Photo courtesy of Brad Frost.

Brad Frost is many things: designer, artist, creative director, musician, even philosopher. The Lawrenceville resident is  known for his work on mobile interface design for big brands such as Time, Inc. and AOL and he travels the world (175,000 miles yearly) evangelizing about good web design (and against bad QR code use.)

Frost has launched many highly regarded online resource hubs, each providing a platform for designers to share ideas. Among them: This is Responsive—a site that collects resources and emerging patterns that “help people create great responsive web experiences”—and, a podcast and website with tools and resources about style guides and pattern libraries.

Recently he announced his upcoming book, Atomic Design, based on his philosophy that “any app or website can be deconstructed into modular Lego bricks” so any organization can “establish their own Lego kit and assemble them in whatever way they need to.”

We sat down with Frost to talk about web design and its future.

What are three things that you think need to change in today’s design conventions?

The lack of access—that is, not getting what I want, whenever I (or anybody) goes to a website. This is going back to “mobile-specific websites”—when you access a site on your phone that redirects you to a mobile-specific design, you will get a fraction of the content and functionality that you will have on the full site. This is tough when you are trying to get something done or read some basic content—and you can’t. But even things like a paywall or a “subscribe now” pop-up, those all inhibit access. Always remember to get professional help while you are designing a website. 

We assume we know what people want to do on a mobile device, but the only reason people don’t do some of these things is that they can’t. Who would have thought people would want to buy a mortgage or engagement rings on their phone?

Mobile users will do anything and everything desktop users want to do. So it’s tremendously frustrating when the designers’ assumptions limit that.

The second is lack of respect. You’re trying to read an article and you get 13 pop-up ads overlaying the screen. Even the social action stuff—share this, tweet this. Or, worst, design that directly tries to deceive you—like opt-in boxes that are ticked by default.

The third is performance. We need to take performance seriously, to do all that we can do to make user experiences as lightweight as possible. Again, step away from the assumptions.

Web designers assume everyone is on a fast FiOS connection or on LTE and we don’t need to worry about how much stuff we put on our page. And if you look at the graph for the average size of a webpage—it is now up to 2M. We are entering MP3 territory just for getting a website served to you. And that’s bad.

I promise you, go outside of any urban area and you’re going to see significant decreases in how strong your signal is—a lot of places are on 2G networks still.

What do you like about what you see happening in web design currently?

All of those things I said I’ve been frustrated about—the good thing is that there has been more emphasis on these over the last few years. I’m encouraged to see more and more sites take this stuff seriously and less of those “sorry your device isn’t supported” messages. Even if it’s not the best experience in the world, people are at least trying—even some of the most conservative, glacial-paced organizations are saying, “Okay, we need to do something about this.”

Increasingly, companies are creating design systems—that mentality is taking hold. People aren’t just bulldozing their websites every three years and rebuilding from scratch. People are starting to wise up to the fact that they can build something they can grow with. I’m seeing more and more places take that stuff seriously.

Where is design going?

Modular. That matters more and more. Now you’re seeing smart watches—we are basically interacting with interfaces more places than ever and that is going to continue to be the case.

Things are becoming more connected. We need to address that—make sure your content is available no matter how people might get to it. A friend of mine just demonstrated browsing with her watch and it’s crazy. But that’s what people said when phones came out –“who would do that?” It might not be the primary way you’re interacting with the web – but again, it’s only our assumptions that are preventing stuff from happening.

Increasingly people are beginning to recognize the importance of creating a design language that scales across different devices.

We are starting to design user experience from the perspective of how people can fluidly move between devices. How to move between connected worlds. 90% of people will start a task on one device and finish in another. We are already seeing stuff like that with iOS 8 and Yosemite and Chrome browsers—this ability to pick up where you left off.

And more devices communicate with each other and act as part of a broader ecosystem than siloed devices.

I see design as transitioning away from focusing too hard on any one platform and taking a step back to look at the core of what the product or content is.

What is good design? What websites do you consider well-designed?

Craigslist is beautifully designed. It’s one of the top 10 websites in the world. It’s gorgeous. Anyone can use it.

Design is such a loaded term. Most associate it with aesthetics but a lot of times that can get in the way of the user’s experience. We find ourselves overdesigning things that don’t necessarily need to be as complex as we think they are. We impose this on ourselves. We need to add this animation, we need to add all this extra stuff. Well no, not really. It’s about how intuitive a site is, how it feels to use, how hard it is to reach a button.

Another site is Medium. You take this experience of reading content, this focused experience that is on the words, the message and you remove all the bullshit that doesn’t add to that.

We are starting to see that more and more with design. We went through a couple of different phases, the grunge period with torn edges, paper effects. And then Web 2.0. with gradients and drop shadow buttons.

It was quite literally growing pains—we have to remember that this is a medium that is only 25 years old.

Now we are seeing flat design—brightly colored one-dimensional icons. I’m not totally on board with this aesthetic trend but what we are seeing is this desire for people to get to the essence of something.

I want to be able to book a car with the push of a button; I don’t want to have to go though a lot of stuff. What is the shortest path for me to get from point A to get on with my day. It comes down to the respect I was talking about. For people’s time, for what we want.

Other sites that are simple and usable—ones that step out of the way and let the content and functionality shine.—compare that to

We are seeing this across the board.

Leah Lizarondo

Leah Lizarondo is a food advocate, writer and speaker. She is also the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, an organization that seeks to eliminate food waste to make an impact on hunger and the environment....