No. 249


		November 20, 2007
		Understanding Web Design
	Jeffrey Zeldman

				Published in: Industry, Politics and Money, State of the Web,
Graphic Design, Layout, Typography, User Interface Design, Creativity
					Discuss this article »

	We get better design when we understand our medium. Yet even at this
late cultural hour, many people don’t understand web design.
Among them can be found some of our most distinguished business and
cultural leaders, including a few who possess a profound grasp of
design—except as it relates to the web.

	Some who don’t understand web design nevertheless have the job
of creating websites or supervising web designers and developers.
Others who don’t understand web design are nevertheless
professionally charged with evaluating it on behalf of the rest of us.
Those who understand the least make the most noise. They are the ones
leading charges, slamming doors, and throwing money—at all the
wrong people and things.

	If we want better sites, better work, and better-informed clients,
the need to educate begins with us.

Preferring real estate to architecture

	It’s hard to understand web design when you don’t
understand the web. And it’s hard to understand the web when
those who are paid to explain it either don’t get it themselves,
or are obliged for commercial reasons to suppress some of what they
know, emphasizing the Barnumesque over the brilliant.

	The news media too often gets it wrong. Too much internet journalism
follows the money; too little covers art and ideas. Driven by editors
pressured by publishers worried about vanishing advertisers, even
journalists who understand the web spend most of their time writing
about deals and quoting dealmakers. Many do this even when the
statement they’re quoting is patently self-serving and
ludicrous—like Zuckerberg’s Law.

	It’s not that Zuckerberg’s not news; and it’s not
that business isn’t some journalists’ beat. But focusing
on business to the exclusion of all else is like reporting on real
estate deals while ignoring architecture.

	And one tires of the news narrative’s one-dimensionalism. In
1994, the web was weird and wild, they told us. In ‘99 it was a
kingmaker; in ‘01, a bust. In ‘02, news folk discovered
blogs; in ‘04, perspiring guest bloggers on CNN explained how
citizen journalists were reinventing news and democracy and would
determine who won that year’s presidential election. I forget
how that one turned out.

	When absurd predictions die ridiculous deaths, nobody resigns from
the newsroom, they just throw a new line into the water—like
marketers replacing a slogan that tanked. After decades of news
commoditization, what’s amazing is how many good reporters there
still are, and how hard many try to lay accurate information before
the public. Sometimes you can almost hear it beneath the roar of the
grotesque and the exceptional.

The sustainable circle of self-regard

	News media are not the only ones getting it wrong. Professional
associations get it wrong every day, and commemorate their wrongness
with an annual festival. Each year, advertising and design magazines
and professional organizations hold contests for “new media
design” judged by the winners of last year’s competitions.
That they call it “new media design” tells them nothing
and you and me everything.

	Although there are exceptions, for the most part the creators of
winning entries see the web as a vehicle for advertising and marketing
campaigns in which the user passively experiences Flash and video
content. For the active user, there is gaming—but what you and I
think of as active web use is limited to clicking a “Digg this
page” button.

	The winning sites look fabulous as screen shots in glossy design
annuals. When the winners become judges, they reward work like their
own. Thus sites that behave like TV and look good between covers
continue to be created, and a generation of clients and art directors
thinks that stuff is the cream of web design.

Design critics get it wrong, too

	People who are smart about print can be less bright about the web.
Their critical faculties, honed to perfection during the Kerning Wars,
smash to bits against the barricades of our profession.

	The less sophisticated lament on our behalf that we are stuck with
ugly fonts. They wonder aloud how we can enjoy working in a medium
that offers us less than absolute control over every atom of the
visual experience. What they are secretly asking is whether or not we
are real designers. (They suspect that we are not.) But these are the
juniors, the design students and future critics. Their opinions are
chiefly of interest to their professors, and one prays they have good

	More sophisticated critics understand that the web is not print and
that limitations are part of every design discipline. Yet even these
eggheads will sometimes succumb to fallacious comparatives.
(I’ve done it myself, although long ago and strictly for
giggles.) Where are the masterpieces of web design, these critics cry.
That Google Maps might be as representative of our age as the Mona
Lisa was of Leonardo’s—and as brilliant, in its
way—satisfies many of us as an answer, but might not satisfy the
design critic in search of a direct parallel to, oh, I don’t
know, let’s say Milton Glaser’s iconic Bob Dylan poster.

Typography, architecture, and web design

	The trouble is, web design, although it employs elements of graphic
design and illustration, does not map to them. If one must compare the
web to other media, typography would be a better choice. For a web
design, like a typeface, is an environment for someone else’s
expression. Stick around and I’ll tell you which site design is
like Helvetica.

	Architecture (the kind that uses steel and glass and stone) is also
an apt comparison—or at least, more apt than poster design. The
architect creates planes and grids that facilitate the dynamic
behavior of people. Having designed, the architect relinquishes
control. Over time, the people who use the building bring out and add
to the meaning of the architect’s design.

	Of course, all comparisons are gnarly by nature. What is the
“London Calling” of television? Who is the Jane Austen of
automotive design? Madame Butterfly is not less beautiful for having
no car chase sequence, peanut butter no less tasty because it cannot

So what is web design?

	Web design is not book design, it is not poster design, it is not
illustration, and the highest achievements of those disciplines are
not what web design aims for. Although websites can be delivery
systems for games and videos, and although those delivery systems can
be lovely to look at, such sites are exemplars of game design and
video storytelling, not of web design. So what is web design?

	Web design is the creation of digital environments that facilitate
and encourage human activity; reflect or adapt to individual voices
and content; and change gracefully over time while always retaining
their identity.

	Let’s repeat that, with emphasis:

	Web design is the creation of digital environments that facilitate
and encourage human activity; reflect or adapt to individual voices
and content; and change gracefully over time while always retaining
their identity.

She walks in beauty

	Great web designs are like great typefaces: some, like Rosewood,
impose a personality on whatever content is applied to them. Others,
like Helvetica, fade into the background (or try to), magically
supporting whatever tone the content provides. (We can argue tomorrow
whether Helvetica is really as neutral as water.)

	Which web design is like that? For one, Douglas Bowman’s white
“Minima” layout for Blogger, used by literally millions of
writers—and it feels like it was designed for each of them
individually. That is great design.

	Great web designs are like great buildings. All office buildings,
however distinctive, have lobbies and bathrooms and staircases.
Websites, too, share commonalities.

	Although a great site design is completely individual, it is also a
great deal like other site designs that perform similar functions. The
same is true of great magazine and newspaper layouts, which differ
from banal magazine and newspaper layouts in a hundred subtle details.
Few celebrate great magazine layouts, yet millions consciously or
unconsciously appreciate them, and nobody laments that they are not

	The inexperienced or insufficiently thoughtful designer complains
that too many websites use grids, too many sites use columns, too many
sites are “boxy.” Efforts to avoid boxiness have been
around since 1995; while occasionally successful, they have most often
produced aesthetically wretched and needlessly unusable designs.

	The experienced web designer, like the talented newspaper art
director, accepts that many projects she works on will have headers
and columns and footers. Her job is not to whine about emerging
commonalities but to use them to create pages that are distinctive,
natural, brand-appropriate, subtly memorable, and quietly but
unmistakably engaging.

	If she achieves all that and sweats the details, her work will be
beautiful. If not everyone appreciates this beauty—if not
everyone understands web design—then let us not cry for web
design, but for those who cannot see. 

Illustration by Kevin Cornell

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		  Related Topics: Industry, Politics and Money, State of the Web,
Graphic Design, Layout, Typography, User Interface Design, Creativity
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			About the Author
		Zeldman founded and publishes A List Apart and The Daily Report,
cofounded and for several years led The Web Standards Project, founded
and is executive creative director of Happy Cog  Studios, wrote
Designing With Web Standards 3rd Ed. with Ethan Marcotte, cofounded An
Event Apart with Eric Meyer, and is on the faculty of the MFA
Interaction Design program at School of Visual Arts in NYC.


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