Sarah Drasner just published a fabulous article, In Defense of a Fussy Website, in which she makes the case that we should all design and build websites again that are a joy to visit. Sites with those little details that make you smile, with small delights and touches that really make users stay.
Sarah is so right: The Web is becoming more and more homogenous and unimaginative. The websites of today are primarily built with efficiency and usefulness in mind, but in turn, they often lack the creativity, playfulness, and dedication that make a site stand out and a joy to interact with.
What happened to the rampant playfulness of the early web and the Flash era? Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, the visual language of the Web was still developing but also so refreshing. Almost every website – even though a fair amount looked quite questionable by today’s standards – had their very own character and distinct charm to it. Now, almost all websites look the same. How did we end up here?
In the search for answers, it makes sense to take a look back at the history of a related profession that once faced a similar challenge: graphic design. After the iconic graphic designer Milton Glaser died this Friday, I listened to a few interviews he gave over the last years. At one point, he talked about how he perceived the state of graphic design earlier in his career, in the late 1960s. After the constructivists and modernists had dominated the visual language of design for several decades, everyone was striving to create design that was rational, functional, and formalistic. Design that was aimed at accomplishing a specific goal. Design that was promotional and persuasive. For him, this wasn’t enough. He wanted to create design work that would also speak to the other, the emotional part of the brain. Design that would tell a story and create affection, just like art. Affection not only for the work itself but also for the world at large.
According to Milton Glaser, “the most corrosive thing about the relationship between design and the public has been the idea that design is a manifestation of promotion and advertising.” And the marketing people, who came to dominate the landscape, were looking only into the past, trying to collect metrics that would reduce uncertainty and risk. As a result, design had become merely a means to an end.
It seems to me that the same can be said of today’s Web: Websites are primarily seen as functional software, built to fulfill a business objective and to reach quantifiable goals. The field of user experience is obsessed with KPIs, jobs-to-be-done, optimized user flows, and conversion rates. And in quest of ever more efficient processes – and in the spirit of true modernists –, design and development teams try to standardize solutions into reusable templates and components, streamlined pattern libraries, and scalable design systems. Don’t get me wrong: The establishment of design systems, of all the professionalization that has happened in the web design community at large, is a great thing. It’s an important advancement of a still very young profession. But maybe we are now at a point, where we must acknowledge that it is time for us to take the next step. We know how to design and build sites that have sufficient function and form. And, although we fall short in this regard, building performant and accessible sites should be perfectly doable by now, too. But this isn’t enough. We have to go beyond that. We have to take risks, tell stories, do the fussy work, and create affection to do work that does not only meets standards but exceeds expectations and surprises. We have to go deep and use our imagination. Not only for ourselves, but for the people who get to use our sites. And for the next generation of designers, developers, and creators on the Web – all those people who might fall in love with the Web, just like we did.
Who could explain it better than, once more, Milton Glaser in an interview with Debbie Millman:
In early life, […] we wanted to be professional, and we wanted our work to look professional. And we wanted it to have that veneer and that sense of authority that we saw around us. And it was all we really wanted to do. We got out of school and we wanted to have your work look like these marvelously put together, slick, effortless things that were in the world and you admired the people who could do that. And then, at a certain point you reach a professional level and your work looks like that and you realize: It’s not enough! That nearly getting to a point where your work looks good enough to be called professional, is only the starting point. I use the same metaphor for learning how to draw. When you start to learn how to draw you are so overwhelmed with the difficulty of making things look like what they are. You know, you have a cup and a saucer and you try to make it sit on the page and look like a cup and a saucer. And you almost die trying to control your nerve endings so that the object looks like it’s supposed to. And you spend years doing that. And finally, you get to the point where you can actually draw something that looks like what you’re drawing. And then, you discover: That’s not the point. That being able to make a drawing that looks like its subject is nothing. That it is only the starting point. Now you have to ask yourself: What can I do? A good drawing? Or an expressive drawing? Or a drawing that means something? Because the ability simply to make it accurate is a low-level ability. Even though it has taken you years to get to that point. And then to discover, it’s not very relevant. But there is no other way to get there.
The same is true of your own work. You sort of strive to make it look good, and make it look good as your peers’, and make it look as good as the other things in the art directors annual, and so on. Then, at a certain point, if you continue and persevere you realize it is not good enough. You have got to go beyond that level in order to engage that other thing, which is true expressive content. True meaning.
This is the 29th post of my 100 days of writing series. You can find a list of all posts here.