There have been a couple of interesting articles recently about the quality of contemporary web design, namely Landmark Web Sites, Where Art Thou by Armin Vit at Speak Up and Something’s Missing in Web Design by Khoi Vinh at Subtraction. Having recently been engaged in writing a critical review of contemporary practice as part of my research, I can understand the level of frustration expressed. The main points made by both articles question how a field that is so vibrant and vast, not to mention growing at an unprecedented rate has yet to yield what are traditionally deemed landmarks of good design. The comments in response to Vit’s article are telling, with many people citing examples of landmark websites, famed for their commercial success or as a web application paradigm, rather than for the quality of their design per se. The key question is not what are the landmark websites – but what and where are the landmark designs in the infinitely expanding webosphere?!
In my review I have been looking at best practice in all areas of screen typography, amongst which web typography is obviously key. My findings so far demonstrate that there is a huge amount of activity in the technical area of web typography, for example how to implement various typographic properties through CSS and how best to write semantic markup in CSS etc. However, in the area design aesthetics and typographic composition there seems to be much less emphasis, publishing or debate, with a few notable exceptions such as Mark Boulton. Many of the leading figures now emerging in the field of web typography are little known in the traditional field of print typography. Equally, many of the best-known print typographers and designers appear not to be engaged in web design work or they are not recognised for their web work (yet). Even a recent Overview of Web Design in Eye Magazine (64), failed to capture the complexity of the territory web design or provide a rigorous critique from a design perspective.
There is no question that technology is a barrier for many traditional designers, along with a palpable frustration regarding the ‘clunkiness’ of the medium and the perceived lack of control over design details when compared to print. The prevalence of W3C standards and of privileging functional rather than aesthetic concerns also add to the perceived difficulty of working in this media by traditional designers. The investment of time required to learn CSS, amongst the many other additional technical skills, is not attractive to those whose compulsion to make things (especially of a material nature) is their first priority.
There are lots of individual examples of good website design (I can cite many), but it is much harder to find single individuals or companies whose portfolio of work sustains consistent design quality over the last decade independent of changes and new developments in technology. When compared with graphic design for print, web design is in its infancy. Consider that anyone with ten years plus experience is considered a veteran of web design. Everyone has heard the comparison of web years to dog years.
Naturally, there are always a few exceptions. The original Deepend company in the UK made consistently great work and Fred Flade (originally a Deepender) went on to form Deconstruct (with other Deependers) in 2001. They are still creating design work that is both creatively and technically adroit, though it’s a shame they took down their previous website in 2004 (the current one has been in development for ages!). They have also contributed to that now pervasive Flash aesthetic of kinetic interface and information design. Yuko Nagamura also stands apart from the voluminous fog of sheer quantity that inhabits the web arena. He must be acknowledged for experimentation that was (and still is) far ahead of the mainstream. Yugop is another example of creative and technical innovation, and yet despite the technical prowess of Nagamura’s work, design and aesthetics have equal precedence. One final notable example is the portfolio of work by Group 94, a Belgian web design and development company. Their work speaks for itself. It is consistently well designed and executed with a rigourous attention to detail. Again the technical infrastructure appears cleverly integrated to equally address aesthetic and functional aspects of web design.
A clear finding from my research is the lack of published critical design reviews of the field of contemporary practice in not only web design, but screen design work in general, and most starkly screen typography. It is difficult to critique a field that has yet to be chronologically mapped, defined or even classified, and where change is continual. There is no Philip Meggs reference for web design or screen typography. Perhaps it’s too soon, or maybe we need a different way of doing it. There are countless references (Motionographer, Veer, Computerlove), but few critical ones (Design Observer). Either way, we need visual critical frameworks to judge and evaluate web design, not just functional ones. The likes of Jakob Nielsen is not appropriate. We need the ability to critique web design in granular detail addressing design concept, design treatment (typography, composition, colour etc) and design methodology.
To create (and identify) landmarks of web design we need this soon.