In The Imperfectionist, interior design guru Dan Ho says, “Perfection is a cheap caricature of style.”

Style, in Mr. Ho’s view, is unstudied, capricious. Specifically, it is a rubber ducky placed on a plain wooden table, a loop of twine hanging from a bathroom sink instead of a conventional toilet paper dispenser. It is the good sense not to replace chipped heirloom china with something flawless and new, and the wisdom never to waste countless hours building a trellis when a plant displayed in an old sausage tin, or whimsically in a child’s sand pail, will do.

dan hoReminds me of some of the recent discussions about boring, boxed-in web design (see Blahg or Boxes or this chat). In the quest for perfectly aligned grids, are designers missing out on the subtlety and charm that comes from things that are imperfect but human?

Shabby chic web design
Of course, there’s always room for good, clean design. We’re champions of it. But perfectly aligned grids aren’t the answer to every design challenge.

It depends on what you want to communicate. Are you aiming for clean, useful, and functional (say, a project management app)? Then simple, usable elegance is a great solution. But what if your goal is to speak with a unique voice (like at a personal blog), be more human (a small company trying to emphasize intimacy), show off a distinct style, or stand out from the crowd? Then some rough edges and discord can work wonders. Consider it a shabby chic approach to web design.

There’s a great side benefit to this approach too: You get to work with what you’ve got on hand. You don’t need to wait for the ideal ingredients or set aside tons of time to pull it off. You can jigsaw together elements that wouldn’t fit in a “perfect” layout. You can use images, fonts, and copy you have instead of waiting for things you don’t have. You make it work and accept the resulting disjointedness as part of your unique vision.

This site for a Halloween Ghostwalk won’t win any design awards. Yet the playful copy and folksy vibe conveys exactly what it should for a small, friendly, neighborhood gathering.

Visual rhythm
Let’s Ho it up some more. One thing he values is visual rhythm (i.e. you can place unrelated items together as long as they visually match the “beat”). A sidebar offers an apartment owner’s description of a Ho makeover (see photo above too):

Strewn around the room, up against the baseboards, were various paintings, prints and framed photographs, none of which I could bring myself to mount on a wall: I feared that they were either too big or too small for a particular space, too discordant in their various styles to display together.

But Mr. Ho thrives on discord. And he prizes sentimentality. What he cannot abide is the idea of a beautiful photograph of a Parisian stoop, a wedding present from the very person who took the picture, sitting on the floor because its recipient lacks the imagination to hang it. Mr. Ho decided that he would take over a wall above a sofa in the bedroom and group nearly every piece of art I had ever acquired.

Mr. Ho hates matching frames. To him, they symbolize the oppression of the design magazines that had filled me with the fear of hanging anything in the first place.

...His secret in grouping random images, he explained, is to place them all the same width apart so that there is a visual rhythm to the seeming madness.

Authentic simplicity
Ho’s take on simplicity is also interesting. To him, less stuff to be organized is a better solution then an organizing system. The goal is attaining authentic simplicity, not the veneer of simplicity.

What he disavows is inauthentic simplicity. From his perspective, no one should go out and buy drawer dividers to better organize their socks; they should have fewer socks and throw them in a drawer with enough room to distinguish the black ones from the navy ones.

Folksy sites
Getting back to the web realm, here are some more examples of site designs with authentic, personal style:

A big part of the charm of Creating Passionate Users is Kathy’s homemade charts and images. Sure, they could be more “professional” but then they’d 1) take a lot longer and 2) lose the vibe that makes Kathy’s site feel so open and inviting.

Jared Christiansen got some love during a recent designer Fireside Chat. At his personal site, organic lines, hand-drawn lettering, and cartoony hover bubbles create a warm, friendly environment. No cold “I’m a designer” minimalism here.

Comedian Mike O’Connell’s site layout features a ripped notebook page, doodled sketches, a tilted Polaroid, and an, um, informative “About” page (sorta NSFW). You quickly get the picture re: what Mike’s all about (i.e. hilarity!).

The value of authentic
Authenticity is underrated. People forgive a multitude of sins in exchange for it. Sure, aim for perfection and professionalism when it’s called for. But don’t overlook the power that comes from being authentic, appropriate, and human.