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Finding Our Place In This (Web) World

12-21-11 Drew Clemens

Drew explores what makes web design unique and the reflection we all go through to find our place in it.

This article is a bit of therapy for myself. If you’ll bear with me while I lie down and think aloud from this online therapist couch, perhaps you’ll have some revelations as well. Though I’m now fully engrossed in the web on a daily basis, my background spans from print to retail to product design. Some of you have had a single career path; but myself, I’m one of those design mutts – lovable and full of tricks but a hard-to-follow bloodline.

If your background is similar to mine, you might find yourself a little self-conscious, especially when you choose to pursue a more specialized field. When you look around and see a landscape of industry-leading thoroughbreds, it’s intimidating. How did I land here? Can I cut it?

Those questions haunted me in my first few months at Sparkbox. In my view, coming from the outside in, Sparkbox was one of the best in the business (I still believe that, by the way); and Ben Callahan, who invited me to become a member of this talented team, was among the more challenging thinkers in the industry. He asked me to come on board at a time when my previous web experience was limited, but I was drawn to it. He believed in me, but I didn’t entirely believe in myself. I felt like the web was the right ecosystem for me, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. What makes someone a good designer of the web? What’s unique about it?

Pretty Pixels

Spend just a little time on dribbble and you can draw some pretty quick conclusions on what makes a good web designer. I salivate over all the pixel-perfect Photoshop-styled goodness. It’s incredible what those in the web industry can do with a cluster of pixels.

That’s it, I figured. Those are the industry standards. I need to master those styles and techniques. I can do that. No problem.

But there is a problem. There are many problems, in fact, with that line of thinking.

For one, graphics are only one small part of the web. They are the most engaging part, in my opinion, but they are only a part of the whole. Fantastic illustration only gets you so far. Sexy UX controls and tastefully shadowed headlines are icing on the cake. So what is the cake?

A Holistic Discipline

As a designer, I have slowly begun to identify myself on the designer family tree. As new industries emerge every day and titles change overnight, it’s not easy to do. I know that I love to design. I love color, shape, form, and all that good stuff, but I’ve always been drawn to the content. I’ve never particularly wanted to write for a living; however, I was a designer (told to care about making things look pretty) that cared as much for the words on the page as I did the typeface in which I placed them. It felt like a sort of injustice to make design decisions independent of those decisions driving word selection.

So yes, words are important. But communication is a holistic discipline. Like my high school speech teacher said with intentionally bad grammar, “You are never not communicating.” Nonverbals are as important as what you say. The words on the page are important, but the choices made around how and when they are displayed are just as important in communicating your message.

I was looking for my totem in this world of web design. It may seem simple to those of you with a decade of code-stain on your hands, but I feel like I’ve just found the fundamental truth about the industry that I needed to ground me and keep me focused.

It’s the unique way in which the web handles the communication of message. It is a unique form of design in that it has literally no limit on the amount of written word it can contain. The web designer is presented with a challenge never placed before previous breeds of designer: Make decisions concerning the display of potential content that is limitless.

It is the closest marriage of content, display, and function that has ever existed.

Consider This

Think about it this way. What other medium tempts organizations to consolidate and represent their entire identity within a single body of work? For example, it’s generally understood that print pieces are bound by the edges of the paper. You can’t add to them once they come off the press, and they become dated before the ink even dries. No client realistically believes they can capture their entire organization’s identity, offering, latest news, listing of personnel, and detailed contact information in a single printed piece. “That’s it. We’re done. Anything people need to know about us is in here.” Organizations don’t have that expectation of designers of print, product, fashion, interiors, architecture, or anything in between.

This isn’t true of the web. Organizations fully expect the ability to serve all of their various audiences regardless of need, time of day, previous knowledge of the brand, or geography. And they expect to do it all within a single domain. Why not? What limits are there to stop them? It’s not always easy, but it isn’t unrealistic. The list of expectations for a site’s design and development are only growing. “Make it look good on any device. Let me manage all the content, images, and inventory myself. Translate it into multiple languages. Accept payment from customers without exposing everyone to lots of risk.”

Maybe you think I’m over-stating the unique design challenges of the web. Consider this: When was the last time you had a client ask you to design a flagship corporate printed piece so encompassing that they literally expected to throw all other printed materials – sales sheets, business cards, pamphlets – out the window? The answer is never. But when the same client wants to design a corporate website, the expectations are completely different. The web allows an entire organization’s identity to be captured, consolidated, categorized, and displayed.

This is why web design is completely unique. This is why web designers’ and developers’ jobs are so unique. This is why the construction of relationship among content, display, and function is never more complex, challenging, and rewarding than in the realm of the web.

Final Thoughts

The web is an environment for those who really value communication; for those that wish to see ideas fully, clearly, and beautifully expressed; for those that see no line between aesthetic, message, and utility – and no reason that design decisions can’t be made to accommodate all three. It is the most basic of human interaction – communication – without boundary.

At least, that’s how I understand it. And that’s why I’m glad to be here.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter.

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