Winter 2007

The look of Web 2.0

Robin Richmond
Technology special [EXTRACT]

Does the new wave of social media site design denote a shift in communication? Or is it just the ‘new black’?

Movements come and go. Some pass on before you’ve had time to really notice, but most designers know that right now we are living through the Web 2.0 era. Clients routinely want interfaces to be ‘Web 2.0’, but the question is whether there is a real understanding of the phenomena or whether the underlying request is to make a site contemporary in look and feel. In other words: Web 2.0 is the ‘new black’.

The real difference between the first phase of the internet and 2.0 is that the latter refers to the ways that software developers and end-users interact with the internet, and doesn’t specifically rely on developments in new technology. In fact, many of the technical components of Web 2.0 have existed since before the dotcom boom. Web 2.0 refers to the second generation of Web-based communities, hosted services and platforms, most notably social network websites (such as Facebook), wikis (where users can edit and link Web pages such as Wikipedia) and folksonomies (social ‘tagging’ where creators and users can manage tags to annotate and characterise content).

Like many big trends, Web 2.0 wipes out all that came before it. Personal websites are so yesterday – blogs are today’s 2.0 accessory. Where Netscape was the badge of the dotcom revolution, Google is the standard-bearer for Web 2.0. Although Google is probably a transitional first-phase product, it is the ‘killer app’ that has become the most successful face of Web 2.0. Its strength is that it doesn’t rely on how it looks, it just works with simplicity and power as a platform . . .

. . .

For all the talk about Web 2.0, we are still right at the beginning of the internet. Regardless of classifications, trends and styles, there are some applications, such as Netvibes.com, that empower users to create and invent their own outcomes. It would be encouraging to see the development of a meaningful visual language that reflects the innovation of the best new products on the Web. So why do designers produce so much faux Web 2.0 garbage? The answer appears to be that aspiring brands (paradoxically) do not have high aspirations in design, only requiring low-denominator messages. Strong Web 2.0 apps are, by their nature, simple and driven by information and the opportunity that content may change around the user. Let’s not get confused between the simplicity of function and the way the design business is interpreting these factors into interfaces. The brand formula for these experiences is clear and minimal but boring. A visit to Templatemonster.com reveals a tired set of familiar pages unveiled as Web 2.0 templates.

Design needs to become the centre of the creative process. At the moment it is usually included as a wallpaper covering somewhere late in the defining of a product. But design is an iterative process. It questions and provides due diligence, verifying content and format. Designers need to accept their roles as communicators and agitators to help and confront clients and affect content in both visual and intellectual terms. Web 2.0 design is largely an off-the-shelf-look. Who really cares what we call the design of Web pages? What matters is a return to intelligent thinking and bespoke design solutions that are driven by Web content. The challenge is ours to accept.

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