Getting noticed: good design is noisy too

24 Jul

Right on the heels of posting about the merits of transparent design, a project today turned that approach right on it’s head. When you’re designing a banner ad, or a “pod” on a content page, you want to get noticed. The first objective of a banner ad is to attract attention. If it fit in seamlessly with its surroundings, or looked just like the banner ad you saw (and overlooked) yesterday, why bother? It would just be filler. You can’t get your message across, much less expect a response, if you can’t pull them over to your corner in the first place.

That’s not to say that you want to be annoying and drown out everybody else, especially if you’re putting an element on a branded, corporate site. For instance, some web email clients host horrendous animated ads. (Actually they’d be really funny, if they didn’t distract so much from trying to read your email). So, that solution isn’t appropriate: It’s hard to harmonize with an orchestra when you’re playing a Hendrix style solo on an electric guitar. On the other hand, a solo on an orchestral instrument is totally appropriate, and even keeps interest going in the piece, or the page, as a whole. Perfect harmony, an entirely predictable page you might have seen yesterday, isn’t going to spark interest.

A web page which serves as a portal to a huge amount of varying content is a stage for competing elements. There’s a critical balance to strike. You’re trying to appeal to many kinds of people with a variety of needs and interests—and behind the scenes there are business owners with a variety of competing goals. On one side of the scale, each of the page elements wants a voice. On the other side, you’ve got to have some coherent framework, or harmony. To really work with this balance, you need to go beyond evaluating individual elements on a case-by-case basis, to see if they’re in tune with the orchestra, and view the noisiness of the page as a whole from the standpoint of your audience. How much dissonance and variety is going to work for what you’re trying to achieve?
The bigger issue is to make the whole page noisy enough, in the right way, to drive interest in the content and what you offer. Here’s an old-style example. My dad was a newspaper editor, and since he usually worked for the underdog paper in various cities, newsstand sales were key. For newsstand sales, your front page is everything: it’s your POP display, your advertising, and your product. His approach was to mix a wide variety of content there to appeal to many kinds of people. If a q and a with a business tycoon didn’t pull, the story about the trapped elephant or a city hall snafu would. Lots of kinds of noise, skillfully shepherded into one container. If it wasn’t so skillful one day, it got changed and reinvigorated the next. (That was how early testing went.) I saw the same thing on the London Daily Mail where I worked for a while: put some noisy content out, run out to the newstands to see how sales are going—did you beat the competition?, run back in and rework for the next edition quick if not.

I’m not sure if that analogy totally works for a content-heavy company web portal. But today, when the web is so alive, and it is (or should be) so easy to respond and swap out elements, it seems like a good time to take a few risks and try new things, even on a more controlled, corporate presence.

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