Winter 2003

Science, Criticism and Critical Science

Deep Sites:

Intelligent Innovation in Contemporary Web Design
By Max Bruinsma
Thames & Hudson, £18.95

What is the purpose of writing dead-tree books about Web design? What is the point of using an old medium to discuss a new one? Isn’t the new medium perfectly able to discuss itself?

Weblogging librarian Jenny Levine (theShiftedLibrarian.com) explains that, through books, ‘the concept of blogs will officially be catalogued and indexed in our collective memory (not just the memory of those of us who live online). And as a librarian, I feel it’s important to get some historical perspective and preservation of the early years.’

Max Bruinsma’s Deep Sites fulfills this archival function, while adding an overtone of curator or editor that’s typical of overview books on the Web: they talk about sites the author likes, and such is Bruinsma’s strength and weakness. His criticisms originate in a philosophy that’s tried-and-true, but actually outdated.

There is, of course, the issue of rendering an ever-mutating medium, often equipped with multimedia and animation, on the printed page. What is little discussed is how nice Web pages tend to look in the compacted screenshots found in computer books. Bruinsma and his designer Annelys de Vet pack an enormous mosaic of screen captures on to each page, and they work well as pure documentation. But an oddball anachronism of a book concerning the Web is the use of catchwords – the first words of the next page printed at the bottom of the current one. Rather Victorian. But Franklin Gothic is at root a letterpress face, and looks brilliant and overprecise even in the ITC variants printed on the book’s coated stock.

Since they all use the Web and tend to evaluate sites through the graphic-arts prism, designers tend to be ignorant of trends in Web development that are unrelated to appearance. Deep Sites’ subtitle ‘Intelligent Innovation in Contemporary Web Design’ makes Bruinsma’s deficiency in this respect all the more ironic. By far the most intelligent innovation in contemporary Web design is standards compliance: designing sites in accordance with published standards for HTML and accessibility for people with disabilities. (That means valid HTML and adherence to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, among other things – see Webstandards.org.)

By dividing Deep Sites into topic areas that pertain mostly to looks and behaviour in his own browsers (including the notoriously-noncompliant Netscape 4), Bruinsma recapitulates the typical error of print designers approaching the Web: that the guts under the hood – all the HTML and other coding – serve no goal other than producing a site that looks good and works for them. That isn’t intelligent, innovative, or contemporary at all.

Bruinsma himself nails the argument for standards compliance in his ‘Skip-intro’: ‘For designers, few things are as annoying as seeing a carefully orchestrated arrangement of texts and images fall apart on every other computer screen than their own . . . the interface and its visual representation do not hover generically over a site’s subject matter, rather, they are part and parcel of it.’ I just wish the book gave us proof. It would be an interesting exercise to republish this book with the addition of an assessment of each site’s standards compliance.

Still, even if one resignedly accepts that Bruinsma’s conception of the Web is sort of ancien régime nowadays, in all fairness he has a good solid eye for his topic areas: Interface, Typography, Animation, Community, and the only theme unrelated to æsthetics, Authoring. But Bruinsma’s varying tone and concision are frustrating. This former editor of Eye can spot genuine innovation in a site, as with Natzke.com, and sum it up nicely: ‘[Erik] Natzke experiments a great deal with Flash to make transitions from one page to another less awkward than the usual “hard cuts” or empty screens that say “please wait“.’ But he will also noodle along with descriptions so plain they belong in a courtroom deposition, as with DEPT.nl: ‘In a parody of the Web’s most popular content . . . the soundtrack behind this page is a metallic female computer voice, frigidly reciting the most obscene proposals.’

At what point do sites bearing little or no innovative graphic design become interesting? Peter Bilak’s website, PeterB.sk, is supposedly of interest because ‘any hint of frivolity . . . is relegated to the contents . . . [with] a strict typographic austerity, both in the choice of typeface (Courier) and of coding (simple HTML).’ Cornel Windlin and Stephan Müller’s Lineto.com ‘rigidly poses as being ”undesigned”’; who says that’s a pose, and how is it intelligent, innovative, or contemporary? How does undesign square with Bruinsma’s praise of C6.org, whose tricky speed-sensitive scrolling method ‘should be followed more widely’?

In survey books on Web design, graphic knowledge is not enough. You need solid technical qualifications to address and record for posterity ‘the interface and its visual representation’. What designers, and critics, seem to need is greater training in Web structure and development. Give us some science with the art.

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