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Insight into a “reverse iconoclast” February 26, 2010

Posted by Megha Narayan in Uncategorized.
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[Posted on behalf of Rohan Thompson]

After the long slog of a day at Haas, a Wednesday speaker series sometimes presents itself more as a chore than the pleasure it really ought to be.  Unless of course the topic of discussion is sufficiently scintillating to eradicate thoughts of being home with a furry cat and glass of something boozy.  For me Web User Experience Design usually falls into that category.  And to serve it up we were graced with the presence of Elizabeth Windram, Senior User Experience Designer at Google.

I think Elizabeth was at something of a loss as to the prior level of UX understanding resident amongst the class.  A few of us have dabbled in the discipline before and many more were relatively new to the topic.  Working out where to pitch the presentation to a class of unknowns is never an easy thing, so Elizabeth went with the basics; start with typography.

Now I’m a bit of an armchair typography nut.  I possess absolutely no formal training in design, layout or typography specifically, but there’s an innate nerdiness about typography that appeals to me.  Clearly the same goes for Elizabeth.  She seemed to be holding back while she waxed on about kerning, leading and serifs.  Anyone who’s taken the time to watch the film Helvetica will know just how deeply the passion can run.  Typography is serious business.  The truth is that while I was familiar with much of what Elizabeth was covering, there was a lot that was new.  In particular I’d always been led to believe that serif typefaces were the more readable.  Well, they are, but sans serif typefaces are more legible.  I’d never considered that nuance but it makes sense.  Were it not, the world would not now be so dominated by the ubiquitous Helvetica. 

 Unfortunately typography puts some people to sleep.  I’m not one of them, but I’m sure there were at least one or two people in the class who were expecting a bit more razzle-dazzle.  The fact is that good UX design isn’t about razzle-dazzle; it’s about consistency and the practice of elegant simplicity.  Which is where the print world method of snap-to-grid enters the picture.  The print layout industry has used it since time immemorial.  The grid system brings order to a page and structures content in such a way that human cognition more readily accepts and process the data.  Elizabeth then shed light on her personal quest to import the grid approach to YouTube.  Pick a site, almost any site, and you’ll see how the little the grid system is used.  Flip through almost any print magazine and you’ll notice just how natural it seems in that context.  Why should web pages be any different?

Elizabeth is might be considered a reverse iconoclast of sorts.  She’s inserted herself into one of the new media’s great paradigm shifters (I use that term with due disrespect)—one of the companies most associated with the complete redefinition of video consumption—and her method of innovation is to reapply the tried and true lessons of the past.  I agree that consistency is indeed king, and Elizabeth is its champion.

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