I am no stranger to dogmatic thinking. I was once a very religious missionary, and currently am an open source enthusiast, a web designer, and a gamer. Of all the dogmatic thinkers I’ve encountered in each of those fields, I’m not actually sure which scare me the most. Some are easily identified from a distance, but you never know who compiles their own UNIX-based OS from scratch until it’s too late.
We want to make amazing things, and/or a lot of money, and we often end up fixating rather rigidly on whatever we believe will achieve those goals
No, it’s not a one-to-one comparison, but bear with me here. I’m not saying anyone is likely to be purged in the name of free software, or because they’re on the wrong side of the Warframe vs. Anthem debate. But… it’s not completely outside the realm of possibility. Human beings in general can get a bit intense on occasion.
That’s what (I believe) dogma is, in our modern context: intense and very rigid thinking. Creative people are people of passion and drive. We want to make amazing things, and/or a lot of money, and we often end up fixating rather rigidly on whatever we believe will achieve those goals. Creative though we may be, we are not immune to the universal laws of irony.
The wonderful world of web design is thus a world of goals. We want people to engage, to interact, to stay, to buy, to tell their friends, and to be our friends if it comes to that. And then we want it to be accessible, and usable, but also based on up-to-date frameworks and it just gets confusing sometimes. To stave off confusion, we fall back on what we are pretty sure actually works. We stand our ground on a foundation of facts, and ideas that look a lot like facts, but are actually opinions.
We stand our ground on a foundation of facts, and ideas that look a lot like facts, but are actually opinions
That would be great if this weren’t an industry where the facts change on a daily basis, and everyone seems to have different facts in any case. Hold on too long to any fact or fact-like idea, and you’ll end up just being wrong.
That’s the irony of dogma. We cling to it to protect ourselves from uncertainty and the unknown. Often people cling to dogma in an attempt to shelter their communities from change. The result, of course, is stagnation. Communities, ideas, and industries that don’t evolve will always eventually die. It can take a while, but it’s inevitable.
Dogma kills thought, and halts the processes of mental evolution. Design is pretty much the visual representation of the designer’s thought process, and requires evolution to stay relevant. And so we come back to the title.
Principles vs Facts
Take browsers (and software in general) as the most blindingly obvious example of this principle: Internet Explorer 6 used to be nearly synonymous with the Internet as a whole. It was what nearly everyone used, and so it was the one browser you had to support. Now it’s Chrome.
As more and more browsers hit the market (there was a small explosion of them in the early-to-mid 00s), some designers and devs started asking questions like, “Well how many of these things are we actually supposed to support?”
They did not like that the answer was, “All of them, sort of.” Cooler heads then pointed out that there were ways to make sure every site you built functioned at some level in every browser. Nowadays we have names for these principles, names like: progressive enhancement, graceful degradation, and “generally not making your whole site depend on something only one browser supports right now”.
The first approach is based on a perceived fact, such as a short list of the “best” browsers to support. The second is based on the idea—the principle—that every site should work on every platform you can reasonably manage, given your resources.
For another example, remember when we stopped asking what resolutions we should be targeting and switched over to responsive design? Yeah, it’s like that. Imagine if we were still endlessly chasing “the ideal resolution”.
What about “big images sell more”? It’s a trend, certainly, but it is not a fact you can always depend on. It might be better to say, “visually arresting design sells more”. In this way, you do not limit yourself to using big images everywhere.
Facts vs Assumptions
With your principles in place as a foundation for your design process, you’re free to follow the facts wherever they might lead you, without fear. However, that freedom comes with a responsibility: you pretty much have to be constantly double checking your information and your assumptions. That doesn’t mean you have to constantly change how you do things, just that you need to keep double checking.
Assumptions, I have found, go hand in hand with dogma as people tend to cling to things that sound true as tightly as they do to anything that actually is true. I’ve done it myself, and it’s always embarrassing when you figure that out later. Check your data, check your facts (there’s a difference, these days), and double-check your assumptions.
Assumptions vs Data
If you ever find yourself saying anything like, “X framework/CMS/whatever is the best one out there.”, that’s it. Those are the first things I’d check. You may even be right, but you likely won’t be right forever. And even then, whatever you think is “the best thing” may not be “the best thing for the job”.
Check your data, check your facts (there’s a difference, these days), and double-check your assumptions
Then I’d double check any deeply held beliefs you might have about “Users”. Oh, Psychology 101 isn’t going anywhere, but the way we interpret our knowledge of human nature changes over time. Again, check your data, do your research. See what users really do.
Lastly—and I know this isn’t about web design as such—this assumption that logos are better if you drain all personality from them. Plainer is not necessarily better. (Look, I know there were problems with the old Slack logo mark, but this swastika-made-of-phalli thing they have now is not the answer.)