I first heard the term "look and feel" in the early days of web-design. I found it an odd phrase. When web developers used it I couldn't be sure if they were talking about graphic design or some new hybrid form of design for the web and computing. Today, the term has seeped into everyday usage, and it has become widely used by commissioners of graphic design.
Why? Is it because it's a piece of useful shorthand that emphasizes the importance of usability in modern strategy-driven communications? Or is it a babyish term that reduces the designer to the role of decorator — someone who gets asked to "color-in" strategic plans made by smart marketing wonks who think design is a no-brainer?
Virginia Postrel, author of The Substance of Style, has a fondness for the phrase. In her book, she makes a persuasive case for the dominance of aesthetics in modern commercial life, and uses "look and feel" as an interchangeable idiom for aesthetics and design.
The term achieved notoriety when it was used by Apple in their 1980s lawsuit against Microsoft for "stealing the look and feel of the Mac OS." The website Usability First defines the term as "The appearance (look) and interactive style (feel) of software whose uniqueness to a particular platform or application defines the aesthetics and values of that application and how users subjectively respond to it ... The look-and-feel is often considered to incorporate the copyrightable aspects of the user interface..." Surprisingly, the phrase doesn't show up in the glossary of terms on websites for either the U.S. Copyright Office or the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office.
I asked Jason Tselentis, the interactive designer and keen design blogger (and Colin Hanks look-a-like), if the term had specialist meaning for him: "I first heard the phrase when working at Intel in 2002," he notes. "I was hired to be a user-interface designer with Intel Labs, and was told I'd be working on software 'look and feel.' At that time I'd been a designer/programmer since 1997, but was unsure of this new phrase. Did they want me to do something new? Feel? Did this mean I'd be working on touch screen technology?" Tselentis continues: "The term struck me as odd and eventually annoying. Most of what I heard in computer science, human-computer interaction and heuristical meetings was this term being used in a 'graphic design' context. And whenever I showed CompSci folks my work in progress (icons, menus, data flow, user interfaces), all they kept saying was, 'I like the look and feel' or 'That's not the look and feel we're going for. Have you seen how Office lays things out?' So I took look and feel to be synonymous with interaction design, which others call graphic design for the computer."
I asked the British designer Michael Johnson, a perennial favorite with international design juries, if he had noted an increase in usage of the term: "Yes, people use it a lot," he says. "I've always mistrusted it as a phrase — apart from sounding vaguely pornographic, I think when you succumb to 'look and feel' you're only a hop and a skip away from mood boards, and that really is the end of design as we know it. It's the kind of phrase that researchers love to throw around in focus groups, a process almost always destined to remove the last hints of creativity from a project."
Ever since W.A. Dwiggins became the first person to call himself a graphic designer, designers have agonized over the nomenclature of their trade. In recent decades, they have been dumping the word design as fast as they can in favor of more business-friendly terms such as corporate image, corporate identity, and most recently, branding.
But oddly we are in a period when the "d" word seems to be in vogue with influential commentators and business theorists like Bruce Nussbaum. Stanford's d.school announces itself as a "place where people from big companies, start-ups, schools, nonprofits, government, and anyone else who realizes the power of design thinking, can join our multidisciplinary teaching, prototyping, and research." You can tell when a word has acquired a new status when it turns up at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In a daily televised debate called "Twenty20: Creating a Future by Design," CNBC Europe and the tech company Infosys offered to help "some of the world's leading minds to articulate their visions for the future."
If "design" has become the new business buzz word, does this mean that it has become a high-concept word appropriate for deep thinking about the world's social and economic problems? We can be sure that business gurus and Davos futurists are not talking about having a logo ready for a meeting at 9.00am with a grouchy client. In other words, they are not talking about "look and feel."
Does any of this matter? If clients are happy to refer to the output of graphic designers as "look and feel," where's the harm? Well, the harm is that it's a euphemistic term that no better describes what good design can do that "nip and tuck" describes the work of a skilled brain surgeon. We encourage its use at our peril. Resist, I say.