Design doing

One of the standout presentations at the Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin was Mark’s excellent talk on typography. The last portion was particularly useful especially for the hybrid designer who might be coming from more of a developer background.

During his talk, Mark admonished the audience members who don’t allocate a writing budget to projects. Riffing on his thoughts on art direction he pointed to sites like A Brief Message where the design is driven by the content rather than the content simply filling up a pre-designed template. He makes a good point but, as I said to him later, he’s talking about a certain type of website.

There are some kick-ass designers, such as Mark, Jason and Khoi, who are fortunate to work on editorial sites. There are other equally kick-ass designers, such as Hannah and George, who work on social media sites where the content is written by the audience. In many ways, that second category is more challenging. The designer must somehow create a design that communicates without ever knowing the details of the message. That lack of control might seem like a hindrance but in many ways it simply reflects the inherent lack of control in this medium.

Of course writing is still very important, even on social media sites. Perhaps especially on social media sites. Writing—and by extension, typography—is part of the user interface. One of the reasons why Moo’s design works so well is because Denise writes kick-ass copy as well as crafting great visual designs. Design is about communication and creating the right tone of voice (through words and type) is critical to successful communication—just ask 37 Signals.

Going back to Mark’s example of content-driven design, A Brief Message has published a rather wonderful piece by Dan Saffer called Making Stuff vs. Making Stuff Up in which he argues that design needs to be a craft, not a cerebral exercise:

It’s not that I don’t appreciate being appreciated for our brains (which is a little like being told you have a great personality). But divorcing “thinking” from “making” reduces design to “concepting.” And while concepting is valuable, concepts are much easier to have than finished products. Almost anyone can have a concept.

The evidence seems to back this up. Speaking personally, all of my favourite web designers have one thing in common: they know how to write HTML and CSS. Dan Cederholm, Doug Bowman and Jon Hicks aren’t just markup-literate; they are markup craftsmen. It’s this ability to work hands-on with the raw materials of the Web that allows them to put all the theory of typography, colour and layout into practice.

In the provocatively-titled Something’s Missing in Web Design, Khoi juxtaposes Dan’s thesis against an article on Under Consideration’s Speak Up called Landmark Web Sites, Where Art Thou? There, Armit Vit writes:

Myself, I could list projects in every category from logos, to annual reports, to magazine covers, to packaging, to typefaces, to opening titles that could be considered landmark projects… But when it comes to web sites, I can’t think of a single www that could be comparable — in gravitas, praise, or memorability — as any of the few projects I just mentioned. Could this be?

As many of the comments on both the original article and Khoi’s post show, there’s a lot of disagreement about whether the Web, as a medium, can be compared to what has come before. Joe weighs in:

When you say landmark, clearly you mean “able to be photographed and reproduced in some canonical textbook,” presumably (co)authored by Steven Heller. You can take a screenshot if you want, but Web sites are experiences, not artifacts.

Still, I think Armin is asking a fair question. I’d like to humbly submit my answer. I think there is a website which can be accurately described as an iconic landmark project. That website is the CSS Zen Garden. Dave’s creation is a virus; a device capable of rewiring minds. Now, you might argue that this landmark is really only of interest to designers. But guess what? The same is true of ’s IBM logo and Massimo Vignelli’s New York subway map. Heck, it even lends itself well to being printed out in a coffee-table book.

The Zen Garden also stands as a counter-argument to Khoi’s feeling that…

the majority of the Web design field, by and large, is too easily motivated by technique.

Perhaps it’s the computer-based nature of what we do, but it’s true enough that most of the tutorials out there concentrate on the technicalities of CSS hacks and workarounds rather than fundamental design theory. This is something that Jeff Croft has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about and he adds his own take on Khoi’s post:

The obsession with technique amongst web designers is something that really, really gets to me. I find it incredibly irritating that some of the world’s most influential “web designers” aren’t really designers at all, but rather CSS gurus or semantic markup studs.

I don’t know whether or not to agree with Jeff as he doesn’t actually say who he’s talking about—criticism works best when it’s aimed at real people rather than the shadowy cabal that Jeff so often rails against. Fundamentally though, I think we’re all in agreement that it would be nice to see more emphasis on universal design principles applied to the Web. Khoi writes:

What that leaves is an enormous and unfulfilled gap in the middle which, while it’s not entirely unoccupied, is sparsely populated.

I would count these resources as denizens of that sparsely populated area:

But these fundamental principles need to be allied with the domain-specific skills required for Web design. In order of importance, that would be HTML, CSS and JavaScript. It’s the lack of such marriages of skills and knowledge that upsets Khoi:

We don’t have enough designers who do both; we have a polarized industry right now, and the result, as Armin tactfully alludes to in his article, is that Web design is really boring. Sorry, but it’s true.

That’s quite a sweeping statement to make about something as big as the Web. My initial temptation is to give the same response I give to people who complain about the accuracy of Wikipedia: So fix it! but I can relate to Khoi’s frustration. I ended up writing two books because I felt that important subjects weren’t being addressed. I’m not sure how much difference my efforts made and looking at the mess that is 90% of the Web, it’s easy to get discouraged. But in that respect, the Web isn’t really that special at all; it’s just another examplar of . I’d bet good money that similar frustrations are voiced in the worlds of product design and advertising. Designers in those fields are probably lamenting their worlds as being boring too.

With a bit of perspective, I think it becomes clearer that Web design isn’t in a better or worse state than other fields: it’s just different. It’s that difference that makes it so appealing; the possibilities for interaction, the flexible nature of the delivery mechanism, the ability to view source and learn from others… these are all the things that make Web design anything but boring.