Debate – Design Is Dead!

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Welcome to another SitePoint debate! This time, two passionate authors argue over one of the great mysteries of the Internet: Is Design Dead? Don’t forget to read the opposing viewpoint so you can make up your own mind…

Web Design is Dead! End of story… but was it ever really alive? That is the question.

I’m sure this statement will easily set off salvos of spirited debate within two distinct camps we’ve all come to know well in our strange little IT world: Web designer versus Web developer. Will anything be solved? Not likely… but it always makes for good fireworks (pun intended).

I consider myself a Web Developer, that is, someone who not only designs Web pages, but programs them, secures them, and hosts them, etc. The Web Designer, in my opinion, is basically a graphics and layout person concerned primarily with "the look" of a site. And this is where I base my argument, and definition of design: as far as creative artistic innovation is concerned, whether it’s on the Web, in print, or in any other media format, design is dead.

Now, both a developer and a designer share a common goal in that they need to present an attractive and usable Website to a given target audience. These two components, attractiveness and usability, are compulsory components of any site that hopes for success. They also need to exist in crucial balance with one another according to the needs of the target audience. If a site is too pretty, too stylish, or too avant-garde etc., it will likely turn off many users, especially the millions of novice to intermediate users that comprise the bulk of today’s Internet surfers. However, as these people become more Web-savvy, they’ll demand a degree of quality, efficiency, or authenticity from their Web pages that only a polished and professional looking site can offer — especially when it comes to ecommerce capability. If the site involves too much "clutter" or distraction, or presents too great a learning curve for users just to know the basics, visitors of all skill levels will leave — and leave fast (I know I sure do).

Therefore, once this balance between usability and "polish" is reached, I believe that there commences a type of "law of diminishing returns" as far as the design or look of the site is concerned. For example, only in very exclusive artistic circles, or perhaps an image-based industry such as film, TV, or advertising, will any type of intricate or elaborate design structure be valued and appreciated. For most of today’s Web surfers, with their ever-decreasing attention spans and equally unimpressive Web connections, Web content must attract their attention — yes — but also be familiar enough for instant use. If it’s not, they’re gone. And again, even the skilled Web user from a niche target audience is more than likely to leave a quickly if the pages don’t provide substance over flash (pun again intended).

So I will give design its "props" in terms of establishing an efficient, well laid out structure for information presentation; however, Web design as a form of establishing a unique creative vision or presence is not only dead, but was never really alive to begin with.

From its infancy, the Internet was a way for people to share in information efficiently. Now I’ll admit that the Web is a different medium than print or TV, and there were specific design principles that arose to take advantage of this new communications tool. However, like all good fundamentals, these principles don’t change. They’ve remained virtually static for years — and will continue to do so, despite claims to the contrary made by the design community. Again, let me preface this argument by saying my point of view is from my North American/Western European perspective, so I freely admit that an argument from another culture has the potential to shoot my theory full of holes… But by the same token, this is a perspective from the region in which the Internet originated, along with many other powerful media formats as we know them today.

Successful design principles and user behavior patterns from these other media formats were integrated to provide a basis for Web page design and development when the Web was young. These fundamentals are plainly evident in two of the most widely used and respected Web designces available: The Web Style Guide from Yale University, and Jakob Neilson’s Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity.

The Web Style Guide is an excellent resource, illustrating the need for a consistent and familiar layout that is in tune with how we human beings process information, especially from within the confines of a Web browser. Jakob Neilson takes this basic premise and elaborates on how important it is to use tried and true design methods, or risk losing your audience. For example, in an article from his "Alertbox" of July 2000 he specifically points out that "Websites must tone down their individual appearance and distinct design in all ways: visual design, terminology and labeling, interaction design and workflow, information architecture". Nielson argues, and I agree, that this is necessary because of four main trends that need to be addressed by a site’s design:

  1. the user’s experience,
  2. the mobile Internet,
  3. network computing, and
  4. syndicated content and services.

The one common element that all these trends share is that they demand standard conventions and simplistic design principles that will not confuse or overwhelm either an end-user, or a new hardware/software innovation.

Also, what was once considered ‘design’ is now being built into the browser as functionality (e.g. back buttons, bookmarks, email/media tools, etc). The actual pages that make up a Website are increasingly concerned only with the display of content — a task that requires no artistic creativity, and benefits greatly from standardized and efficient presentation. This trend is obvious in many situations, such as the deprecation of older HTML tags in favor of the standardized XHTML, CSS, XML, and other coding technologies and practices.

There are many who’ll argue that, with the rapid increase in new cable TV channels/outlets, magazines, and Websites, our society and media choices are becoming more complex and sophisticated. Supporters believe that, as such, each medium requires a new level of specialization targeted specially to the niche markets that it addresses. This is the 21st Century, after all. We’ll need newer and more innovative designs to continually illuminate and drive this media explosion, right? Wrong!

The simple fact is that this idea of increased choice is an illusion. Yes, there is definitely more to choose from in terms of number of channels, magazines, and Web pages; however, your choice is controlled and disseminated by fewer people or companies each day. For these companies to stay in business, they must restrict and control innovation for the sake of their corporate image; it’s all about fostering familiarity with their brand, or logo (read Naomi Klein’s No Logo for more info).

When was the last time you saw the Nike Swoosh and the Golden Arches "overhauled"? Why are these symbols referred to as proper nouns and instantly trigger recognition in our heads? Why do all the news channels and shows all sound and look the same? And why, for that matter, do our papers? Individual control and expression has been more or less eliminated in all forms of mass media. It’s been replaced by a large corporate hegemony which believes that, in order to survive in today’s market place, you need to brand, brand, brand, stamp your logo everywhere, and control everything about the use of your image. To not do so is corporate suicide.

The result is that people, whether they are shopping at WalMart, going to see a movie at a multi-plex, consuming fast food, or surfing the Web, now need to feel comfortable in a common and well known environment. They’ve grown used to the familiar, and indeed now demand it. It’s obvious that innovative design doesn’t lend itself to the communication of the feelings of familiarity required to coddle existing consumers, and entice new ones.

So what are we left with? I’ll admit there are some pretty cool "out there" design concepts on the Web. However, haven’t you noticed that even these sites basically look and feel the same? Most aredone in Flash with "funky navigation" and "cool fades" and "pre-loaders" and … hey, this is starting to sound familiar. Even the so-called "cutting edge" sites still "play by the rules".

But this is a good thing — and something I wish more designers would acknowledge. That is: there needs to be a core element of sameness to any creation for it to be of "use" to anyone outside the individual author, artist, or Web developer. People are not only influenced stylistically by what has come before, but by what has "worked" before. Almost every day, clients come to me and say in their first breath that they want a "new" design to suit their "individual" need. And in their next, they say they want "something that looks like my competitor", or "that looks like Company X" etc.

So, is true creative design alive? No. But then, it never really was… well, maybe for a brief moment when Grog painted that first antelope on his cave wall. But, since then, it has been a matter of constant re-interpretation of what has come before, in order to best convey a commonly understood meaning to a group of people in an efficient manner.

From a "cookie cutter" Website, to a form of "radical shock art", designers and artists play by a set of rules and patterns to elicit their desired response from a target audience. And the fact that we are now faced with actually fewer avenues of innovation due to the conglomeration of media companies only further proves this point. Design is indeed dead.

Don’t stop there! Find out why Design Is Not Dead!, and decide for yourself which opinion you support!

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