Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

Look and Feel / Nip and Tuck


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.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Internet, Technology

Comments [42]

Adrian, is this post satire? (D. W. Dwiggins? W. A. Dwiggins meets D. W. Griffith?) Forgive me if I'm responding to an early April Fool's prank, but:

"Look and feel" is a legitimate term of art, just like "trade dress." Both are based on the idea that the design of an object, or a user experience, cannot be distilled down to a collection of elements, and are more than the sum of their parts. Without "look and feel," we're left with judges asking how X and Y can be said to be alike, since the typeface has been changed (from Helvetica to Univers) and the color has been changed (from dark blue to navy), and instead of the cursor being a white arrow, it's a black arrow.
Jonathan Hoefler

... The principle is that the proprietary attributes of the thing go beyond these local details.

Anyway, without "look and feel," we're left with using words like "echt," and who wants to do that?
Jonathan Hoefler

'Look and Feel' clearly evokes the senses. Sight is obviously very important for anything graphical, but the feel is somewhat metaphorical — you're not technically feeling a website or the ink on a page — it's more about interaction. Together they imply almost a new sense, where recognition, ergonomics, visual aesthetics, signs and symbols, and other cognitive brickerbrack all converge. I'm sure brain scientists have a word for it.

But it also implies a certain level of functionality. I think that if one were to simply comment on the styling, he would say something to the effect of "I like those colours." Perhaps the world is, in fact realising that design is more than 'making it pretty.'

I agree that 'L+F' has become an overused business buzzword, co-opted by 'non-creatives' to try and speak 'our language.' The fact that I'm putting everything in inverted commas should indicate the problem: our lexicon is constantly evolving. Interface design is still relatively new — for centuries it was simply start at the top, read to the bottom — so it's not surprising that stop-gap terms have appeared.
Prescott Perez-Fox

So if we choose to avoid the term “look and feel”, what terminology are we supposed to use? Are we supposed to look down our noses at clients and speak of design in formalist terms described as oeuvres and leitmotifs? I think everyone will be better off if designers can just be happy that non-designers now realize that the feel of a thing is related to the way it works. We can do a much better job educating our clients by communicating in their vernacular than by expecting them to deal with ours.
james puckett

Both the article and comment(1) make valid points, but bottom line: 'look and feel' is amorphous, imprecise terminology. The phrase has no universally accepted definition, and so can have as many meanings as a word we all use: design.

Can 'look and feel' be a form of useful shorthand? Yes, but only if all parties are referring to the same definition.

Is it a dangerous phrase? Yes, because of its imprecision. For example, the article uses the phrase in reference to web-design, and the comment places the phrase in 'the wider scope of branding.' These topics are worlds apart. The phrase has a different meaning in each context, and that meaning can vary significantly within either context.

The article refers to the word 'design' as having become a new 'business buzz word.'

Buzz = excitement = imprecision = 'look and feel' = what?

Design speak?

Why is clear communication so elusive, even among communication professionals? Are we a bit lazy?
Joe Sullivan

At a past job, anytime a client referred to "look and feel" it was usually followed by "make it cool and modern." Gasp.

It was always in a context of new client meetings, usually smaller start-up clients, and learning a lot about each others vernacular. In building these relationships we'd exchange information on our specific trade. Appropriately they'd grow in our jargon (as we would theirs) and drop "look and feel" from their vocabulary as they learned more specific buzzwords.

Kyle Fletcher

I'm looking and feeling an idiot. Yes, Jonathan, W.A. Dwiggins.

[Editors Comment: Yes, an obvious error: our mistake. W.A. Dwiggins has been corrected. Thank you Jonathan Hoefler.]
Adrian Shaughnessy

“Why is clear communication so elusive, even among communication professionals? Are we a bit lazy?”

When is professional communication ever clear? Communication with loosely defined vernacular is a little unclear to anyone, exacting vernacular makes it esoteric enough to be unclear to all but the associated cabal. Rather than worry about buzzwords and technical terms, why not just take a client out for lunch and have a good conversation over beer and steak?
james puckett

I'm feeling inferiority complex, and looking for a return to common sense.

When clients use the term "look and feel" it usually gives me a sense of the level they either A) don't know what they want or B) don't know how to communicate it. It doesn't matter whether you're trying to describe the way a logo looks or how a website functions or whatever, using two incalculable words to communicate your needs doesn't help anyone and blocks communication on both sides.

But how much of this communication barrier can be solved by us designers? What if we start explaining why you don't stretch Arial as shown in their "mock-up" or why pink type on red might not allow for successful user interaction? Clients don't speak "our language" because they're not designers and they don't need to but, if (provided they're willing) we can get them to understand the things we do and why without dumbing it down maybe clients wouldn't have to resort to the "look and feel" method.

I've ALWAYS hated the expression. When people use it (and it's often the same kinds of people), it always has a pigeon-holeing effect, often leading down the path to "trendiness."

Ultimately, it's inarticulate: "I like the look and feel." This is an essentially meaningless statement. Telling a chef, "Yeah. I like the taste and the texture," accomplishes nothing. Just use actual, beneficial adjectives, spare us the platitudes.
Benjamin Allison

My point was that "look and feel" is a term of art in the practice of law. Perhaps some attorney out there with a copy of Black's Law Dictionary and an understanding of "trade dress" and "the functionality doctrine" can describe this better?

This phrase doesn't belong in the design crit, any more than "alleged perpetrator" belongs in the mouths of policemen; I think this is just the natural inflation of spoken American English. Perhaps this was Adrian's point, and the word that clients and creative directors are really reaching for is "design?"
Jonathan Hoefler

The original title of The Substance of Style was in fact Look and Feel. It got as far as a great cover design before the sales people at HarperCollins nixed it because, they said, no one knew from the title what the book was about. As noted above, the term is taken from intellectual property law. I use it and "aesthetics" interchangeably in the book, not as a synonym for "design" but specifically for aspects of design that appeal to the senses and that are not, in the normal use of the word, strictly functional.
Virginia Postrel

...sounding vaguely pornographic

So, I'm not the only one out there that feels this way.
Jason Tselentis

I think we need to take a step back and use the words "look and feel"... is that any different than tying a typeface to emotional content? If a design incorporates closely kerned letter forms and inadequate spacing next to another element would I not say something to the effect "this looks a little stressed" "it looks as if the letter forms are creating tension next to this elements."... so it has the look of tension to the viewer. Its like trying to remove peoples opinion out of design. Sometimes you have to use word or descriptors of things that have no real connection other than your own opinion.

I also think it is appropriate to use the words grouped together -"look and feel" - as I think it could create a bridge between myself and the client who most likely is not educated in design terminology. I worked primarily in signage and environmental graphic and it is easy to say sentences such as:

"We need to create graphics that compliment the look and feel of this facility. That integrate well within the architecture."

It helps create visual connections.
J.B. Chaykowsky

In the web design world, the term "look and feel" seems to be largely replaced by "user experience". "Look and feel" does strike me as a dated term (maybe like talking about "getting eyeballs" or calling sites "sticky" also feel dated); I'm pleased that Postrel's book wasn't burdened with that 1999ish term.

There are some holdouts among technical or business groups, but my experience is that they use "look and feel" because they haven't got any other vocabulary for talking about design.

Among my peers, "user experience" is pretty much exclusively used to encompass visual design, interaction design, communications design, and occasionally interactive information design, when each of those are done in the context of the web or products that are actually computers (like cameras, media players, or phones).

User experience is so gain.aiga.org, and very 1990s. I'd argue that all design is experienced.
Jason Tselentis

I confess to having used the term "look and feel" with clients. I've found it useful as a way to describe the distinctive effects of an aggregated group of design decisions: font, color, shape, etc. Like James Puckett above, if there's an acceptable synonym, I haven't heard it.

It also seems to be a term which is less alarming to many business people than "aesthetics," which sounds like you need to be a specialist to understand. Or is that what this is partly about?
Michael Bierut

"Bells and whistles."

Joe Moran

Wow. What a unanimous response to this article! I chuckled along as I read Adrian's essay, because it's so true—clients get this idea of a word that belongs to the mysterious world of designers, and they use it ad nauseum. But as some of the peanut gallery have said, it's likely a word—one of the few—they feel they can use to communicate with the designers they hired.

When a client says "look and feel", they mean they want to look at the design and feel good about it. But more seriously, I think the non-designer's use of the term implies a much deeper understanding of visual language—even if they don't know they understand it; they intuit it. They know that the elements of a branded application (web page, letterhead, etc) work together to connote other things, such as "modern, clean, corporate" or "rustic, warm and friendly".

As designers, we can be glad our clients are trying to speak our language; then, we can use that as our starting point to help deepen their understanding of visual communication and how we, the designers, can help them look and feel good.
Tom Froese

I work as an industrial designer for one of the corporations mentioned above, and the now widely used corporate-speak 'look and feel' has come to represent the limits to any real discourse about design, what it means, and its strategic value. It seems to preclude any sense of context, depth, or value and offers little but a crude lens through which to talk about design.

Once you hear a GM or exec referring to 'look and feel', you realize that the rest of the company downwards is straight-jacketed by the same perspective.

Still, having spent a lot of time in consultancy, it can't be worse than clients using the word 'iconic', as in "we want something iconic- a bit like the iPod...."

How about "Tone & Texture". Another one I hear a lot.
M. Jekot
visual director
Michael Jekot

We often use the term and find it helpful while making games. I don't really think that more precise and technical terms like "information architecture" convey the emotional content of a user's experience. More importantly, the people we have test and use our games usually do not possess a highly developed vocabulary for articulating their experience. They'll say things like- it's confusing - or it feels mushy. I think people desire an almost tactile response to interactive design and perhaps all forms of design. Perhaps this is where the term's popularity comes from.
Brian Wane

I understand "look and feel" as a term that encompasses all elements that create the identity of an organization, including the copy writing. Look and feel is not something a designer does alone, for it really is the way an organization is perceived as a whole. This means that the designer must understand the "feel" of an organization to offer a look that is in line with it. If the client isn't able to provide the designer with an idea of how the organization wishes to be perceived by the public, then it is unrealistic for them to expect a successful "look".
The "look" responds to the "feel". When this happens effectively, the "look" produces a "feel" as well. These two "feels" are one and the same. What the designer does is to provide a "look" (a combination of color, form, typography, etc...) that effectively brings that "feel" from the company to the public.
Raul Pena

Look and feel has two important elements. One is, the 'lack of'. The term is always used with regard to a shortage of physical sensation, like in a web site. It is a way to 'transfer' sensations we're used to from hands-on use and touching, to the environment of the screen. Inevitably, this logic is then transferred back from virtual to physical objects, by which look and feel are becoming the terms of engagement with physical objects according to virtual terms: i.e., physical matter will be treated as a simulation of itself, according to a look and feel concept: fake wood, but also plastic surgery. Look and feel may be the collective category created by people sitting behind computer screens looking at simulations of things.
Besides that, look and feel is always a term of management, used to prescribe and control an outcome rather than to open up a terrain of unexpected possibilities. Aesthetics, as a category, I think, does not equal look and feel. Rather, look and feel are a way of managing aesthetics.

Daniel van der Velden

I hardly see the great peril and danger that will befall the design world if we use the term, "look and feel." If you don't like the term just don't use it. For others, including me, the term can at times be useful in an initial dialogue with a client. Either way, this thread suggests that we have way too much time on our hands!

I'm noticing that most concur that the term "look and feel" is used to encompass the grand scheme of a logo, website, etc. and that people use it because they don't know certain terms. So instead, they employ this term to blanket a mass of unique decisions which could be explained by real terminology.

I just don't understand how so many can simply accept the term as a part of critique, discussion, and client relation when we, as the design community, struggle so much with how to define and explain the profession to — for lack of a better term — non-designers.

Are we trying to keep this shit a secret?

I love wikipedia:

"In the novel Microserfs by Douglas Coupland, one of the characters owns two gerbils, named "Look" and "Feel"."

There seems to be more and more of a separation between form and content in design today. I think 'look and feel' is a valid term to describe design which, for good reason, is independent of content.

In web design, content is an ever changing thing. The structure of the web makes it easy to separate content from its design (ie RSS feeds). The same with identity design where designers focus on developing rules for other people to work with rather than final, stand-alone pieces.

When designing in these circumstances, one has to conceptualise design as being comprised of two separate elements. First, the constantly changing content. Secondly, the 'look and feel' which is the consistent graphic style.

With the internet growing daily by leaps and bounds, it is no wonder that everyone wants a professional graphic website designer on their side to create an awesome website with even greater graphic design so that they can compete with larger organizations. With all of the churches, cub scout packs, boy scout troops, school activities, day cares, home businesses, small businesses, and children's organizations out there today, the average graphic website designer should have no problem finding pro bono graphic website design work.
graphic design

Some days I read Design Observer and think, "Do you people not have enough work on?"

This is one of these days.
Emperor Rudie

I'm happy to use "Tone & Texture" in combination with "Look & Feel". Professionally its a fart in the wind, but whatever. We're all fortunate to get paid for pictures… Some more than others. Cheers geeks!

Look and feel is an unnecessary connector.
When I blank out and have nothing to say in a meeting, in a pitch, in a proposal, instead of saying, ummm, like, I uhhh, like erm… Look and feel says it all. Although at this point everybody is hip to that since they use it themselves in similar situations.

I did see a term similar to Look and Feel in one of those film critics blurbs in an ad for There Will Be Blood in Sunday's NYT.
Mark Kaufman

Look and Feel is doublespeak.
As Michael Johnson said: "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."
Instead of Look and Feel, we should talk about the beauty of a successful design. "Beauty is not necessarily a matter of form or style, but a result of order achieved. To me, the finest and highest order is the one, which results in such simplicity of statement that it could not be said more constructively, more encompassing, more spirited. That is beauty. That has human dignity." -Will Burtin
Carl W. Smith

Well if we're talking about "look and feel" as it relates to web design, I would tend to agree with the person who commented before that "look and feel" is a very outdated term.

Back in the mid-90's, all a web designer could affect was "look and feel". Today, however, we actively create the entire experience of the user, from how the interface appears and makes them feel emotionally to what kinds of tasks and activities they'll perform while on the site and what level of interaction they'll encounter.

I know someone had written earlier that "experience" sounded too AIGA from a few years ago but it's probably the best word to describe the work of a modern web designer in an era where the web has become -- and continues to become -- as powerful a medium as it has.

Chris Gee

Only those truly handicapped by the English language would use a term like "Look & Feel," especially to relate to web design. Feel would relate only to a tactile attribute - something non-existent on the web. How about "experience."

Perhaps people would be forced to use more than one word to describe the similarities between certain designs - "the look and feel is similar" - and perhaps when forced with describing the allusions and themes that make two designs similar, or that describe design, people would be forced to look at design a bit more critically.
Jacques Krzepkowski

I'd just like to point out that the stanford d.school and a lot of other places that talk about "design thinking" aren't really referring to aesthetics or visual qualities, certainly more as a by-product than directly. What they are thinking of when they say this is more focused on the qualities of things and experiences as they respond to and dictate human interaction. Its not the same as interaction design either. Either way, the discussion around that area of design is different than this. For the undergraduate curriculum we are required to take as many art classes as math classes, actually. Its certainly not definitively aesthetic.

Nina - I make the point in my second last paragraph that the d.school (and others) use the word design to convey something other than aesthetics.
Adrian Shaughnessy

I am not sure that I understand what "look and feel"
means , but I seam to always be using this when explaining things to my clients.
web design , almog

"I think 'look and feel' is a valid term to describe design which, for good reason, is independent of content."

Exactly. Or call it "aesthetics." Or "style." Or any other word that allows you and the client to clearly understand what is and isn't being discussed.

Personally I prefer "look and feel" as it is a generally accepted industry term, which is easily understood by clients and - most importantly - implies that the value and purpose of "design" goes beyond beyond just "style" and "aesthetics."
Mike Williams

I see why this discussion ended on the last post. I too concur with Jon who stated that "'look and feel' is a valid term to describe design which, for good reason, is independent of content."
Derek Felton

I use the term look-and-feel all the time, and while clients and coworkers may have their own understanding of the term, we always seem to be speaking the same language.

In user-interface design, look-and-feel really does have a very specific meaning. The look is just that. One can look at Internet Explorer or Firefox or Safari and come to an aesthetic judgement about the software. Maybe they like the the style of the buttons or the style of the icons.

"Feel" refers to the user experience. It's the HOW. While Explorer and Firefox and Safari are all designed to do the same basic thing (browse the Web), one will find that they accomplish the task of browsing the Web by doing different things depending on which browser they're using.

In one browser I click once in the address bar to re-type the URL. In another browser I double-click a portion of the address to re-type the URL. Bookmarks are under a button in one browser, in the toolbar of another, and in a sliding panel of another browser. Each browser probably has a mix of the above options, as well. How does the user activate and deactivate these options? What is their preferred workflow to accomplish this or accomplish that? The "feel" is the overall user-experience, unmarried from aesthetics.
Chris Varley

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