Xavier Bertels
18 Dec 2014

Sexy UI Design

Client: “This is not entirely what I’m looking for, I’m looking for something a bit more . . .”
Designer: “Modern? Timeless? Playful?”
Client: “Sexy!”
Designer: cringe

This has become somewhat of a running gag among designers. In my experience, a running gag can be a sign of dogmatic thinking. Since part of my job is to question everything, I had to give this some more thought.

First, on the word sexy. Collins dictionary says:

You can describe people and things as sexy if you think they are sexually exciting or sexually attractive.

The key word being things. Unless the editors of Collins are referring to objectophilia, I believe we have been granted permission to call anything sexy. Especially if we find it exciting or attractive on both a physical and an emotional level.

But why do designers cringe when they hear the word sexy in a design context? Maybe it is because a functional, modernist design aesthetic has become the holy grail of good design1. Much of the design discourse of the past decennia was about removing embellishments. And perhaps our understanding of the word sexy has become too superficial. So superficial that we have forgotten its meaning reaches beyond those embellishments.

Sexy does not mean just physically attractive. Sexy is about attitude and content as much as it is about visual appearance. Even when we were designing this website we had a thorough discussion about whether to include a webfont. Why not pick Helvetica and be done with it? From a functional point of view, it would be an adequate solution. Not very attractive though.

It is okay to try to create an attractive interface that can suck a user into a state of productive, enjoyable flow. Just like dating a person you find sexy is satisfying, so can using an interface you find sexy be satisfying. But sexy is a living definition. To remain sexy, you have to deliver what you promise. An attractive design that is hard to handle will become a pain in the ass before you know it. And you will feel betrayed because it lured you in with deceitful aesthetics.

Sexy design is extremely hard. It is about striking the right balance in the entire design package. Useful and beautiful. From the moment you first see something, to the moment you have been using it for a while. A design can be sexy and we should embrace that.

1. See The History of Flat Design. (Back to top)

Xavier Bertels

About the author: Xavier Bertels is a designer and managing partner at Mono, where he helps companies deliver simple, useful & beautiful digital products. He tweets as @xavez.

2 thoughts on “Sexy UI Design”

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=== Reposted here, originally commented on Designer News ===

For a brief illustration of the way I define “sexy”, let’s imagine two different women (or men, if you prefer — gender doesn’t matter here).

Person A is stunningly beautiful, in the culturally prevalent sense. Perfect figure, healthy skin, symmetrical face. They are the type of person you’ve been trained to desire by countless TV shows, magazines, and movies. If you saw their picture, you’d rate them a “10”.

Person B is only marginally attractive, at least upon first glance. They don’t look like a runway model, and you couldn’t picture them hosting a TV show. They’re not ugly, per se, but if you saw their picture, you’d rate them a “5” — if you even bothered to.

Now, picture yourself meeting these people in real life.

Person A is so beautiful that, over the years, it’s affected their personality. They’re distant, preoccupied, and slightly paranoid when meeting strangers of the opposite sex. They “know” they’re hot, and they act like it. At first, you were completely infatuated with their looks … but after some brief conversation (or lack thereof), you are completely turned off. This perplexes you, and you go home alone, drunker than you intended, wondering where all the cool girls (or guys) went.

Person B, on the other hand, is very normal-looking. You start chatting with them, with absolutely no agenda in mind. After all, it’s not like they’re HOT. But Person B has a great attitude, and you find yourself enjoying the conversation…

…But after a little while, you start to notice certain things about Person B. Their smile, while understated, has a very reassuring quality to it. It makes you feel good. (Person A’s smile felt weird, as if it’d been forced upon them) Person B looks you directly in the eyes, with a comfortable, knowing gaze. You feel “at home” with them, even though you’ve just met. Their body language is enticing — not intentionally seductive, but nonetheless very much so. This is a person who’s very comfortable in their own skin, and it makes YOU feel very comfortable as well.

Eventually, you realize that Person B is not a “5” at all … and how could you have been so dense to think so! This person is practically oozing sex appeal, and you feel drawn to them.

At the end of that night, you go home with Person B, and you have the freest, most satisfying sex you’ve had in your entire life. You end up dating, and it goes so well that you get married, have beautiful children that don’t hate you, and all the while continue to have mind-blowing sex that even a rockstar would envy. Even as a shriveled-up 80 year-old, Person B exudes the same sexiness you felt on your first night together, and you find yourself ripping off your Depend®s whenever they enter the room.

OK that last paragraph was unnecessary for this parable. But let’s continue.

Moral of the story: Something can be “hot” yet thoroughly unsexy. Conversely, something might look rather “plain”, yet have a profound effect on you.

“Sexy” speaks to you in a language you don’t fully understand. It doesn’t waste effort on surface-level appearances. It doesn’t scream “Hey, look at me!”. It’s just NATURALLY enticing. It MOVES you. It doesn’t always broadcast those attributes — sometimes you need to find them for yourself. (Beauty may be involved, but only as one factor in a larger equation of attractiveness.)

When your client used the word “sexy”, he was actually providing very clear feedback. He wants a design that “works”, first and foremost, with aesthetics as the cherry on top!

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@Derryl thank you for reposting it here, I think you perfectly summarised what was in the back of my head when I was writing this. Good stuff!

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