Images count as content

Images have meaning—they aren’t just there to spice up or decorate the page

Design isn’t just about “beautifying” things. Design is about communicating meaningful content in the most accessible, usable, and readable way possible. Without meaningful content, design is just decoration.

Users’ needs are complex and very diverse. As designers, we should strive to comprehend their medium of choice on both a psychological and a technical level. Users should be able to choose how information is given to them; whether it’s text, audio/visuals, or text, users should have the ultimate say in the matter. Not the designer.

Communication problems

As babies, our parents and educators read vivid picture books to us. As we reached reading age, we learned how to read by making associations by the pictures and the words on the page. As we continued to grow, we learned how to interpret visual metaphors and cultural references which helped us navigate through a world of information. For as long as we can remember, pictures and words have shared an intimate relationship.

Imagine how incomprehensible science would be if we didn’t have visualization of DNA’s double helix. What would life be like if we had Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland without John Tenniel’s illustrations? Visual content and text are equally important.

When designers treat their content as packets of data, they must sacrifice the control of its design and presentation. The end result puts a great strain on the relationship between image and text. There are communication problems. Educator and graphic designer Ellen Lupton said, “One of design’s most humane functions is, in actuality, to help readers avoid reading.”

The design relationship between text and visuals is damaged. So what can we do? Developer and designer Josh Clark recently started speaking about art direction as a matter or metadata. He suggested that only through structuring content and methodical naming, do designers maintain any control over how their data is distributed, interpreted, and portrayed. The HTML5 Specification introduces a plethora of new elements to assist us in defining the relationship and purpose of our content. CSS and JavaScript libraries enable us to dynamically generate graphs and charts based on enhanced data.

Design with a purpose

Displaying a clichéd stock photo is meaningless when it can be viewed outside the context at its own URL. The images we use should be treated as distinct content chunks. They should be images that communicate a story or an idea without a full explanation. It’s the duty of designers and writers to make better choices with complementary content, such as photography, audio, video, and illustration. We need to allow our images to have a purpose and a meaning whether or not they are viewed alone or as a part of a larger piece of content.

Designers need to relearn these old methods and principles. How can we expect to have full control over the web if we don’t have any chance of creating predictable patterns of how content is displayed and delivered? These principles are nothing more than a return to the original laws of the web and the art direction of content.

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