want your work to have a sizeable, addressable market, and that inevitably leads to the potential of generic solutions. But you also want what you make to be unique."
Laura says to avoid designing overtly neutral output, "make your own choices about constraints on the content, and be creative with those decisions", being mindful to not "become overly focused on the aesthetic, making up for a lack of direction from the content".
Utilising the familiar
However, don’t toss out everything you know due to concerns about generic design. "With constantly changing content, ideas, approaches and channels, the familiar is a desirable property," asserts SomeOne’s Simon (below).
He adds while some might consider templates "the devil’s work – dull, miserable vortexes where creativity is sucked away," the reality is designers often work within templates: "The coolest magazines have a grid. It’s just a template to hold things together. And brand control is an illusion, because it’s those who use it who really own it!"
Set out to control every aspect of your design, and Simon recommends readying yourself for disappointment.
Smart thinking instead revolves around making smart choices. Karen says when faced with countless theme options on huge social sites, users generally prefer simpler styling that focuses on content, so tend towards that. Laura adds by working with structure and style guides, you can "create consistent patterns for content, and design constraints to encourage creativity". Kevin talks about design solutions increasingly being presented as "systems or guidelines," rules and assets revolving around a central concept that can be swiftly adapted.
It’s important, though, to avoid heavily locking everything down in response to conspicuous freedoms when designing for the unknown. When working on open-source framework Foundation, UX designer Jonathan Smiley says he had no idea what the end user would build, and so "everything had to accommodate an arbitrary amount of content; every element had to fit inside every other, play nicely with itself and others; and every element had to be flexible on the page". He suggests considering style guides as tailored frameworks, there primarily to "cover the angles, ensure consistency, and encourage creativity on top of whatever you create".
From a template standpoint, Daniel agrees: "We take a stance of trying to make it easy to use a tool in a certain way, while not restricting people from using it in a more expansive way". By example, he talks about setting baseline styles, but enabling those using a system a greater degree of control and customisation.
According to Karen (left), this approach neatly deals with a problem evident in some CMS systems, where design, content and technology don’t align: "We’ve seen templates baked into a CMS, and content creators expected to cram content into a framework that just doesn’t fit. The goal today is to give designers and content authors more flexibility, and that comes from more flexible tools."
As Simon puts it, "guidelines need to be principles, not straightjackets". He says guidelines are forever thrown at designers as hard and fast rules, but when designing for unknowns, you need openness within structure, thereby inspiring those using your work to be creative. "Remember that control is a lie," he winks. "You are not in control – everyone else is."