The Trend Against Whimsy In Modern Web Design

by Max

One of my favorite startup stories ever is the legend of Mr. Macintosh. Apparently, one day Steve Jobs accosted the original Mac development team with a crazy idea: that they create a mysterious little cartoon man “Mr. Macintosh” who lived inside the computer. Once every few thousand times you pulled down a menu, you’d get Mr. Macintosh instead of the menu contents. He’d wave, wink at you, and then disappear. They were even going to plant subtle references to the legend of Mr. Macintosh in the manual, while officially denying his existence.

Mr. Macintosh. He kind of resembles Ringo in “Yellow Submarine”

Tragically, Mr. Macintosh never made it into a shipping product—he was a casualty of the original Mac’s very limited (128k!) memory. And yes, maybe the idea was a bit too far on the ridiculous side, especially in an era when most people weren’t familiar with how computers worked. (Imagine the incomprehensible tech support calls you’d get from mom—“Honey, the little man is in the computer again!”)

Still, what I love about Mr. Macintosh is the simple message he conveys: that the people who designed the original Mac were having fun doing it. It’s a message that’s missing from so much modern web design, in spite of—or perhaps because of—the last few years’ increased emphasis on pure beauty.

I mean, look at these homepages: they’re beautiful, sure, but do any of them make you smile?

To make a startup landing page, all you need is a crisp photo of a smiling person and/or an Apple device.

Basecamp (née 37signals) gets it. Look at this ridiculous drawing on their homepage:

And look at this goofy guy who guides you through the signup process:

Those drawings look like the page’s designer dashed them off in twenty minutes because he felt like his designs had too much whitespace—and that’s exactly what I love about them. When you look at a design like that, you can’t help but feel a personal connection to whoever made it.

Don’t get me wrong—I love Squarespace and Soylent and all the other big-photo-and-header-in-a-very-thin-typeface startups I pointed out above. But they’re like this generic male model I found on a stock photo site. Basecamp, meanwhile, is like Paul Rudd.

I spent WAY too long looking for the perfect picture of Paul Rudd for this article.

We’re only beginning to face design challenges at Castle, and it’s always easy to be an armchair critic. But as we venture out into the strange world that is web design in 2014, I hope we remember to keep our sense of whimsy. We’re just pushing pixels around on a computer screen. We can literally do anything. And that means we’re allowed to have fun.

  1. entercastle posted this