The Case Against “Pixel Perfect” Design

I ran across a great article on, which fits right into the practice of Sustainable Virtual Design. Basically, the author calls out the trend to artboard-based Ux tools and the problems that arise for sustainability when you use an ‘artboard’ to create User Experience.

The author, Chuánqí Sun, notes that recent “Ux Design Tools” like Sketch, Invision Studio, and the like, increasingly look like their competitor, Adobe Creative Suite, which was in turn created to develop visual images previously done via artboards. Increasingly, new Ux tools like Invision Studio embody elaborate visual Ui tools, allowing visual designers to craft ever more precise visual-only images for the screens in websites and apps.

So, what’s not to like? The author argues that the ‘artboard’ model is in fact distorting the features of websites and apps away from their functional purpose and into a more abstract, purely visual space. Increasingly, the technology of the web is pushed to match the purely visual effects of these design tools. The result is

  1. bloatware libraries,
  2. a slow and clunky user experience for those on old devices and browsers,
  3. a screening-out of most developers in favor of those that can do the complicated tailflips needed to tweak the web to look like a graphic animation.

Chuánqí Sun invokes the work of Balkrishna Doshi (2018 Laureate)Alejandro Aravena (2016), and Shigeru Ban (2014)  all of whom are celebrated for creating affordable, sustainable housing using local materials. Their rule? Use the medium you have, and never ‘cut across the grain’ for dramatic effect. This, in fact, is a principle of sustainability, and in the author’s opinion, sustainable web design requires respecting the virtual medium, with its capabilities and limits.

Imagine this image if visual designers had gotten hold of it, and tried to make it ‘pixel-perfect!

However, the move to make Ux tools more and more capable of visual design is ‘cutting across the grain.’ The tools (especially Sketch) allow the building of sites and apps in an abstract, visual space – the ‘artboard’. However, the ‘artboard’ notion itself comes from the era of graphic design when images were not functional, and were visual. This idea was transplanted into digital drawing tools by Adobe, not a problem if they are printed out and used as visual element. However, with the rise of the web, there was a confusion of functional design (websites and apps) with creating aesthetic images (the ‘page comp’).

I’ll also note that the Mac-only feature of Sketch keeps out the rifraff – in other words, people who don’t “think different” and buy a Mac.

Circa 2008, the goal of Ux was to stop overly visual design from wrecking user experience. In particular Flash, with its reliance on visual animation and incompatibility with search engines was the target. Flash was a great example of the obsession with ‘pixel perfect’ design – a ‘plugin’ jammed into web pages overriding the web with a motion graphic idea.

However, in due course, Flash was replaced with HTML5 and CSS 3, and design happened in Ux tools like Balsamiq, which moved the design away from visual and into functional ‘user flows’ and wireframes, along with responsive design theory, which helped support all users, regardless of device.

But in more recent times, ‘going against the grain’ is just what new Ux ‘design tools’ do. In competition with Adobe (they even try to make their interface look like Adobe CS), Ux design tools have piled on visual tricks. They are returning us to the age of Flash, for little reason other than that they are pretty visual design.

Sure, ‘pretty’ has a role in design, but it is not the only goal. However, we see ‘pretty’ once again trying to take over. Look at any Ux group and you can see the huge confusion between Ux and Ui, which can only be explained by confusing designer goals with user and environmental goals.

In my opinion, nothing good came of replacing user flow with the old artboard, as was done famously by Sketch.

To ‘think different’ again, try thinking of ‘artboard’ Ux tools as the ‘fake meat’ of the design world – creating something running ‘against the grain’. It’s the old ‘page comp’ problem from 2004 all over again.

Now, if you’re a visual designer, you might object that these tools give you the design ‘freedom’ you need. I’ll just say that your ‘design freedom’ is supposed to be secondary to User Experience, at least for interactive design.

Design ‘with the grain’ = Sustainable Virtual Design. Overly-visual oriented “Ux” design tools raise the carbon footprint of the Internet.





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