The Web was conceived as a way for researchers and scientists to share documents, not as a medium for visual expression.
The aesthetics of Web pages, such as they were, derived from computer screens and typewritten documents. Early Web users no more felt the graphical limitations of the hypertext markup language (HTML) than they had resented having only one golf-ball font on their old IBM Selectrics. They were so delighted with the Net that the look was irrelevant.
First functionality, then bandwidth, and finally search were the key characteristics of good websites. Because people used a variety of browsers and operating systems to explore the Web, pages had to be flexible. The width of the window, the type size, the fonts themselves–all could vary and often did. The Web was so new and interesting, no one cared if it was ugly.
For many publishers and designers, New Media was born when John Gage, the Sun Microsystems evangelist, showed off the Mosaic browser (which later became Netscape) at the Seybold Seminar in Boston in April 1995. But some of the designers in the room stared at the big screen with little enthusiasm. To them, the browser was software, and that reminded them of work, but not of their work. Their control of the details, the high resolution of the printed page, the saturated color of photographs, the great library of typefaces–all this was threatened by New Media.
Like singing a song or writing a story, designing a printed page is a craft that is fundamentally unidirectional, or one-to-many. The flexibility of Web structures confounded and then humbled many traditional designers as they started trying to make Web pages. The whole thing had been developed to let the readers–the users, software developers confusingly called them, as if they were addicts–have control. How could that be good?
For these reasons, and others, most magazines’ websites until very recently were dull, repurposed versions of their print editions. Thus, a new crowd took on the design of websites. These enthusiasts assumed that the print crowd didn’t get it, that what they saw as the “new paradigm” would last forever. The two-way flow of information, the Web’s flexibility, immediacy, and cheapness, deeply appealed to them.
But it was not as if these early Web designers were starting with a blank page. They had to work within the limitations of the graphical browser, which at first could not even be divided into frames. The Mosaic browser itself had to work within the clunky graphical-user-interface conventions of the Windows operating system.
Enter the Information Architect
By 1995, however, a generation had grown up with the personal computer. Adapting to the quirks of another Windows application was no big deal. A new kind of specialist, the information architect, emerged. IAs tried to create an overall logic for the design of a site. But as the Web grew, the IA guys formed a kind of priesthood, with its own mysteries. Some proceeded as if information architecture should be separate from design.
By 1999, with the dot-com boom in full roar, Web development teams had broken into mutually uncomprehending groups: software developers, information architects, search experts, and even usability experts.
Amid the pandemonium, a lot of people got rich, and understandably, they got a little cocky. The “netizens” and “digerati” dismissed the old print guys as wood-pulp fetishists, deservedly headed for oblivion.
The Web grew, and users got used to the conventions of the Web interface. But for all its powers, the browser is trapped in a world of pull-down menus and dialogue boxes. This is not an easy world to move around in. Because the Web is based on HTML, we should have guessed that users would end up moving from link to link. Google understood this. Search became the preferred way to move around because the Web had gotten so big and sites so confusing that the easiest thing to do was to enter a keyword.
At the very instant that search seemed dominant, the nature of the Web began to change. While it has always been relatively easy to put stuff on a site, it became much easier with tools like Blogger and Movable Type, and simple blogs proliferated. With Friendster, and then MySpace, Web pages no longer came just from corporations, universities, and government; they came from everywhere.
But democratization did little to improve design. WordPress offered people templates for designed Web pages, but few bothered to modify them. Most blogs looked like blandly conventional websites. Although some creative folks put richer stories and picture scrapbooks on sites like LiveJournal, millions more just grabbed Web cameras and posted their videos to YouTube.
Going Beyond HTML
Design professionals, meanwhile, were turning away from HTML and moving toward the multimedia authoring technologies Adobe Flash and WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation, a competing technology from Microsoft). Advertisers, never satisfied with the look of the Web, started designing their ads as separate images, so they could control picture placement and use their own fonts. As bandwidth increased, ads began to pulse and jive with Flash.
Today, every design student and professional photographer seems to have a personal site done in Flash–some with unworkable interfaces, some with weird drippy graphics, a handful with marvelously smooth and elegant screens that use striking typography and motion.
It’s now possible to download whole Flash and WPF sites and run them when you want. One example is the New York Times Reader, for which I did some sketches, and which was reviewed on TechnologyReview.com (see “The Times Emulates Print on the Web,” May 2, 2006).
The typefaces are the Times’ own, and the fonts are clear. Columns are justified, and an algorithm limits the number of loose lines. If you resize the windows, columns reflow, pictures change size, and ads drop in and out.
Alas, Web designers are resisting new ideas like the Times Reader. But Web designers rejected Flash in the beginning, too. Perhaps it’s unsettling for the digerati to realize that their new paradigm is already getting old.
For the rest of us, the possibility of richer forms for Internet media is welcome. Communications will continue on the HTML Web, but now more-compelling storytelling in text and motion pictures is being brought online by new “clients” like Flash and WPF.
This may still not feel like home for old print designers who like to do things one page at a time, like artists. But TV, magazines, and newspapers are converging online and will soon enough appear on portable, cheap screens, carrying the branding of the old world, like the Times Reader. It won’t be the old experience, though; it will have to be interactive.
Designers won’t have much success in this new world if they try to design each rich screen one at a time. Already, the best Web designers make templates that work together in a design system. Why not make it possible for the users to adapt these as they see fit?
Maybe the way for designers to take control of the medium is to let it go. They should just design templates for everyone to use. (Click here to view Roger Black’s alternate three-column design template of a Technology Review article page and click here to view the single-column design version.)
Roger Black has designed more magazines than any other living graphic designer–Technology Review among them. He has also designed many websites, including Bloomberg.com and MSNBC.com.
More design articles: Take an inside look at the making of the Ocean, a new phone from a company called Helio (see “Soul of a New Machine”). Take a decidedly non-inside look at how Apple approaches design (see “Different”), and read a review of how Apple remains deeply committed to being a computer company (see “The ‘New’ Apple”). Find out what Bill Moggridge, a cofounder of Ideo and designer of the GRiD Compass, thinks makes good design (see Q&A). Take a glimpse at the pieces of technology that the prominent industrial designers featured in these articles say have influenced the way they think about their work (see “Objects of Desire”). Finally, hear from Technology Review’s Editor in Chief, Jason Pontin, on the well-designed technologies that are “beautiful machines” in this video.