The Boxological Constant

[February 9, 2010]

Back in the early ‘60s, when the protest movement was in its infancy and “folk music” (i.e., a comercialized similacrum of traditional American idioms) was one of its leading voices, Malvina Reynolds wrote a song called “Little Boxes.” The song decried the sameness of Los Angeles area tract housing.

As such it became a symbol of mindless conformity to what a later generation would call “The Man.” The mocking refrain contained these telling words:

And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

Looking at current Web design, I can’t help but wonder if Ms. Reynolds was more prescient than she realized. More likely, she had simply honed in on a basic tenet of modern life: Rootless, cultureless people running frantically from one ideological safe haven to another. In the financial world this has recently lead to the near-collapse of our economy.

And in the world of digital marketing, too, nothing sells like conformity.

Behold the Box, Keeper of Content.
Doesn’t matter what kind of content, doesn’t matter what kind of Web presence. Boxes are everywhere. Despite a dozen years of “user experience design” theory we still seem unable to accomplish anything approaching true out-of-the-box thinking.

So, site after site, boxes reign supreme. Take a careful look and you can find many site designs that at least mitigate the problem with judicious attention to proportion and spacing. More often than not however, the average Web site is a crazy quilt of misaligned quadrilaterals offering new visitors no sense of hierarchy, no clear point of orientation.

Oh, yes, font sizes help, as do color schemes and decorative design elements, not the mention the archaic, yet strangely persistent “Click Here” (911,000,000 results).

Somehow I doubt this is what Don Norman had in mind when he inaugurated a new era of design in the ‘90s. In any case, no aspect of Web design suffers more from this fundamentalist “box-ology” than copy. Jammed into ill-fitting columns, subjected to bad line breaks, superimposed on neo-psychodelic backgrounds, copy becomes unreadable.

Language: The Ultimate Non-Conformist.
Of course, in the boxological worldview, copy has only itself to blame for being composed of Language. Language has the audacity to follow rules of its own that exist outside the confines of cherished usability studies. “I mean, come on,” goes the unstated complaint, “what was Language doing for the last 10,000 years that it didn’t come up with a decent design strategy for itself?”

Now, if the only issue were copy I wouldn’t expect anyone beyond a few copy fundamentalists to care. But when digital space is dominated by a design strategy that virtually disables one of its key components, everybody loses.

Does Nielsen assert people jump away after only 56 seconds? Let’s not be so quick to attribute it to ADHD, which, despite its seriousness as a medical condition, hardly affects every member of your target audience. The root cause may be simple aversion—to row upon row of identically weighted little boxes, that all look just the same.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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