Recently I faced up to the fact that my cell phone’s camera wasn’t very good. Indeed, none of the cell phones I’ve owned over the years have had a very good camera. True, I tend to use cheaper Android phones – so I’m probably getting what I paid for.
But the pictures were lousy. Anything with motion looked blurry, while indoor photos were either ghostly white (flash on) or dull (flash off). The ability to zoom in on a subject was something of a joke. That led me to say enough is enough. I decided to invest in a used mid-range digital camera. It’s gotten me so excited that I’ve been running around taking nature photos like a kid with a new toy.
The new (to me) camera performs better than I could have hoped. Colors are true and no longer do indoor photos look otherworldly. The only downside? Well, it’s not very convenient to carry a bulky camera around in its own, even bulkier, protective case. Transferring photos to my desktop isn’t so hot, either.
Trading Convenience for Quality
Holding that large, powerful camera in my hand has brought me back to days past. While the camera itself is pretty high-tech, the idea of carrying something of a single-purpose device along with you is decidedly old school.
We’ve come to a point where virtually everything has to do more than one thing. Kitchen appliances are internet enabled. Thermostats must be controlled from 1,000 miles away. And the smartphone, of course, has to do everything short of brush your teeth (you could probably ask Siri for some advice, though).
On some levels, even web design is working its way towards this very philosophy. We have a WordPress plugin that aims to be your Swiss Army knife. We have themes that attempt to be everything to everyone. And we have frameworks for every task that leads to a sort-of sameness in basic design.
Adding convenience to our busy lives through these tools can be a marvelous sign of progress. But sometimes we actually give up an awful lot of quality in the process. The question becomes: How much quality are we willing to give up?
Maintaining High Standards
There are some times when it’s okay to cut corners. For example, if I’m out mowing the lawn, I don’t mind listening to ultra-compressed MP3s. That situation doesn’t necessarily call for a high-end solution.
But when I’m creating a website for a client, I want to make sure quality is at its best. So if there’s a shortcut to be used, it had better not result in a lower quality product.
For example, I might love the convenience of a tool that automatically compresses images for me. But if the images always come out looking poorly, that convenience is more of a headache than it’s worth. In that case, it’s better to stick with the method which results in better quality – even if it takes a bit more time to accomplish.
So often, it seems that we accept the default because it’s easier. That’s why I settled for terrible cell phone photos for so many years. But the tools and devices we use are just that. They aren’t looking out for our best interests when it comes to quality output. It’s up to us to keep our standards high.
It’s in the Way That You Use It
As designers, it’s our job to evaluate the worth of a tool and determine if it will help us achieve our goals. While part of that is about making our job easier, the other half of the equation is about maintaining top-notch results.
The funny thing is that this can cut both ways. We might pick out a great tool to help us with a project. But if we don’t take advantage of everything that tool is capable of – quality suffers. It’s kind of like deciding to build your next website with Bootstrap – but leaving all of the default styles in place. Yes, it made the design process really simple. But the end result is a site that has no individual identity.
That’s why we need to think about how we’re using tools. If we’re simply using their default styles and functionality – is that good enough?
The purpose of these tools should be more than just adding convenience. Instead, we may want to think of them as a means to unleash our creativity. We want something that helps us go further than we could have alone. It’s not only about getting things done quickly. Rather, the goal of using a specific tool should be both efficiency and a better end product.
The All-In-One Backlash
As we get further along into tools that aim to do everything and please everyone, I do wonder about any potential backlash. Like my going back to using a full-on camera, it will be interesting to see if others eschew purported convenience for quality’s sake.
With the cyclical nature of things, it stands to reason that there are people who would rather do things the “hard” way. In fact, we already see this in other areas of society. Food, for example, is a big one. Many are now rebelling against processed and chemically enhanced foods. Others commit to cooking a full meal rather than just popping a box into the microwave.
In the end, progress is all about making things better. But sometimes we have to take a hard look to see if the latest and greatest really follow through on that promise.