About a month ago, Armin Vit wrote a post at Speak Up questioning why there are no “landmark” websites. We have examples of such designs in other media, such as Paul Rand’s IBM logo or Massimo Vignelli’s New York subway map, but have we seen any websites that are similarly aesthetically engaging and likely to remain influential to other designers for years to come? In the comments that followed Armin’s post, a few people offered tentative suggestions, but many instead attempted to suggest why websites simply can’t transcend their content in the same way as other designed media. Thus started a debate: Do websites even belong in the canon of graphic design? Can they even have artistic pretensions?
So far, the most fully reasoned and powerfully celebrated response I have seen comes from the influential designer and writer Jeffrey Zeldman. In “Understanding Web Design,” Jeffrey suggests that there is a division between those designers who do understand the web and those designers who do not. The designers who do not understand web design, he explains, make Flash sites that work more like clickable television than like actual websites. Other designers (and design critics) who do not understand web design ask why there are no websites comparable to the other landmarks of graphic design. “The less sophisticated lament on our behalf,” Jeffrey explains, “that we are stuck with ugly fonts.”
Rather than compare websites to these other sorts of designed media, he suggests, those in the know approach websites like a type designer might approach the creation of a new typeface: “For a web design, like a typeface, is an environment for someone elseâ€™s expression.” The web design most like Helvetica, for example, would be Douglas Bowman’s Minima blog template. In an attempt to help clarify this difference between web design and other sorts of design, Jeffrey suggests the following definition:
Web design is the creation of digital environments that facilitate and encourage human activity; reflect or adapt to individual voices and content; and change gracefully over time while always retaining their identity.
His article is followed by (at present) over 70 comments, most full of praise, and several specifically admiring and promising to quote the above definition.
I am weighing in on this debate now for a couple reasons. One, because I greatly respect Jeffrey Zeldman’s argument and design principles more broadly, but I only partially agree with his argument here. And two, because I study geek cultures, and what I am seeing here is an intellectual dispute between the web design geeks and the artsy design geeks. I posted my response as the 74th comment following the original article, but I will paraphrase it here (and I’ll fix the HTML tags).
There is nothing inherent to websites as a visual medium that prevents aesthetic innovation. There are formal hurdles insofar as the infrastructure is concerned: Websites are built upon code, and we can only design them to look like what the code will allow. This constraint currently precludes, for example, the ability to choose between many fonts without sacrificing functionality. That is, you can use Flash or a PDF to make the site look like whatever you want, but at the price of searchability and loading speed, among other sacrifices that designers concerned with user experience would find unacceptable.
In theory, these are not insurmountable hurdles in the long run. For now, however, such support is not a major priority among those whom I will respectfully refer to as the web design geeks. They have a different agenda and different concerns insofar as the code behind their sites is concerned. But that is a very different claim from the statement that web design is not and cannot be evaluated by the same aesthetic standards as other forms of design.
How do I know that websites could demonstrate such aesthetic innovation, were the web design community so inclined? The answer, I think, lies in Jeffrey Zeldman’s definition of web design as “digital environments” made for “human activity,” which can “adapt” to user needs and “change gracefully over time while always retaining their identity.” I believe that we have seen what the artsy design geeks would recognize as a “landmark” design which fits well with this definition: the Mac Operating System.
Nothing in the above definition specifies that the medium in question exists on the web, so I have taken some liberty in applying it to another sort of graphical user interface (or GUI, as they are called). I think this is an example that would please the artsy design geeks while still meeting this definition proffered by a web design geek. It is indeed a digital environment that encourages human activity; it is changeable and adaptable according to user needs; and, as anyone with a Mac can tell you today, the years have been kind, leaving all the basic ingredients and style of the original intact. The Mac OS has been both functionally and aesthetically influential, and so I offer it as a landmark design of the sort Jeffrey Zeldman calls for.
Why, then, do we not see any web designs that have been so aesthetically influential, what the artsy design geeks call “landmark” designs? I believe this is a product of the culture of web design, which in turn has adapted to the current reality of how the medium works. In other words, it is the infrastructure of the web that leads the web design geeks to their particular aesthetic ideals, though this need not always be so. Returning again to the example of font selection, It was easy enough to use fonts with some consistency in the Mac OS because the designers knew that every user would have access to those same fonts. Thus, as Steve Jobs has claimed, “It was the first computer with beautiful typography.” Creative use of typography is typically a major consideration in those “landmark” designs, but to the web design community, it is the concern of “less sophisticated” voices.
Under Jeffrey Zeldmanâ€™s broad definition, then, I think there is indeed the capacity for the kind of design that will please the artsy designers. We would need to see some changes to how sites are coded and what browsers could recognize, however, to see that capacity met. For now, this is not a great priority for the web design geek community. In the meantime, we will continue to see some excellently functional websites of the kind I myself prefer to design.
I humbly suggest, however, that this bias has nothing to do with the inherent and universal qualities of web design as a practice or as a visual medium, at least in the long run. Mr. Zeldmanâ€™s article does an excellent job of explaining how web design is, but unfortunately dismisses what it could be.