Web Design Woes

Posted on 16 June 2010

This latest addition to the “Historical Perspective” section was originally inspired by a post on a fellow Web Designer’s site. Originally posted on September 5, 2003, some of the content may be a bit dated but the overall concepts and intent are timeless. In trying to revive Anthurian, I’ve been questioning my intentions and sensibilities, both creatively and as a content creator.

I am a person who spends an inordinate amount of time surfing the Internet and I clearly recognize that my design and implementation of any new site is highly influenced by that fact. My designs may be overly-influenced by the Web to some extent — I have pictures of Jakob Nielsen hanging around my desk at work and love reading essays by Edward Tufte, but that does not mean that I’ve been successful at implementing any of the things that they advocate. I’d like to believe that my designs are accessible, usable, intuitive, well thought out, and (somewhat) pleasing to the user — but there is no guarantee that my adventures in objectivity will end with the results I desire. Web developers (of all veins: designers, programmers, architects, etc.) are all a product of their environment and the way in which they have chosen to perceive the Internet. I find myself leaning heavily towards the Web Standards, Usability, Information Architecture, and “Content-Is-King” camps and I try to push some of what I have learned about those topics into my designs. In many instances there is a certain amount of success that comes from bringing all of these things together for a site while, in other cases there are serious limitations to approaching a project from such a perspective. I tend to view a Web site as only a conduit for information and ideas — ideas and information that need to be presented in an intuitive, useful, AND visually-compelling manner.

So it seems that the real task is to learn how to view the world from outside of the environment that you have made for yourself. Even though the Internet offers a lot of possibilities for us to come in contact with new (and different) concepts and philosophies, it is a terrible “educator” on those philosophies. Usually, there is little incentive for us to break out of the comfort zone we have constructed for ourselves. It is very easy to develop a site based on the principals of Usability or Web Standards but one must be careful that the site doesn’t fall prey to focusing on only one philosophy. As Adam points out, the CSS Zen Garden offers a glimpse into what can happen when all of the various Web philosophies out there converge.

Another convergence comes with Macromedia’s (relatively) recent vow to make their products more standards-compliant, usable, and accessible. Prior to them making this shift Dreamweaver, their WYSIWYG Web development program, and Flash were two of the worst culprits as far as Web-philosophy myopia went. Dreamweaver was notorious for writing “bloat-code” that would bring a creative developers idea to life but which was totally impractical from a code-view aspect. The HTML that Dreamweaver output contained line upon line of extraneous code that increased the files overall size thereby slowing it’s download time for end users. There was also the fact that this auto-generated code was not easily readable by any human and, if a creative developer did not truly understand HTML or how the Web works, there was a serious chance that they could produce a site which would “break” when released into the wilds of the Internet. Add in Flash to this equation and what ended up evolving were thousands upon thousands of sites which had a useless intro movie (Remember? The ones with the “skip intro” button somewhere and the pounding techno soundtrack?) which would then direct users to a Home page that, although beautiful aesthetically, was extremely difficult to navigate and often buried actual content behind pointless graphic treatments.

Thankfully, things have changed and we have started to see a shift in how the Web looks. Today there are more and more sites which combine philosophies successfully, marrying the perspectives of their developers in a way that doesn’t exclude any one point of view while not focusing to strongly on another. On the other hand though, there are sites which focus too highly on accessibility or information architecture, for example, and forget the real people who are visiting the site. While these sites are usually wonderful examples of the philosophy that they promote, they forget about the fact that there is a human on the other side of the screen.

I know that I haven’t achieved perfection in my designs but I’m willing to learn and grow. There are enough resources on the Web to keep me busy for quite awhile, but the Web is still only one medium and we are confronted with so many mediums that focusing on one limits our possibilities. Habits can be broken, and some should be, but there are other habits which evolve based on what we are exposed to. Our job is to get out and expose ourselves to those new, different, and influential resources which cause us to grow.

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