Recently, an unsolicited visual redesign of Facebook by Fred Nerby reignited fervent discussion in the design community. Some of the feedback was positive, a lot of it was negative. Today, I’m going to look at why designers continue to create these redesigns, and the positive and negative implications of doing so.
Why Post a Redesign for Free?
I think there are a couple of reasons that designers re-imagine popular sites. First, sites such as Facebook, YouTube, or Amazon are familiar to everyone. We can recall the what the layouts and interface for these sites easily. All sites are constantly being improved or redesigned, and I think this presents a natural challenge for designers. Choosing a well-known site to redesign, and posting it in a gallery says, “Here’s a site you all know; and here’s how I would improve it.” This brings me to the next reason that someone would spend time on an unsolicited redesign: Professional attention.
This one seems really obvious: How do you raise your profile in the design community very quickly? The answer for some is to post a gallery based on a popular site. Of course, many well-established names in the Web industry see this as a gimmick, and a ploy to grab unearned attention. And perhaps there is a lot of truth to this.
The Downside of Unsolicited Redesigns
The design community expresses their displeasure towards redesigns that come from the outside for various reasons. The designers are working without an idea of what the goals and constraints of the project might be. The user experience (UX in designer parlance) probably hasn’t been taken into account. A one week redesign of a site as large as Facebook is a slap in the face to all the designers and developers who worked for years on the real life model. This is “spec work” (work done for free), this site never commissioned this work or asked for it. All these and more are the sentiments being expressed by Web designers and experts far more prestigious than myself.
But, as I look at this redesign, it is obvious that a large degree of thought was put into the placement of features. The one valid point introduced is that end users have not tested this design, and no design on Earth can be properly judged until put into the hands of real-life users, and the results recorded and analyzed.
While big-name designers are mostly opposed to the abundance of unsolicited designs being circulated, this opposition is not universal. If you want proof, take a moment to look at the beautiful redesign of the Texas Rangers site by Andy Rutledge. While I respect the myriad of designers whose blood, sweat, and tears have paved the way for designers such as myself, I also feel that projects such as Fred Nerby’s also have their place. We work in such a visual medium (everything we design is translated onto a screen or surface), that it seems illogical to punish people for pushing their boundaries or showing off their skills. In fact, I would say in other circumstances, we celebrate it.
Mass Culpability of the Design Community
When the Brazilian media company MaxiMidia targeted ad agency Moma, they created a series of fake vintage ads for Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Skype. These ads quickly circulated around the Internet, and to the best of my knowledge, they were completely unsolicited. The web agency Victors & Spoils used an unsolicited submission to land work from Harley Davidson.
But here’s an example that hits a lot closer to home. Just search Dribbble for “Facebook redesign”. Or “Twitter redesign”. Or “YouTube redesign”. Now, go to any of those shots, count the Likes and read the comments. It becomes clear that if unsolicited redesigns are really the wrong way to go, our community as a whole is not educating anyone to that fact.
Ultimately, there are a lot of constraints with many industries (including social media sites) that unsolicited redesigns do not consider.
Unsolicited redesigns of existing websites are fun projects for designers to do, although they may only be surface deep. Design goes further than the surface veneer, and involves a whole variety of levels, including how the users interact with and actually use the site or app in question. To truly understand how design affects usability, testing has to be a part of the design process.
Visual designers will continue to re-imagine their favorite sites, even if other designers cast disdain in their direction. Sometimes, an unsolicited redesign can be used to generate business or attention for yourself, but a proper design involves research and a set of goals. The design community as a whole needs to better clarify for everyone what “good design” is, and spend more time explaining the entire process. As long as designers continue to get high-fives from the community, unsolicited redesigns are going to continue forever.
Recommended article: Lukas Mathis’ excellent article, “Unsolicited Redesigns”