Winter 2007

The look of Web 2.0

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.

Deep into the surface
We live in an age where the Web can be very different, depending on the way you choose to use it. Internet users are now normal people growing up and getting old, with the Web as a tool to invent the way they interact with the world in everyday circumstances. Facebook has been called ‘the new Web’, a destination for messaging, photos and video – no spam, just communication with your friends. The trend for social networking, from what a recent New York Times article referred to as ‘the world wide couch’, is not device-specific but life-specific, as born
out by the youth craze for, the involvement of older teenagers in, the general explosion in Facebook, and now planned ‘Baby Boomer’ websites such as (for over-40s who believe life is still ‘To Be Determined’) and (where parents share).
This changes the end-game of design from providing solutions to creating platforms for people to design their own outcomes. But while Web 2.0 may change the rules, the reality is that business is only playing along on the surface. At the authentic end of Web 2.0 is Google, Wikipedia, Flickr, YouTube and services that are not really proper Web applications such as Napster, iTunes and BitTorrent – all successful companies re-inventing the ground rules through innovative practices and approaches. Then there’s a host of commercial offerings that look like the real deal but are skin jobs. From quirky and often stupid name styles to a sea of orange, green and cyan logotypes with a semi-cartoon feel, it is evident that business sees Web 2.0 as the latest ticket to a quick buck. In fact these offerings are merely ‘phase one’ Web offerings that pay lip service to the ethos of collaboration, sharing and empowerment.

There’s some lazy design work around for sure, but that’s not the main reason for the general blandness in many current Web 2.0 sites. Over time, craft-based skills have become commodities and reduced to layers within a process, reducing the general quality threshold. If design fees are driven down then so are the results and the understanding of what is good and what is not. If an archetypal Web 2.0 site provides a platform for its users to personalise the content that they wish to interact with, it further reduces the need for design to ‘lift’ the interface. That’s partly why so many Web 2.0 interfaces are reduced to a sequence of slugs and graphic icons that have little meaning. Original thinking is needed, and that in turn requires brand managers to stop writing prescriptive briefs that result in identikit responses.

A visual audit of the latest buzz sites reveals that there is a 2.0 ‘uniform’ with the result that a vast array of sites ultimately look the same, whether they are selling flatpack furniture, budget flights, conference calls, social networking applications to empower Websites or places for your photographs. A trend in Web interface design has been to simplify pages to the point of lowest denominator. This has seen navigational tabs become plain words and features distilled down to simple icons to aid navigation. Clients who think they want the style of Web 2.0 rather than the substance are likely to have prepared a wish list for visual real estate that make their sites appear to be full of ‘cool’ Web 2.0 features: social networking capabilities, interactive elements based on Ajax programming to enable users to move content around the page, and so on. The detail extends to tonal background treatments, the use of white space, icon design, grey keylines, rounded information boxes and the latest humanistic typefaces from a hip type foundry. Yet what is being played out is a desire for a look and feel that positions their product with cool apps such as Delicious, StumbleUpon and My Yahoo, and with major lip service to Facebook and MySpace.

Off the shelf
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, 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 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.

Robin Richmond, designer, Bath


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