Debating the Aesthetics of Web Design

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 else’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 Zeldman’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. Zeldman’s article does an excellent job of explaining how web design is, but unfortunately dismisses what it could be.

11 thoughts on “Debating the Aesthetics of Web Design

  1. This argument is literally as old as HTML, which has an Oedipal relationship to SGML. I tend to fall on the “SGML” side of this argument, but I completely understand the “Flash” side of it.

    Your comparison to the GUI is apt (a website IS a GUI, after all) but ultimately misleading, I think. There were a whole host of assumptions that early Mac programmers could make, far beyond the font set. Screen size, resolution, depth, input devices, etc. were predetermined by virtue of the platform. A better comparison is probably *shudder* Windows 1.0. It too was built upon a pre-existing platform that wasn’t designed to do what it is asked of it (DOS = telnet.) Windows eventually replaced the system it was built on, and HTML may end up doing the same, but in the process it was marked by its childhood.

    The Mac took a clean slate approach. Fsck the DOS (and ProDOS) machines, we’re heading out on our own. Windows had to evolve and accommodate. Don’t have a mouse? OK, we can work with that. Don’t have a color monitor? OK we can work with that.

    HTML has to be Widows, or it ceases to be the universal language that it needs to be to justify itself. Flash (or PDFs or whatever) can be choosy. Don’t have Flash 9? Tough.

    (Let me erase the chalkboard here.)

    Another way to look at it is programmers (SGML) versus designers (Flash.) Programmers value “graceful degradation,” while designers value control. HTML has to hue closer to the programmer paradigmn, while Flash offers the designers what they want. Flash doesn’t degrade gracefully at all, you can either run it or not, while I can still read HTML pages with lynx on an ancient computer (I might miss things, but I’ll get the bulk of it.)

    (Erases chalkboard again.)

    Of course, one could make the accusation that asking web design to produce “Paul Rand’s IBM logo or Massimo Vignelli’s New York subway map” is begging the question. Those are both examples of point/pixel level control. A better comparison might be, say, Zork or WoW.

    OK, gotta run and take up this argument with the GF. (And I haven’t even touched upon the “Clio” versus “Effie” argument.)

  2. Talked with the GF (a graphic designer,) a couple further points (in outline format for brevity.)

    Who has control? The provider or the end user?
    * What is the intent of the site provider? They pay the checks, they make the choices. How much control do they want the user to have?
    * Protect the Brand!
    ** Trademark law encroaching on IP law.
    *** “Brand dillution” as a sueable offense.
    * How can we get all the benefit of Web 2.0 without any of the drawbacks?
    *User control improves accessiblity.
    ** Accessiblity is a good thing. Just don’t do it to my design!
    * Unix culture. Everything goes to standard output, vs. DRM. Nothing goes to standard output.

    It’s all about the backend.
    * Programmers should get their own fscking award.
    * Programmers came up with popular interface features on popular sites (e.g. CG created dailyKos’ personalized blogrolls.)

    Web design is like typograpy.
    * Designing for someone else to layout.
    ** In print, there’s a sheparding designer. Not so in web world.

  3. Thank you for this really well thought-through response. I think we may agree more than we disagree, but I should make some clarifications to explain why we still disagree. Then again, it’s been a really long time since I had to do any appreciable amount of programming, so I wholeheartedly welcome you to call me on my ignorance there (or in any other area, for that matter).

    First point of clarification: I’m not talking about Flash. I think most sites designed in Flash are a mistake, so I’d rather just remove them from this discussion altogether. For sites that one expects to be used by visitors primarily for information retrieval, I prioritize usability over all else in web design. Flash sites pose too many problems with regard to searchability, accessibility for the blind, and loading time (if they can load at all) to ever be considered good web design, as far as I am concerned. When I was looking up colleges at my city’s public library years ago, I couldn’t access RISD’s site without guessing at interior page URLs because the front page is Flash, and the library computers couldn’t handle it. That should be shameful for a school of ‘design,’ a concept which is about both form and function.

    Second point: I’m not only talking about web designs that are made to host other people’s content. This blog, for example, could look like whatever I want it to look like. I scraped a bunch out of the sidebar from the WordPress template because I was going for a minimalist look. The one thing I wanted to do that I couldn’t do very well was use a font I like for the body. (For some reason, I couldn’t get Frutiger to look right even on my own monitor, and I have the darned font.) Even if I were talking about dressing up other people’s content, though, how is that so different from Massimo Vignelli’s subway map design (or even the more recently rejected redesign)? Personally, I find these not just more aesthetically appealing than what’s in use now, but also a lot less confusing, and they’re both beholden to someone else’s content (i.e., the MTA’s routes plus the geography of the city itself).

    Third point: I agree that the big difference between designing a map/poster and designing a website is the level of control that the designer can exert in terms of the audience’s experience of the product. The infrastructure of a website doesn’t really allow me to do everything I would like to do insofar as visual design is concerned; better handling of typography is not necessarily the only part of that, but it’s a big part, and an example I could imagine as achievable in the near future. I realize that some elements would be beyond my control as a designer (like resolution and screen size), but I don’t see why designers couldn’t have more control over what goes up there in the near future, if there were cooperation between designers and coders to that end. I do not foresee that cooperation happening anytime soon because the priorities of web designers seem more in line with the priorities of coders than the priorities of print designers.

    I’ll concede that the Mac OS may have been able to be such an influential and iconic GUI—arguably the influential and iconic GUI—because the designers were able to control more precisely what viewers would experience. Still, they’ve managed to translate that pretty adeptly to the modern computing situation, which does require considerations about things like resolution and screen size.

    Also, I think programmers are awesome and should indeed be getting more credit for the neat features that come out on sites. Actually, Google’s model is sort of interesting and unusual in this regard, as they let their programmers spend so much time nurturing pet projects just to see where they’ll go. But I think that’s all neither here nor there: Just as graphic designers have been capable of making functional and aesthetically inspiring maps based on changing subway plans, it’s the web designers’ job to likewise integrate neat new features into visual designs. I get the sense, though, that “web design” is treated as closely related to “web development” for a lot of professionals.

    Let me know if that helps clarify (for better or worse)…

  4. Yeah, I think we’re in the same chapter, if not on the same page here. Still, the disagreements are the interesting parts..

    Much as I’d love to, you can’t remove Flash from the debate. As your RISD experience proves, it’s used in places where information retrieval *should* be the priority. And the reason it’s used is precisely because of the control it offers designers. If you want, we could talk about PDFs, which are a less pernicious version of the same idea.

    Fair point that there are sites where the designer controls both the look and the content. However, even on such sites, the content is often not static, so the designer doesn’t have a chance to ‘flight-check’ it before shipping it off to print (not that print designers bother to do that anymore, but that’s another conversation.) For a web example of the subway map, check out MARCtracker during the day: It’s not great (trains can pile up, making them tough to distinguish, but it’s pretty good. (And it’s not in Flash, despite the appearance.)

    It’s interesting that you mentioned google. I had thought about them after I posted the above. I submit the classic google page as an example of great web design. One text box and two buttons (and a few extra links.) It’s intuitive, it loads fast, and it does what it needs to. It was ultra-counter to the predominant idea of portals. And it was successful enough to become a verb.

  5. Much as I’d love to, you can’t remove Flash from the debate. As your RISD experience proves, it’s used in places where information retrieval *should* be the priority. And the reason it’s used is precisely because of the control it offers designers.

    You’re right that Flash is used because of the control it offers designers, and that’s why I think it should be removed from the debate. That is, as long as web designers can use Flash as an excuse—”Oh, those artsy folk, let them have their Flash, we’ll do it the right way”—then we won’t see much visual experimentation or innovation in web design. The visual style we see on the web now does grow from the code behind the sites, but saying “That’s just the way the web is” effectively closes off debate surrounding what the web could be.

    We won’t see web design that makes the print design crowd proud—and loads quickly, remains searchable, and can be easily updated—until something changes. And the architecture of the back end does change: We’re moving into HTML 5 and CSS is becoming more prevalent, which is a good start, but it does not go far enough. We’re more likely to see increased font support (and whatever else) if there’s actually a demand for these things.

    You’re also right that Google is a classic example of an excellent web page—for what it does. Its logo and color scheme are kind of boring (two things which could have been made more interesting without any loading speed costs I’m aware of), but its visual style does communicate, “Quick searches, no nonsense.” And even better is having a little search field in your browser window so you don’t even need to go to the Google main page. This approach has allowed Search to become the killer app of the web.

    So, sure, Google’s a well-designed site. But not every site is Google. Some sites require that kind of stark minimalism, but not all. (I know there are sites I prefer to read in their original form rather than through an RSS reader, but I am blanking on which.) For sites that are meant to encourage exploring or to deliver a striking message both verbally and visually—rather than to be blown through as quickly as possible—don’t we deserve something better than Flash?

  6. I had to think about this a bit. We’re essentially talking past each other at this point.

    You’re saying what the web should be. All the end-user friendly searchability of HTML, with all the design control of Flash. We can all agree that that would be teh coolest.

    I’m talking more about the past and present, with an eye toward the future. There’s an inherent conflict in those missions, and there are interests (e.g. “Adobe fonts pdf”) that are going to work against the useability position. So, I’m not sure we’re ever going to get to the promised land.

  7. Well, here’s where my own ignorance of the programming side of things becomes my greatest stumbling block. I don’t ever expect that the HTML-based web could offer all the control to designers that Flash offers, but I feel like there must be some middle ground that offers a bit more aesthetic control without sacrificing gains in usability.

    Probably my biggest problem here is that I’m unclear about which interests are really preventing us from reaching this “promised land.” Let’s stick with fonts for a moment: If we can embed fonts in PDFs, why can’t we do similarly in html documents? (Load time for users? Intellectual property issues?)

  8. I’m not a programmer, really, more of a nerd generalist. I have a toe in those waters, but someone could no doubt do a better job of this than I.

    That said, IP issues are the biggest problem. You’re dead on in picking out fonts as an example. In the case of fonts and PDFs, it gets complicated. Fonts are a not copyrightable, so it seems simple enough. BUT the programs (or code) that creates them is. Since PDFs are essentially a sub-set of PostScript, embedding fonts involves embedding code, which creates IP issues.

    Apart from that, Adobe defines the PDF standard, but it also makes a ton of cash from its font library (it’s a bit like Sony here, in that it creates content and players.) So, the PDF end throws all these difficulties up to prevent people from stealing fonts from PDFs, which in turn limit the usefulness of PDFs. The standard is relatively friendly if you own a font library, less so if you’re just trying to make a correction on a PDF someone gave you.

    PDFs were essentially the first version of Flash (write once, works (almost) anywhere.) So, even if/when HTML gets to that point, it’s probably going to end up encumbered similarly. CSS actually addresses this situation by degrading gracefully, when the obvious solution (and one supported by a hypertext precursor, Hypercard) was to embed the fonts.

  9. This is making a lot more sense to me now, Church. I came at this topic thinking that visual design on the web could be different if only people were motivated to make it so. Between your comments here (and those of Jacob, Keith, and Kai, with whom I chatted at length about this off-blog), I am much clearer on how it is that motivation for visual innovation would not be enough, even professional web designers were so inclined.

    I’m now exploring how this might all fit into a paper that sort of takes stock of this ongoing debate and attempts to contextualize it (especially for the benefit of graphic artists and others who may be less familiar with coding). You had mentioned before, Church, how this is a debate that is as old as HTML; if you happen to know of any great records of this debate (on the web, in books, wherever), I’d be really interested to read more about it. Thanks!

  10. Well, technically you don’t have to work until you’re on payroll. Remind me your social security number again..?

    (Just kidding. Identity theft is WRONG, kids! Don’t try it at home!)

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