On the Supreme Court, the First Amendment, websites and wedding cakes

From the perspective of someone who supports LGBTQ+ rights, I am not exactly a fan of this recent SCOTUS decision. Simultaneously, as a web designer/developer, I think it is extremely important to recognize the difference between this type of work and a more commodity-oriented business.

Web design and development is creative work, requiring a personal input of time and energy, thought and consideration. It’s not a public storefront, selling premade goods. It’s not even a construction or contractor type job, where you may have disagreements with the client’s worldview, but the work itself is (generally) philosophically and politically neutral.

As a web designer/developer, I absolutely choose which types of projects I do or don’t want to work on, and I insist on maintaining the right to refuse to take on a project whose mission or purpose does not align with my values.

To put a finer point on it: I think it’s worth distinguishing between a web designer who is actively collaborating with their client to build something custom for them, vs. a DIY-type system where the client is provided with tools to build a site for themselves. In other words, for the type of work I do in client services, I should have the right to refuse to participate in a project whose purpose I disagree with. But if I were, for instance, Squarespace, selling access to a service I built, which lets users create their own sites, then I should not have the right to decide who can or can’t use the service. (As long as what they’re doing with it is legal.)

I can get even more specific to my own situation here. In addition to my client services, I also sell a product: a WordPress plugin for integrating calendars (e.g. Google Calendar, Office 365, etc.) into your website. I do not, and I strongly believe should not, decide which types of sites are allowed to use my plugin. I know there are customers of the plugin whose businesses/organizations do things I do not particularly agree with. But there I am selling a finished product — a commodity. Anyone who wants to buy it (again, as long as they’re not doing something illegal — although I won’t even know that, unless I specifically take the time to investigate them, post-sale) is welcome to do so. But if those same people approached me in my client services role to help them build their website itself, I would/should have the right to turn down the project if I didn’t want to do it.

Of course, there’s another layer to this: Why did this even become a court case? As I understand it, the designer here is the plaintiff, and doesn’t actually run a wedding website business yet. She is clearly doing this to make a political statement. I’m not sure how much the Colorado law was really pushed on her, or if it even technically applies to her (hypothetical) business. For me, and I think a lot of other people in my shoes, it’s a simple enough practical matter to turn down projects you don’t want to work on — regardless of why you don’t want to work on them. As a creative worker, you are essentially selling your time, not a commodity, and you have a limited supply. It’s a simple matter of being “too busy” to take on the project. There may be laws saying a business can’t discriminate, but surely there cannot be any laws that say a business has to work more hours than humanly possible.

So, what’s the upshot here? Well, it kind of seems like this case isn’t really about the First Amendment rights of business owners like me at all, because I’m skeptical that those were ever really under any threat. But it definitely opens the floodgates for business of all types — including those that truly are “open to the public” and selling commodity goods — to discriminate against potential LGBTQ+ customers. And that’s why I’m opposed to the current SCOTUS super-majority: their aggressive efforts at rolling back civil rights. That’s what this case is really about.

Google: anatomy of a (half-assed) web redesign

There are many things Google is good at. Internet search and targeted advertising clearly being the top two. I use and appreciate several of Google’s products, especially Gmail, Google Reader and Chrome. But I only use Gmail as a reliable email provider with great spam filtering; I hate the web interface, and check my mail using the native mail clients on my Mac and iPhone. I use Google Reader solely to manage my subscriptions, whereas I actually read my RSS feeds, on all of my devices, with Reeder. And the only times I fire up Chrome are when I need to use Flash, per John Gruber. In general, I like Google’s products for the power of their underlying technologies, just as I hate them for their miserable user interfaces.

I think there are very few people who would consider design to be one of Google’s strong suits, from their traditionally un-designed home page, to their hideous logo (which, nonetheless, went through several apparently well-, or at least extensively-, considered revisions), to the notorious case where, engineers to the core, they logically weighed the relative merits of 41 shades of blue.

If you actually use any of Google’s websites directly, you’ve surely noticed in the last 24 hours that there has been a redesign. The most distinctive feature is the jarring black bar now at the top of all (well, most) pages. Personally I’d prefer something a little more subtle, but it’s tolerable, and presumably achieves its goal of getting your attention by being the only solid black area on your computer screen.

What really bothers me about this redesign is the lack of internal consistency as you dig deeper. To wit, let’s have a look at the landing pages of Google’s three biggest search tools (as determined by their placement in the black bar): Web, Images and Search:

The main things I notice about the main Google (Web) search page compared to the previous version are that the logo is slightly smaller (and appears to have been refined in terms of the extent of 1997-era Photoshop effects applied to it, although I think that change happened a few months ago), and that the “Google Search” and “I’m Feeling Lucky” buttons have been redesigned. They have very slightly rounded corners, an extremely subtle off-white gradient, and are set in dark gray Arial bold 11-point (or so) type.

On Google Images, the logo appears to be basically the same (although perhaps a bit more dithered), but it is much higher on the page. The search box itself is darker and has a drop shadow. The “Search Images” button is larger, has sharp corners and a more intense gradient, and is set in black Arial, larger and normal weight. If I’m not mistaken, this is how the buttons on most Google sites looked prior to yesterday’s redesign, so this appears mainly to be a case of Google Images not keeping up with the changes happening elsewhere.

The page is also cluttered up with instructions and a rather arbitrary set of four sample images. I never bothered to read that text or figure out why the images were there until just now as I was writing this article. Being able to perform a visual search by dragging a sample image into the search box is a really cool idea, but anecdotally I would suggest Google has a daunting challenge in educating users about it, if making it the only thing on the page besides the search box itself still doesn’t get the user’s (i.e. my) attention. Maybe their insistence on using undifferentiated plain text (while it might make Jakob Nielsen proud) for everything is part of the problem.

Google Videos is really the odd man out. A smaller logo, set too far down on the page, and a bright blue search button with no text, just a magnifying glass icon, that would look more at home on a Windows XP start screen than on a Google page. (Astute observers will also note from these screenshots that Google Videos, unlike Google Images and Google Web, displays a glowing focus state on the search box, which is due to the lack of :focus { outline: none; } on the CSS for that element.)

I realize this blue button is more of the direction Google’s heading and I do like it visually, even if I don’t think the search button needs to be so prominent on a page that contains very little else. But the thing that bothers me is the overall inconsistency between these tools.

Consistency is a big buzzword for me. To me it is absolutely the most important thing to consider in good UX and UI design. It doesn’t matter how novel your design elements are; if you present them consistently users will quickly learn how to use them and will gain confidence with your tools. They will also gain expectations that you then have to manage. These do impose limitations on you in the future, sure, but they also relieve you of the burden of having to reinvent every page.

Consistency demands a good style guide, something that is easy to overlook. And just as important as having the style guide is having the commitment to using it. That’s something even a company as big as Google clearly struggles with.