Many years ago, I made a mistake. I was redesigning a UI, and I overreacted to the extremely tacky existing design* by drawing a set of toolbar icons that were all super-cool black on gray on gray. I thought the iconography was pretty good, but no one ever saw the pixel work, since the icons all bled into each other and your eyes just slid over all of them. It was not the first time I had let my desire for cleanliness get in the way of readability, and it wouldn’t be the last, but I’ve tried to get better at using contrasting elements to create textures that help the user to scan.

On a not completely unrelated note: Take a look at this sidebar from the recently redesigned Google Reader. Which feed am I currently reading?

[image of feed sidebar in google reader with bad highlighting]

Also note that since the UI color scheme is so low-contrast, any feed with a favicon now completely dominates the page. Teeny tiny splashes of color: it’s the new SEO.

Web design tends to go through cycles of baroque vs. spare, from the simplicity of the early Mosaic-era Web, to the explosive diarrhea of Geocities, to the minimalism of Google, to the scrapbooking of MySpace, and on and on. We’re clearly in a minimalist trough at the moment (see also all the information-free product web pages that have one giant banner image and bury all the actual descriptions on secondary pages). Maybe it’s time to bring back the spazzy.

[*] For real: “The background is ‘khaki’ because the lead developer really likes khaki.” The 90s were a strange time.