When developing user interfaces, designers increasingly use custom graphical elements. As the web browser becomes basic technology for software interfaces, more and more elements derived from graphic and web design replace the traditional desktop approaches to the concrete design of human-computer interfaces.
In the near future, this development will become even more relevant. The barrier between web pages and desktop software is beginning to disappear, and modern rich client user interface technologies such as Silverlight/WPF, Air, or Java FX enables designers to take the control over the whole user experience of a software product. Style guides for operating systems like MacOS or Windows become less important because software products are available on multiple platforms, incorporating the same custom design independently from OS-specific style guides. Software companies and other parties involved begin to use the power of a distinct visual design to express both their brand identity and custom interactive design solutions to the users.
While this implies a new freedom for designers working in the field of interactive software products, it strengthens the importance of visual design for the design of user interfaces. Designers working on concrete graphic solutions for a specific interface are breaking away from established standards defined by a software vendor. It is now the responsibility of those user interface designers to choose graphical elements wisely to make a product’s interaction principles visible and usable.
Elements of interactive visual design
Following the roots of visual design in print and online communication, the design of a visually compelling and functional application must take into account different requirements, even though it takes the same methods to realize its goals: A dynamic visualization of the interactive product in form of text, images, and colors. In contrast to pure one-way communication design striving to create identity and media, the main goal of such a design process for interactive products is much closer to product or industrial design — namely the creation of a product that serves the user in a optimal way. It requires a strong collaboration with the disciplines of interaction design, software development, and product management.
The role of photography in software user interfaces
Photography has both challenges and opportunities as graphical element in user interface design. I chose photography as an example for a classic communication design instrument, but the ideas are also applicable to typography, illustration, motion design, graphics, and the like. One important aspect of these thoughts is the required collaboration between the different design disciplines involved in the creation of a user experience, and how to optimize team performance for most valuable ideas and outcomes.
Case 1: Photography as content
In software applications, photography in most cases is used as content element, since photos express situations of human life very well and thus are well suited to capture and represent a certain message. The images have a semantic meaning, communicating information to the viewer and user of the respective web or software application.
Examples for this type of application can be found not only in private photo collection software such as iPhoto but also in enterprise content management solutions for web sites and product catalogues, or the web shop itself. To the user, the photo is not an element of decoration or design, but it is the actual content or a part of it.
On the visual design side, the challenge is to present this content in a way that makes it visible and reveals context and meaning. Photographic content tends to come to the fore due to its strong graphical impact, so other elements should be designed to support that effect and not to compete with it for the viewer’s attention.
The challenge of well-representing imagery content elements in a user interface is often to provide adequate metadata-driven tools to allow enhancing images with meaning; take tagging people at Facebook as an example, which turns photos into something findable. Finding a a meaningful visual representation of photographic content and this data is a common challenge to visual design and information architecture.
Case 2: Photography as design element
While the use of photography as a design element in user interfaces is rather new, there is a long tradition of using photography as a design element in advertising-related online media. This treatment as design element follows the rules of brand communication and takes photography as integral element of the web site design.
But contrary to its usage as a content element, the image is used in web design as a medium to communicate a message to the user in order to create a certain context for the real content. Some sites, such as financial institutions or software suppliers, are working with stock-like photography showing photos of people or buildings, while other businesses can combine site content and corporate communication in one image, like on fashion sites.
Benetton uses the photo on their home page to convey both a product and a brand message to the visitors. The photo is in the focus, but is receipt more like a visual expression of emotion than as actual site content. The web design uses the photo like an advertisement would do: It is part of the site’s visual design and has been chosen by the designers. The product, derived from the site’s content, is turned into the medium to make an impression to the visitor.
Photography in interactive media is often a trigger for engagement and interaction. Interaction designers working on the product’s interaction flows can thus provide visual designers with key information to select and apply visual elements, in order to start the conversation, and keep it alive.
3. Photography in software UI Design
Unlike other digital products, the visible part of software usually makes no significant use of photography by means of communication design. Today’s desktop software interfaces consist of text, rectangle areas, and icons, along with with a lot of transparency or 3D effects. If not a necessary content element, photos are only used in splash screens of desktop applications.
In web interfaces, static images in header bars are quite common, resulting from the "hybrid" characteristics of those applications between a software product and a web site. In most cases, the photo serves as decorative element with no semantic meaning and is thus reduced to a very small amount of space of the screen; it is not important for the product’s original purpose. This is done in order to provide as much space as possible for the informational content that is useful to the user.
The image above shows SAP’s enterprise portal product in a standard visual design. The small photo showing a bridge in the header bar is part of the UI design, while the images at the bottom are content elements related to the text messages.
Like in web design, the image is used here as an element of design but loses all its visual power due to its jammed position in a design that puts all emphasis on the representation of information. The "mise en scène" of the interface suffers from the poor integration of the photographic element, totally separated from all information. Its meaning in the application context is reduced to a vague bridge metaphor referring to the function of a portal.
The best of both worlds: towards a new quality
With every release, software providers make a step towards a custom graphical representation and improve the visual design quality of their products. To take a real advantage of photography as a medium, there is a need to treat it differently than it is done today in the software industry.
At same time, a lot of effort is being made to make applications more "shiny and glossy", to better imitate real world structures on the screen. Sometimes, like in current reporting tools for business intelligence, this additional glitter reduces the visual perception of information instead of enhancing it.
The following examples and recommendations are not always easy to follow, because a meaningful integration of this medium in a UI design that centers around representation of information and providing a tool for efficient usage is a difficult task. Nonetheless, visual elements such as photography have the power to reveal a message instantly and powerfully to the user to complete and to establish a visual identity. Designers should use these possibilities to trigger the user’s attention to support a holistic interaction design and not to distract her by decorative elements and visual clutter.
Examples for photography in interactive applications
This example screenshot shows Designklicks (now seen.by), a German website that collects and tags user-generated imagery. Just like Flickr and other photo-centric web sites, the images are in the focus of the design and are visually strictly separated from other design elements like icons, logos, buttons, and links. For a visual representation of the complex information architecture, it allows the user to sort and present the content in different ways, from a simple grid to a navigable 3D space.
These screens are taken from an art project for gettyImages, done by the barbarian group. It uses widescreen photos to build a three-dimensional flow of cascaded rooms, connected to each other by graphical signage elements appearing in the images.
The bank Société Générale used a photo as main art on their web site, emphasizing the fact that they address everyone with their services. The main navigation appearing on the start page is embedded into the photo, but at the same time arranged in a clearly separated layer above the image.
Photography is the main design element of Van De Weghe Fine Art, an art gallery in New York. All graphic design elements remain very reduced while the full screen photo is used to create a virtual room for information and interaction.
Take the blinkers off, and think about experiences as a whole
People in the roles of information architects or interaction designers tend to concentrate on their part of the job and leave subsequent visual decisions to the graphic or visual designers, which is of course always a good way to start. Nevertheless, all designers (including the two disciplines mentioned before) should be able to actively think about and contribute to the concrete, sensual appearance of the final product, since this is what design is all about.
So why posting this on a site dedicated to the "design behind the design"? Because interaction designers and information architects have become strong conceptual thinkers, driving an experience in terms of concept as well as it’s soul. Visual design should enhance and implement this vision, which is in fact in most cases the contratry of "making things pretty."
Recommendations for photography in next-generation interfaces
- Integrate the images into the interaction design. This can be achieved by making areas responsive to user behaviour, enhancing its function from a visual element to an instrument of interaction. Due to its realistic and nonverbal nature, photography can be equally or more powerful than icons, buttons or other classic interface elements.
- Work with screen space. Place images in a way that they have a real impact on the overall appearance instead of putting them into small banner-like screen areas.
- Photography invokes an emotional reaction and has the capability to create a certain ambiance more easily than other media. Use pictures that make the user feel comfortable and adequate to the application context.
- Clarity, structure, movement, separation, union – photos can convey messages instantly to the viewer, by means of blur, motion, composition, and of course motive. Work with these as design elements.
- If used as content element, think about alternatives to simply placing photography on a grid. There are a lot of possibilities to make images "tangible" to the user. Think of multiple layers, movable objects, or 3D approaches.
- Keep the subject of the application and the nature of the content in mind while designing. Choose photos that convey a real meaning and make sense in the application context. Avoid standard (stock) images or those with only decorative function. Prefer custom-made images tailored to your intentions and requirements.
- Combine and integrate all elements to create a holistic interface design where all visual elements work together and make the interface.
Part II – Typography in User Interface Design