Hope for the Future

The folly and promise of theoretical (re)designs

Destry Wion 6 September 2012

In early August, the Lithuanian design agency, New!, published a theoretical redesign of Wikipedia, The Wikipedia Redefined. Thanks to popular media like .net bringing attention to it, news of the project quickly spread through the industry grapevine. I watched as New! took quiet heat from prominent people, and criticism from members of the Wikimedia Foundation too. Even Happy Cog watched with interest and enquired of its followers whether or not theoretical designs hurt the design industry. In this article I’d like to rephrase the question: Do they hurt the agency or individual?

The Wikipedia Redefined (TWR) is an unsolicited concept project that took two months to complete, according to the project website. The concept aimed at making the Wikipedia brand more clear, and its site more user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing. That’s a lot to cover in a real project, where agency and client are working together to investigate business objectives, audience needs, and content assets, let alone a theoretical project put together in spare time and at distance.

What the critics had to say

I started seeing things get hot when Martin Belam made this tweet, quoting the last paragraph of TWR’s introduction…


I only point that tweet out because the quote, taken from the beginning of the TWR, made it clear what his next tweet refered too…


I don’t know if Martin is quoting something there or just emphasising his point. Either way it’s clear he doesn’t think TWR was a good idea, or at least that it wasn’t successful.

I’d disagree it was a bad idea to try anything, if that’s what Martin meant, but I certainly agree with the implication there’s no way you can create a successful design without a fair amount of investigation of what makes the site tick, and that obviously didn’t happen in this case.

Brandon Harris, Senior Designer at the Wikimedia Foundation, conveys the same sentiment in response to the Quora question, What does the Wikipedia community think of The Wikipedia Redefined concept?:

It’s completely impractical and doesn’t take into account some of the most basic ideas that Wikipedia is and depends upon. I don’t think it’s very well thought out or researched, and serves mostly as a theoretical portfolio piece for a design firm.

The emphasis there is mine. It highlights confusion about New!‘s intention, or maybe it’s just a defensive stance against New!‘s enthusiastic delivery. But the fact is the study is hypothetical, and New! never presented it any other way. On the contrary, New! introduces the project as an exercise in “magic power”, so not much different from fantasy, really. It was never meant for anything more than getting attention on their portfolio, and they got plenty of it. Mission accomplished.

Brandon goes on to give examples of how and where the assay is weak, and that’s to be expected; he has far greater insight to the project. He even points out a Wikipedia Foundation article, The Athena Project, that future designers might read if they want more insight about the Foundation’s current vision for content features, user interface changes, and workflow improvements.

The question posed in Quora highlights an important distinction to make in this case: theoretical designs in general versus theoretical designs for community-driven sites like Wikipedia. For the latter, the community underscores the reality of whether or not a theoretical design would ever be anything more than just that—theoretical. There are two well-known syndromes inherent of community-driven projects: not invented here and design by committee. No matter how good design ideas might be, if not invented from within the community dynamic, they’ll never be accepted (syndrome 1), nor would they ever be more than ultra-conservative because progressive ideas would be worn down and rounded-out like a river stone (syndrome 2).

In the same Quora thread, William Franceschine, a self-identified Wikipedia editor since 2008, and JG McLean, who has obvious insight to Wikipedia’s community dynamics as well, give scathing accounts of Wikipedia’s community in relation to the two syndromes, respectively. I was laughing and nodding as I read their remarks. I’ve experienced Wikipedia’s not invented here attitude with content alone, and I’ve seen design by committee in action in other projects. It can be a big waste of time and no fun.

As it turns out, JG McLean liked some of New!‘s design ideas, and says a community operating under a consensus-based process could never come up with the same level of “innovation and boldness”. Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, also thinks parts of the study are ‘interesting and worth doing’, while others are not. Though, as William Franceschine points out in the previously mentioned account, Jimmy Wales has little say in what would ever be implemented anyway because that’s the community’s turf.

Happy Cog was the last that I saw to address the event, asking a fair and interesting question…


I don’t think this hurts the industry unless the industry soils itself by bashing agencies for doing creative exercises. A better question would be whether it hurts the agencies or individuals who boldly undertake theoretical projects. Agencies may suffer if they don’t treat theoretical work with the same level of seriousness as they would with commissioned gigs. In some respects, you see this happening to New!, though criticism doesn’t always end bad, and especially if the one being criticised deals with it well.

Being honest and transparent about the effort is important. After that, it’s just frank critique of the effort from others in the industry, and that should be an expected part of the process. No hostilities, just professional evaluation of the effort to keep everybody honest. Not unlike the scientific process of trial-by-fire, actually.

Theoretical designs are not new

Designers have always picked out high-profile websites and ran with them in new ways. Motivations for targeting such sites may vary, but there are undoubtedly common expectations for making the efforts too—designer visibility, industry conversation, and perhaps even the undeniable hope change really will happen. Let’s look at a few examples that you may remember.

My favourite theoretical design is still the oldest one I know of. In 2004, The (original) Design Fab Five—Andrei Herasimchuk, Dan Rubin, D. Keith Robinson, Cameron Moll, and Greg Storey—had a merry go at Jakob Neilsen’s website, useit.com. Their collaborative write-up of the effort, Design Eye for the Usability Guy, is a clever parody of a popular American television show at the time, and a wonderful example of five talented pros taking a much despised website presentation and having fun with it. Did they expect Neilsen to make the changes? Certainly not. Did they have secret hopes their design might be a catalyst for change? Probably, and what designer wouldn’t? Did the Fab Five get a lot of attention for it? You bet, and they executed superbly, making it entertaining for everybody. All-in-all it was a big success and a lot of fun for the industry.

Another kind of theoretical design happening around the same time, even earlier, were what Jeffrey Zeldman called samaritan designs. These were motivated out of frustration of using websites with abysmal accessibility, and by the desire to facilitate adoption of web standards. Designers would pick a top-level page of a high-profile site and rework the tag-soup markup into cruft-free standards-compliant code, leaving the presentation largely intact to demonstrate that tables weren’t actually needed to establish the original layout and design. The result of samaritan projects was often a clickable prototype that site beneficiaries could study, adopt, and expand on. I seem to recall Doug Bowman peaking the samaritan trend when he did a live rework of a Microsoft website page as a conference presentation to demonstrate how easy it was to convert a table-based design to one more semantically correct. Despite the samaritan nature of these efforts, however, some designers received legal cease-and-desist responses from the very companies they meant to help, which pretty much marked the end of the samaritan era.

For a few more quick examples of theoretical work, let me point you to Creative, Unsolicited Redesigns of Popular Web Sites, where six more theoretical designs are presented that you will no doubt recognise. Two good ones are Dustin Curtis’ redesign of American Airlines (Remember the fallout from that one?), and Vladimir Kudinov’s redesign of the IMDB.

Let’s not forget Craigslist, another high-profile and heavily used site. Like Neilsen’s useit.com, Craigslist has sported the same old design for years, and seems pretty intent on staying that way. Craigslist has been the subject of many theoretical redesign efforts, including the one described in Smashing Magazine, Redesigning Craigslist With Focus On Usability, and my favourite attempt so far, Edwin Tofslie’s Craigslist Redesign. Even Wired Magazine sponsored a call for Craigslist makeovers, seeing many submissions in response, including one from Khoi Vinh when he was with the New York Times. By the way, that hype from Tech Crunch reported in April suggesting Craigslist might be getting a redesign… Craig Newmark says What redesign?

Even Wikipedia has been the subject of theoretical designs before. Most notably by Moving Brands when Viewpoint Magazine (presumably this one from View Publications) invited them to contribute their creative process to a special “Brand Lab” feature. Moving Brands selected Wikipedia as their “hypothetical” project, focusing on Wikipedia’s logo. The effort put into this project was impressive, though Moving Brands did get featured in a magazine for it. Still, it’s a case in point how a single facet of design can take much more time and effort when treated like a real project, and not idealistic cake frosting.

Real benefits of theoretical design

Theoretical designs can be positive at three different levels—industry, agency, and academic—and it’s not hard to see how they interrelate.

Theoretical designs at the industry level

At the industry level, theoretical designs provide more opportunities for design discussion, regardless of who is at the centre of attention. Just look at the hubbub TWR started. Nobody knew of New! and now everybody does. Critique is an important aspect of design, and people with thick skins willing to take on such exercises can get a lot of attention and good feedback in the process.

And what about industry-level design competitions? Not every designer has real project work they can use, or may be inhibited by client confidentiality constraints. But with theoretical work, the sky’s the limit, so long as it’s not associated with spec work. It’s odd, in fact, that design competitions don’t play more of a fun role in the web design industry. Why should the Webby Awards, notorious for spotlighting brand agency glamour-ware, reap the glory for bad website examples? Where are the competitions for the real design-conscious; teams made up of content strategists and web standardistas?

Theoretical designs at the agency level

At the agency level, and we may include professional independents here, there is the hope that theoretical designs will lead to new commissioned projects, whether it’s the ‘beneficiaries’ in focus, or a new company with similar needs. In other words, it’s a tactic for generating business, besides the thrill of recognition. I tweeted this notion to Happy Cog in reply to their question earlier…


Their reply would suggest we’re on the same page with respect to positive reasons for doing theoretical work…


There’s nothing wrong with trying to drum up some business. Agencies just have to be ethical in their play, and that’s where industry feedback comes into it. The design community can definitely take care of its own. Transparency can be a powerful thing.

Theoretical designs at the academic level

At the academic level, theoretical designs are a way for students and new freelancers to exercise their talents and have more to show. It worked for David DeSandro while he was getting through school and making a name for himself. DeSandro’s situation underscores another fact: theoretical work doesn’t always have to target high-profile behemoths like Wikipedia, they can focus on personal interest projects too (in David’s case it was Textpattern), or have no project relation at all, rather be entirely invented.

Going forward with theoretical designing

We know people learn by exploring the efforts of others. It’s a natural means for understanding how things work, or a basis for expanding, evolving, or improving on existing ideas. This happens in web design all the time, and evolving the Wikipedia design is clearly one motivation the folks at New! had. We can’t rail New! for exercising some creative muscle, despite any faults, and especially if the theoretical effort is made clear up front, as New! made it.

As I see them, these kinds of design projects—theoretical, unsolicited … whatever you want to call them—offer more benefits than not, and especially if people taking them on put in as much discovery and research as they can, just like they’d have to on a paid assignment. Bonus points if they make their efforts transparent and/or write it all up in a way that makes it easy to evaluate by pros and novices alike, which, frankly, is the fun part of it anyway.

On the other side, the industry should respond to such efforts with tact and constructive critique. Anyone in the design community who wants to respond or improve on the study, can. Again, not unlike the long-standing processes used in the scientific communities. Trial-by-fire. A researcher (or research team) conducts an experiment, publishes the results, and the community puts it to test to qualify or refute the efforts.

The scientific process is bringing us panoramic and full-color pictures from the surface of Mars. What will the design process bring?

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