The Web Aesthetic

by Paul Robert Lloyd

19 Reader Comments

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  1. Thank you for this Paul. I found your work to be both truthful and topical… especially your thoughts on “adapting assumptions”. Nicely done!

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  2. “As the web matures, we should acknowledge and embrace its constraints—and the aesthetic those constraints can produce. When we do, we might discover that the true web aesthetic is hardly visual at all.”

    Designers have been embracing the constraints of the web for the past twenty years. We moved past the early days of listening to Tim Berners Lee argue that layouts should only be text-based into a realm where we had the ability to create truly visual solutions. Now, with the advent of responsive solutions, we are advocating going back to the days of text-based content because, well, “it’s easier to scale for mobile devices.” 

    Our clients pay us to devise solutions for these issues, not to simply tell them “we don’t design any longer because the web isn’t a visual medium”. Try telling that to a retailer, a media company, photographer, travel agency, etc. etc. etc. 

    A paragraph of text will never have the power to capture a users attention like a photograph, illustration, graphic, or texture. Designers are paid to create visual solutions that help their customers explain their brands.

    In a 140 character world, how do you capture someone’s attention when you’ve only got seconds to do so? Do you place an F-bomb in huge type across the top of your layout and call it a day?

    I think not. Our job, in the simplest sense, is to push the boundaries of what can be done within the constraints of a medium. To assert that the web is no longer a visual medium is ludicrous and completely ignores human psychology and user behavior.

    I simply find it curious how we as a community can’t accept that the secret sauce for success on the web isn’t black and white. It’s in finding solutions that take into account all of the pieces of a puzzle that have the potential to make a promising product successful. Using the correct tools and right technology for a given solution.

    Design is a huge part of that equation. It always will be. Web site development that treats “layout” as “design” is nothing more than a glorified wireframe.

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  3. @paul burton, while I agree with most of what you argue, i do take issue with the last paragraph.  When designers fail to realize that layout IS design, they fail differentiate the web as a different from a piece of paper.  The major point of the article is that design shouldn’t be created with the premise of print, but rather that the web is a dynamic, ever-evolving organism that required layout to be a crucial consideration of design, if not on of the most most important.  If your layout fails to convey what you paid to solve for, then your design fails to do the same.

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  4. @Paul Burton I’m not saying that the web isn’t a visual medium. I’m saying that the web isn’t just a visual medium.

    True, a paragraph of text may not have the same impact as a highly detailed photograph. Yet, how might the same information be conveyed when accessed on a device incapable of displaying images? Or when read out loud?

    Ignoring human behaviour is to design ‘immersive’ websites that require users to download 5MB of data, possibly over a intermittent cellular connection, when perhaps all they wanted was an opening time.

    The web isn’t black and white, and our designs shouldn’t be either. The baseline experience is important (and often ignored) but it’s not where the challenge lies. The problem we are being paid to solve, as web designers, is to create experiences that can scale up from this baseline, while taking full advantage of the vastly different devices accessing our content.

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  5. What most struck me about your comparisons between web sites and Chrome applications (the “content over chrome” concept) was that the apps invariably stripped out all advertising. Ads alone are probably insufficient to drive a massive company like New York Times, as seen by their paywall efforts, but removing them entirely seems like a bridge that many businesses would not be willing to cross. Where do we draw the line between designing for the user’s benefit and “content over chrome” vs. the necessities of running an online business? Does this approach force businesses into a subscription model?

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  6. @kzurawel You suggest that many businesses would be unwilling to remove ads, but this isn’t the case when you look at mobile orientated sites/layouts. These typically remove, or significantly reduce the amount of advertising they show; partly as there is less space on smaller screens. Making money on the web is a tough nut to crack, but it will only get tougher as more people access the web on such devices.

    Right now, there is a lot of laziness in this area: “just dump a few ad units here and there”. It’s great that we’re having to rethink advertising and other means of making money on the web. In doing so however, it makes sense for us to properly understand the medium first; only then can we devise more appropriate business models.

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  7. Absolutely right. Rly nice article, keep going ^^

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  8. It is always great to read someone with fresh ideas on web experience. When it comes to quality of design/UI, I think a few online newspapers have improved considerably in the last few years. It may be probably due to increased competition and the example of some smart guys like the ones working at nytimes.com. The experiments to mix web interfaces and mobile interfaces will provide a lot of room for further improvements.

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  9. @kzurawel Perhaps the problem with advertising is that it’s being put in the wrong places?

    Before the web, ads had to be in print, on TV or radio or street furniture, and you couldn’t know if a viewer was interested in it, so you had to put it in as many places as possible to achieve the required effect.

    With the web, the user can (and often wants to) remove or block these ads, and with smaller mobile devices the room available for them is getting squeezed anyway!

    I suggest the answer is to wait until the user is seeking information with a possible (or imminent) purchase in mind. Offering such information (which is surely the purpose of advertising, is it not?) at the point where the user is actively seeking and interested in it must surely be a more cost-effective way of spending the advertisers money.

    But that requires the ad agencies and their clients (and therefore their designers) to break the habits of 150 years. Will that be too much for them?

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  10. @kzurawel
    Good article-thanks for the insights.

    As you and others have noted, it seems that Web design is still oven concepted the same way as traditional media—in fixed dimensions. At least some of us are working on changing this. As far as advertising—just like with print media, at least for the time, is still a necessary economic fixture. The trick is doing it in a tasteful and practical way.

    On the topic of images, though—why isn’t there more of a discussion on SVG? For me, it’s pretty much full-circle (and I still create plenty of offline content in Illustrator). Aside from good photography, vector-based images don’t suffer from scalability issues, and, if properly constructed, can save significant bandwidth. While having multiple resolutions for bitmaps in RWD may be the best method at this time, vector allows the use of one image type to serve all formats.

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  11. I dont think the visual aesthetics are ignored as much as at the moment they are secondary to whats going on, its the technical aspect (devices) that is driving the change, design will follow, hopefully not as far behind as he good old days of raw HTML.

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  12. Fact is there is no “universal”, fail-proof method of designing websites. Fact is, somebody will not have a great user experience with our design work on the web. The sooner we accept this simple reality, the sooner we will be at peace with our work. Web design will never fit everyone, just like print, radio and tv never fitted everyone.

    At the risk of being labeled “confrontational”, I challenge the author or anyone else to show with ACTUAL examples their philosophy at work. The only truly “universal” design would be a bunch of text with the basic HTML tags – but you can’t make a living “designing” butt-ugly sites. Clients will not pay for that.

    Let me put it this way: as much I respect Jeffrey Zeldman, I have to admit that most clients would NEVER like or accept a site like zeldman.com…

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  13. @irvin I suggest you re-read my article, which includes a great example of progressive enhancement: the BBC News mobile website. Not only is it a joy to use, but it also works across an incredible range of devices. Sure, it can be a challenge designing sites that are universal and inclusive to all. Whether you accept that challenge or remain a defeatist is up to you.

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  14. @author

    Sorry, buddy, scare tactics (“accept the challenge or remain a defeatist”) don’t work with adults. Show me your work, not just a little portion of someone else’s work. Until then, it remains one more bogus article dealing with the utopian quest of a one-size-fits-all solution to web design. Such a thing does not exist. Sorry to be so blunt, but that’s reality.

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  15. re 01:43 pm on October 9, 2012 by irvin

    Irvin, are you really that sorry? After all, constructive criticism, even outright rejection, can be clad with a modicum of courtesy without compromising the message. alistapart.com is a site with a minimum of ranting and fuming, I think this is worth to be preserved.

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  16. What a fascinating article!

    It was very interesting to see those Chrome Apps; the NYT looked a vast improvement.  The BBC one equally so because advertising couldn’t be lauded as the sole champion for the change.

    I’m a firm believer in a more content focussed approach; viewing a site in IOS reader or Readability* massively improves the reading experience for me.

    Joel

    *I believe the IOS Reader functionality is based on an early version of the Readability code.

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  17. Thanks for the inspiring article, Paul! I was also very sceptic about the practical implications of that matter though. Some comments above mentioned the “clients don’t want this” issue, but I think we should differentiate that a bit. Not every web project is the same or requires the same kind of strategies, there is no “one-size-fits-all”, as some commenters have pointed out.

    There is lots of discussion going on about what are natural aesthetic solutions for designing on the web and how to define a new visual language for it. It is pretty exciting, but I think it also gets kind of philosophical sometimes, like Bauhaus back in the 1920’s. Luckily, the debate now has a more user-centric view on “form follows function” (or rather “form follows content”), so hopefully designers have learned from past mistakes, leaving the user and his needs behind in favor of highly idealistic aesthetic/functional norms.

    I think after the experiences we had with modernism ideals, which set technology and functionality in front, we shouldn’t design cold, pure and rational user interfaces anymore. What I see on The New York Times chrome site to me is highly functional and accessible, but it doesn’t make me wanna browse and read the storys. Personally it feels to me like some kind of designer-house where I don’t want to live in, even though I admire the brilliant design and solutions.

    I also see that “Content first” is the way to go, but do we really have to sacrifice personality and treat every website as an anonymous container for content? What’s about terms like “atmosphere”, “personality”, “user experience”? When I walk into my favorite shop in my town, it shouldn’t feel like I was walking into every other shop, it should be a unique experience and atmosphere going on. Sometimes clean and reductive design can be just the right thing to do, but often it’s not I think.

    But I think you already kept those differences in mind while you mentioned “progressive enhancement”. Of course, the foremost priority is accessibility, but I just wanted to point out that web designers need to be careful. We can’t just tear off the flesh and blood of the design process and stick with the bones. Humans are also emotional creatures.

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  18. Peter, I have a similar concern.

    If Internet can be seen as a tool that’s in the service of the human desire to communicate (at least remotely) with one another then it may be a good idea to look more closely at the visual component of this tool.

    Here I sit in front of this screen for eight hours a day. It’s true that I’m receiving impressions that have to do with how another person has arranged a series of words to convey an idea or emotion.

    But, it’s also true that I’m receiving impression that are purely visual.  A block of text communicates verbally, but it also reaches my eye as a text-ural shape that has a visual relationship with it’s surroundings.

    The notion that visual/compositional relationships have a strong ability to communicate has been understood for thousands of years, and I find it supremely arrogant on our part to think that, in the space of thirty years, we can cook up a new and improved communications tool (i.e. the Internet) that ignores visual form.

    So the tables are turned, and we as humans now find ourselves serving the Internet, and scrambling to keep up with this technocratic network that (each Fall season) produces every kind of screen size, screen proportion, and screen resolution under the Sun.

    Many of these technocrats even go so far as to try to persuade me that their approach to web design is very much in alignment with Daoist principles! There seems to be this push to develop an automatically responsive web design, yet we ourselves seem reluctant to take a certain responsiveness upon ourselves with regard to developing visual relationships into what might truly be called a visual compositions.

    The question for me is not so much about getting stuck on print layouts versus web, but about whether the web will become a tool for verbal communications only, or a tool for verbal and visual communication together.

    Nor do I think that visual composition should be belittled with the industry-specific word of “style”. By “visual communication” I’m not referring to a kind of stylistic frosting that we find in the ever popular world of website “themes”. Instead, I’m referring to a deliberate attempt at creating a sort of “visual body language” that can be arranged upon a two dimensional surface (be it paper or pixels), and which complements the verbal content.


    Paul, thanks for bringing up the question of aesthetics.

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  19. Even though this is written a year ago I suspect this information to remain relevant for some time (possibly indefinitely). I find it interesting that the web went from using basic colors over a decade ago such as the Hot Wired example you pointed out, then started using much more graphic intensive designs (often since the increased bandwidths could support such, and is now reverting to more simplistic designs again now that bandwidth along with screen space are issues. Do you suspect we will see a reversion back to more graphic intensive web designs as mobile speeds increase? I suspect that most people now enjoy the benefits of simplicity with a cleaner layout (such as with BBC news) and do not trend back to more immersive designs unless (certainly possible) technological advancements allow them flourish once again.

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