WordPress Design Complaints?

Chris Messina gets offended by the upcoming comp for the WordPress 2.4 Admin Panel. He turns it into a complaint about “open-source design” (distinct from open-source software development), claiming:

I’d go so far as to wager that “open source design” is an oxymoron. Design is far too personal, and too subjective, to be given over to the whims and outrageous fancies of anyone with eyeballs in their head.

Call me elitist in this one aspect, but with all due respect to code artistes, it’s quite clear whether a function computes or not; the same quantifiable measures simply do not exist for design and that critical lack of objective review means that design is a form of Art, and its execution should be treated as such.

This is pretty common in my experience: designers do “get their panties in a bunch” over things in a different way than software developers do, and a key problem is this notion of objectivity: that a software “design” can be validated objectively whereas a visual design is left up to the Gods, it’s a question of capital-A Art. Obviously he’s never been in the middle of software architecture flame wars! Same problem, different context, different criteria.

With regard to the WordPress 2.4 design in particular, I find WordPress.com to be EXTREMELY usable, if not pretty. You might call this the Google Design Philosophy — minimalist, plain, and functional. To validate the WP design using Chris’ criteria:

Be clear about the problem you’re solving. Nothing spells disaster for a design process more than fishtailing. If you don’t know what problems you’re trying to solve and you don’t have razor-sharp focus on it, chances are you’ll be open to whatever feedback you can get your hands on, grasping for some notion of what the hell you should be working on. This is not design, this is horseshoes and hand grenades.

To my way of thinking, the WordPress design has been done with a razor-sharp focus on the problem they’re trying to solve. WordPress is supposed to be used by bloggers, not necessarily designers. There is lots of room for disagreement here, I suppose.  Look at the iPhone –it’s fairly minimalist (just icons, really), but it’s also very pretty AND very usable at the same time.  Maybe that’s the sort of design sense that Chris is writing about.

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2 Responses to “WordPress Design Complaints?”


  1. 1 Chris Messina January 4, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    I actually think WordPress historically has provided a good example of successful user interface design, but that was mostly because, to the best of my knowledge, Matt held a pretty tight reign over its production.

    My complaints weren’t aimed at WordPress per se, but about the WordPress community. If I do have any complaints about WordPress’ approach to the Admin redesign, I think it’s that they let the cat slip out of the bag before they had articulated the feedback they needed and the mechanisms they wanted to use to collect it, which are both fixable issues.

    In sum, my rant wasn’t against WordPress or even about the current issue, but about the broader issue I see with the design of most open source projects. Software architecture and format wars go on similarly, but since not everyone is versed in the issues, not everyone can comment; when it comes to design, however, anyone with eyeballs (or an asshole!) can offer an opinion, no matter how much background they have in design… that’s the difference I see.

  2. 2 Anthony Stevens January 4, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    Hi Chris — thanks for the reply.

    Isn’t the difference also that anyone with eyeballs (or an asshole) is eminently *qualified* to offer an opinion on design success based on what works for them? Isn’t that why they track heat maps and similar things, to see what designs work for the “average joe”? I hope I’m not reading you that capital-A Artists should be the only ones allowed to comment on, or judge, website designs.

    OTOH, I agree with you that, based on your reasonable and well-thought-out criteria, WP did a poor job of shepherding this design through (so far) — save perhaps for the razor-like focus criterion I mentioned earlier.


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