January 15, 2014

Critical Web Design

Earlier today Jason Santa Maria published this post on The Pastry Box Project about the language we use to talk about web design and its contexts and history. I can’t really express enough how much I agree, and after reading it so many thoughts were swimming in my head that I had to write a response.

Here’s my favorite excerpt from his piece:

The essays they published [in Emigré] helped shape the way I thought about design. That kind of critical discourse about design on the web is all but non-existent.

We talk all the time on our personal and periodical sites about the latest techniques for design, but how often do we break down new designs? I mean really discuss them, not just add them to a gallery of notable sites.

One thing that I’ve always kept in the back of my mind is that compared to almost any other kind of design, the field of web design has a general lack of people discussing it in a way that’s not about the tools. Do a google search on web design and you’ll soon be drowning in tutorials, tips, tricks, hacks, and discussions about which languages or best practices are currently hip. But writings and talks about the ‘why’ of web design are few and far between. (This is what I enjoyed so much about attending Brooklyn Beta: there wasn’t a single technical talk the whole event!)

The obvious disadvantage of web design as a practice is that it’s so young compared to print, or architecture, or fashion. But another big problem is that the current landscape of web design is incredibly fragmented. Look at charts like this one as an example of the kind of mess we get into when we try to define what web designers actually do.

The result is that it’s currently quite hard to approach web design from a hollistic perspective, and that affects our discourse. We get all of our language about interaction design from the fields of Human Computer Interaction and Psychology. Our design priciples come from Print Design. Our development terminology is that of Engineering and Computer Science. There’s a lot of intelligent ‘why’ writing about each field individually, but a lot less about them all together.

Not only does it affect our discourse, but also our history and inspiration, as Jason points out. As a student, this is especially frustrating because it makes it difficult to critique design on the web without coming at it from at least three varying and sometimes conflicting perspectives. And it affects how we see our work too: am I a designer or a developer? Do I do UI or UX? On my website I’ve chosen to be vague and say that I ‘make things that go on the Internet’. It has its pros and cons: I’d like to be seen as a generalist and prevent myself from being pigeonholed, but it’s quite scary to be launched into the job market without a quick and pithy way to sell your skillset.

I feel like this fragmentation is holding us back as practicioners, students, and educators. I’d love to see more integration between what people see as distinct fields within web design, so we can analyze websites with proper context and talk about them critically without ignoring other perspectives. Hopefully with a hollistic view of design on the web we can get ourselves into a sort of Captain Planet situation and really focus on advancing the medium.