Spring 2005

Love the Internet

Accessibility, usability, the W3C … are graphic designers finally coming to terms with the Web?

Since its commercial emergence in the mid-1990s, the relationship between the Internet and graphic designers has been an uneasy one. The Net’s early promise as a new frontier for graphic design (and an El Dorado of fat fees and limitless work) was soon undermined by the subsequent ‘dot-com meltdown’, and by the Web’s obstinate refusal to accommodate the control-freakery of graphic designers. The HTML page, with its lack of fixity, was anathema to designers who had been raised in print-media and were accustomed to having near-total control over the end result. Many designers were dismissive of the medium’s typographic inexactitude and its 72dpi crudeness, and found the so-called democratising nature of the Internet to be intolerable: how could you love a medium that allowed the end user to change the type size to suit themselves?

On the other hand, there were cyber-design-visionaries who evangelically announced a brave new world of graphic communication incorporating motion, sound and interactivity, and which, it was claimed, would sweep away the entropic medium of print. Malcolm Garrett famously predicted the ‘death of the book’. He was talking about CD-ROM, another mainstay of the nascent digital culture, but his words became a battle cry for net-heads. Cyber evangelism was to have an unsettling effect on print designers who, if only fleetingly, experienced thoughts of inadequacy and redundancy, as glamorous companies like Razorfish and Deepend rushed towards a sexier, more luminescent and screen-based future.

Today, it is only the most fastidious of print designers who have failed (or chosen) to reach a rapprochement with the Web. Not only are countless graphic designers engaged in Web design, but few design projects of any size are ‘print-only’; most commercial communications are now ‘cross-platform’, and the Internet is as fundamental to the working practices of modern graphic designers as the drawing-board, T-square and mapping pen were to previous generations.

Yet the fact remains that the Internet is the place where graphic design has encountered its greatest challenge since the arrival of computerised design, and that the technical and aesthetic problems associated with Web design are perhaps the most taxing and knotty issues facing the contemporary graphic designer – especially those with metaphorical printer’s ink stains on their fingers.

For designers who have grown up and been educated in the Web-era, some of the aesthetic scruples of previous generations are incomprehensible. I was working recently with a young Web designer who cheerfully told me that he liked widows in text. He is a designer who has embraced the online world without any of the hand-wringing of the pre-Web generation; for him, the Web is a place unencumbered with the conventions of graphic design formalism, and a place to put into practice the multimedia skills that are second nature to him, and many like him. Yet Web design is a messy battlefield with no sign of peace breaking out. The Web-developer blogs and online discussion groups seethe with rancorous debate about the merits and demerits of various competing technologies, and the nature of online design.

‘The problems presented to the Web designer are different from the ones presented to the print designer,’ notes Michele Jannuzzi, of London-based design company Jannuzzi Smith. ‘Screen size, colours, monitor manufacturer, the limited ways in which you can display typefaces, the endless combination of results determined by operating systems and browsers, etc., all make Web design different from print design. The main difference is that the point of delivery is no longer controlled by the producer. All books share an identical technology; a Web page is viewed by different technologies at the other end.’ However, the practical differences between Web and print design are not the only factors shaping the look of websites. Not only is the technology subject to constant revision, but the demands of both clients and users are evolving at a hyperactive rate. Solutions that seemed sensible last week are rendered out of date the next.

James King is studying Computer Related Design at the Royal College of Art in London. He’s a smart thinker, and comfortable with the technical and intellectual rigours of the Internet: ‘I don’t think its possible to approach Web design now without a practical understanding of the technology that underlies it,’ he says, ‘and this is where progress is being driven at an exciting rate, primarily by the open-source community and especially by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). I find it difficult to keep up.’

But accelerating technology is not the only factor. The commercialisation of the Web has now reached warp speed, and with commercialisation comes a demand for greater ‘usability’. This is a hot potato in current Web design, and preoccupies the designers and producers of online sites. Another equally hot topic is ‘accessibility’; public services use the Web as a primary tool for disseminating information, and they demand universal accessibility. And as if these two factors were not enough for the informed Web designer to contend with, we have now entered an era of multiple-platform publishing, whereby content is designed to be simultaneously distributed across several different media – printed literature, websites, CD-ROMs, mobile phones and hand-held devices.

These developments make great demands on the Web designer. So great are these demands, that Web design is often deemed far too important to leave to mere graphic designers alone. But help is at hand. The usability experts, the accessibility pundits and the ‘multi-platform publishing visionaries have been called in.

Science vs. aesthetics
The New York Times describes Jakob Nielsen as ‘the guru of Web page ‘usability’, a man for whom Web design is not a matter of taste or aesthetics – it’s a matter of science.’ Nielsen expounds his theories of usability in his influential Alertbox column, published online since 1995. In a recent post titled ‘The Need for Web Design Standards’, Nielsen writes: ‘The entire concept of ‘Web design’ is a misnomer. Individual project teams are not designing the Web any more than individual ants are designing an anthill. Site designers build components of a whole, especially now that users are viewing the entirety of the Web as a single, integrated resource. Unfortunately, much of the Web is like an anthill built by ants on LSD: many sites don’t fit into the big picture, and are too difficult to use because they deviate from expected norms. Several design elements are common enough that users expect them to work in a certain way.’

Nielsen postulates a Web future where ‘confusing design elements’ have been eliminated, and where ‘design standards for every important website task’ have been established. Nothing wrong with that, you might think. Yet Nielsen’s ‘scientific’ view of Web design is largely focused upon commercial imperatives. He makes his intentions clear when he advises his audience that ‘with so little time to convince prospects that you’re worthy of their business, you shouldn’t waste even a second making them struggle with a deviant user interface’. Unsurprisingly, Nielsen’s views find a receptive audience among the marketing people who control commercial websites. They want standardisation – just as marketing people do in other media – and have no time for epicene notions of the Web as an innovative space crying out for new modes of expression.

So, is usability the silver-coated bullet delivered to the heart of innovative Web design? Florian Schmitt is creative partner of UK design studio Hi-Res!, a company with a reputation for ground-breaking Web design. Schmitt discerns a lack of innovation in contemporary Web design: ‘The will to discover and experiment with form and structure has waned a bit,’ he says. ‘I think it’s mainly due to the fact that users are impatient, and not willing to find things out for themselves. And that has definitely had an impact on the design of sites. Even at Hi-Res! we’ve started putting clear signs next to hotspots! But I think the medium is so incredibly young that it’s all part of a learning process. We are trying things out all the time, some work, others don’t, and the next revolution is always just around the corner.’

In Web design, ‘usability’ is not necessarily the same thing as good design. It appears that you can have high levels of usability without bothersome concepts like ‘good design’. Take Amazon: I use this site almost daily for purchases and reference; it is a miracle of functionality, with vast reservoirs of seemingly limitless content and superb search facilities. It is a transactional site used by millions of people, and it is undoubtedly ‘easy to use’. Yet that fact remains that the Amazon site lacks graphic finesse. When evaluated on purely graphic design terms, the site is an overheated, hodgepodge of graphic noise. Is this the price we have to pay for usability?

Better and worse at the same time
Florian Schmitt identifies ‘accessibility’ as another factor contributing to the shaping of current Web design. Accessibility is a hot issue in Web design, and graphic design in general. Ensuring universal access to information is a declared aim of most technologically advanced democracies. This intention doesn’t just apply to online data, either; it applies equally to signage and printed literature, and is given special prominence in the public sector. In the UK, accessibility is now enshrined in law, and designers are increasingly obliged to adhere to strict guidelines. ‘With the DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) coming into effect,’ observes Schmitt, ‘a lot of big sites have had to re-evaluate their Web standards. While this is an encouraging move, it also changes the palette of the designer radically – at least until software catches up. So one could say Web design is getting better and a little bit worse at the same time.’

On its website, UK usability company Web Credible notes that ‘the majority of websites are already in breach of the law’, and in answer to the question ‘can you be sued?’, it speculates: ‘Well, probably. The RNIB [Royal National Institute of the Blind] claims that it has considered taking up a number of legal cases against organisations with regard to their websites. When they raised the accessibility issues of the website under the DDA, companies have typically made the necessary changes, rather than facing the prospect of legal action.’

It is hard to argue with legislation designed to help the visually impaired, or with the commercial usability gurus who advocate uniformity – after all, when we visit websites we mostly want efficiency, speed and security. Yet it’s also hard to see how these constraints are anything other than a straitjacket placed on Web design. Not so, says Mark Barratt of Text Matters, an information design consultancy he established in 1990 with partner Sue Walker. According to Barratt, accessibility is not to be feared by designers. ‘It’s what graphic and typographic design is for – making information, ideas and feelings tangible,’ he notes. ‘Accessibility legislation is a mixed blessing. It focuses both clients and designers on issues they should think about – what if the user has a terrible old browser? What if the user is blind? – and that’s a good thing. But it does allow a ‘tick-the-box’ mentality. If your site passes the WAI [Web Accessibility Initiative] or RNIB or Bobby [a software tool designed to encourage compliance with existing accessibility guidelines] tests, you can write off the issue. It is entirely possible to create an incoherent website and still pass such tests. In general, I think the accessibility guidelines have been helpful: you can quibble about some of their “rules”, but both the UK rule-makers, RNIB and e-GIF (e-Government Interoperability Framework – for public sector sites) have guidance that is largely sensible, flexible and occasionally wise.’

James King shares Barratt’s generous view of accessibility: ‘The Internet is a means of making resources accessible to anyone with a computer,’ he states. ‘Accessibility is therefore the reason for any website to exist, and the argument that accessibility is in some way stifling Web design is based on a misconception of what the Web has become. A misconception common among graphic designers.’ Barratt and King are representative of many Web designers, and information designers in particular, who relish the intellectual challenge of combining usability with high design standards. There are some notable success stories. The BBC site – available in over 40 languages – is a triumph of online information design. Elegant, graphically sophisticated and teeming with information, it offers an object lesson in combing ‘accessibility’ and ‘usability’ with good design.

Accessibility legislation is defining the graphic appearance of both websites and printed matter, and the inevitable consequence of this seems to be a move towards greater uniformity and a reduction in the scope for experimentation. Nor is it inconceivable that at some point in the future, all graphic design will be subject to accessibility stipulations. You can already see the effects of compliance with accessibility legislation in the bland characterless design of many financial and pharmaceutical communications. In the future it might become illegal to use 6pt type, or use dark grey text on a light grey background.

Searching for the Holy Grail
‘For clients,’ notes Michele Jannuzzi, ‘a system able to output from a single pool of data into different media is the ‘Holy Grail’ of publishing.’ This may be a goal zealously sought by publishers and media owners, but for the graphic designer it looks suspiciously like a return to the days of ‘specifying type’ for the typesetter or printer. The only difference is that today your content might have to be read on a Blackberry, delivered to a Web page in a foreign language or appear on a mobile phone, it might even need to be used in a voice delivery system.

‘Doing this kind of work is hard in both design and technical terms,’ notes Mark Barratt. ‘Paper books and Web pages require very different layouts and design approaches and this in turn requires a different approach to the business of designing. By and large we in the design community don’t have either the skills or the software to do it well. Design for multiple-media is starting to be on the agenda at design schools, but there isn’t a cadre of designers who know what they are doing. Neither of the software packages that print designers most use – QuarkXPress and InDesign – are currently very useful for importing or exporting print-aligned publications for repurposing, and the structured-text software that will export and import usefully usually has very limited typographic control.’

A future where communications are automatically fed to numerous platforms poses a formidable challenge to graphic designers. It highlights the need for a new sort of graphic designer. It is not enough anymore to slough off the skin of print-centric design formalism. What is required is a new sensibility, a new hybrid mentality, as comfortable with the fibre optic cable, the radio wave and the screen, as previous generations were with the printed document and the printing press. As James King notes: ‘It has become more than just a matter of visual design. For example: you can’t really design a site without a content management system to keep it updated. There is also a whole layer of semantic mark-up and protocol (complicated by the clumsy implementation of Web-standards by the browser manufacturers) to get to grips with before you can even contemplate the visual design of a site.’

Many designers already occupy this new landscape. Despite the stringent technical demands, despite the rampant commercialisation, despite the restrictive legislation, there is wonderfully expressive design to be found on the Internet. There are sites where you find some of the most compelling and revolutionary graphic design ever produced. These Promethean statements of graphic enterprise are the high water mark of contemporary visual expression – more daring and technically accomplished than most contemporary design and, for that matter, contemporary art. Yet, these sites exist in a rarefied world, a nearly hidden online zone known only to Web cognoscenti zealously exchanging URLs.

Not long ago, it was widely imagined that this realm of experimental Web design – the avant-garde – would have a revivifying effect on graphic design in general. The work of experimentalists such as John Maeda, Joshua Davis and Yugo Nakamura seemed to herald a new and dazzling Web syntax. In fact, mainstream website design has gone in exactly the opposite direction, moving towards a bland digital equivalency with such ‘real-world’ staples as retail design, the more formulaic kinds of corporate design, and advertising at its crassest.

Additionally, in an odd twist, the visual conventions and stylistic tropes of current Web design have become enmeshed in the aesthetic and commercial development of contemporary print design. Print media frequently apes its younger, rowdier sibling. Today, it is not uncommon to see printed pages, especially magazines and other consumerist-focused literature, resembling the ‘hot button’, hyper-linked appearance of Web pages. Contemporary magazines cram their pages with Web-like menus, scraps of enticing data, pull-quotes and sub-menus, encouraging readers to skate through the publication, flitting about in a way that resembles the butterfly-like way that visitors approach websites.

For some designers, the answer to the limitations of Web design is to go back to basics. Like the musicians and fans who supported Phil Spector’s ‘back to mono’ campaign of the early 1970s, many designers and users relish the simplicity of pioneering 1990s sites. It is fashionable among some design groups to design their sites in html, relying on default fonts and primitive layouts. (The site of m/m Paris is a good example of this trend.) Raw-boned ‘default’ design seems preferable to the homogenised future envisaged by usability experts, who seem intent on turning the online world into a virtual shopping mall, and it seems closer to the Utopian spirit of the early pioneers. Perhaps ‘Back to HTML will become the Web designer’s badge of honour.

First published in Eye no. 55 vol. 14 2005

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.