Wish You Were Here

compuserve ad, circa 1908 BC.

compuserve ad, circa 1908 BC.

Based upon the fact that I am apparently scaring the pants off designers by thundering down to them that they have to deal with the web: okay, fair. Maybe I’m beating the drum a little hard. Lemme list out the reasons why i keep yelling about this.

  1. The web sucks because designers have had too little to do with its development.

So, yeah. That’s about it.

You think I’m joking; I’m so not. The web is much, much better than the ridiculous little communities that came before it, like bulletin board services and Usenet and AOL and CompuServe and GEnie, and so on—but it’s still so rudimentary in comparison to what it should be. So rudimentary, in fact that it took until just this year for Adobe to hammer home the point that we need things as simple as free-form shapes of text, not just boxes. Engineers just plain lack the essential visual skills designers have. Some of them can’t visualize a damn thing.

Let’s list out another few things that need a designer’s mind to get better.

  1. The friend feed. Only an engineer would think it’s an adequate idea to take a million disconnected thoughts, smash them into one long, mathematically filtered column, and just say, here’s what’s going on in real life, right now. That doesn’t even make sense.
  2. Blogs. Blogs kinda started out as a designer toy, but their visual development died before the format was adequately completed. Now we have a front page that everyone sees for like five seconds, followed by a black hole of content, and the only way to find things is search by text (which is useless if you post mostly pictures) or poke through the archives, page by page. Awesome idea, guys.
  3. Comments. Who, exactly, decided it was a sensible idea to stick unsequential, unrelated paragraphs of text at the bottom of an article, and mix them with conversations happening inside the comments? So ridiculous. why aren’t comments a panel that sides over the article, only partially obscuring it, to clearly show they’re not as important as the original written content?

These are all nuances that coders just don’t get. Sometimes they simply don’t understand that putting things next to each other in a visual space causes a relationship, because they work with the information on a totally different level. Designers understand how that visual space works, and it’s just killing the web that there’s so much unordered, unfiltered cacaphony going on.

Help mature the web, designers! Tell a coder to sit down, shut up, have a nice cold Pepsi Max, and wait until you’ve designed it to make some damn visual sense.

6 thoughts on “Wish You Were Here

  1. Gabriel Gilder

    Possibly the worst suggestion I’ve ever heard for improving the web. I’m sorry, but what you get when developers “sit down, shut up,” and wait for the designer is a bloated Flash site. True innovation on the web is happening where designers and developers actively collaborate, and even better, where those roles aren’t mutually exclusive. Statements like “Engineers just plain lack… visual skills” are not just ignorant, they’re actively self-defeating. If you give up on educating and cross-pollinating between disciplines before you even start, the result is going to be neither beautiful nor functional.

  2. william lanigan

    It’s worth noting this is a discussion taking place, in one form or another, in every profession today. Architects, with whom I am most familiar, face technology issues every day, notably in the accelerating trasition to database-driven parametric modeling, in contrast to traditional drafting. I’ve taught both graphic design and web coding at the college level and I find that students in both disciplines approach their work with distinct biases: the graphic designers tend to think of themselves as conceptualists (often abstract, symbolic, ambiguous and artistic), while the coders see themselves as mechanics (highly skilled and exceedingly clever mechanics, to be sure), whose job it is to take a limited set of tools and make interesting things happen on-screen. Too often both do their work at the expense of the data, which is, after all, the point.
    The print world and the web are first and foremost about information – whether it’s delivered on paper or on-screen, it’s got to be relevant, accessible and useful, otherwise . . . well, everyone has had the experience of finding something out that’s important in spite of the source material, not because of it. My advice to students is that color, graphics and typography are useful only to the extent they facilitate understanding. beyond that, they may impede the process and make understanding unnecessarily difficult. I should add that I prize artful solutions – good design that informs is a joy to behold, and I celebrate those who create it.
    But it is true that to do a good job today, graphic designers need to know something about the web, and coders need to know something about information design. Anyway, that’s how we teach it where I work.

  3. Patric King Post author

    hi turner. paragraph by paragraph:
    1) i didn’t say that the designer should have the upper hand.
    2) i say that they should be technology-savvy, not just web-savvy (which seems to be a frequent mis-quote), so that they can do something besides make pretty surfaces, and think in ways that apply to other disciplines. while pretty is valuable, the practice is skewed so far in that direction that there are huge swaths of practitioners who risk becoming totally irrelevant because of their inability to communicate beyond making a picture—which in and of itself is less valuable because tools are so much more readily available. meanwhile, clients ask print designers to design websites, and they agree to—making web designers look bad. web designers agree to design typography, despite any real knowhow, making typographers look bad. there is a huge fundamental breakdown in what design is as opposed to what it thinks it is.
    3) i’m not here to be liked. however, there are tons of positive posts here.

  4. Turner


    You’re missing the mark in several way by making such a broad statement as “The web sucks…”
    Let me be the first to correct you: the web does not suck, it is the most amazing and effective communication tool conceived to this date. The internet is an organic, mutable space in which engineer and designer must co-habitate. To be so naive as to say that designers should have the upper hand when dealing with the internet shows you lack a formal understanding of its history and its current state. It’s like saying books suck because some dumb scribe decided to collate scrolls and bind them down one side without consulting a designer, except the web is far and away more complex.

    You have a point in that designers should be active in the on-going evolution of the web, as they have been (you seem to think facebook just popped out of the mind of an engineer, when in fact it has been in a constant state of redesign for years), but Timothy Goodman is right to rebuke you when you say things like all designers should be web-savy; that is a sad and narrow-minded view of the design community at large. Everyone knows the web can be better, and there are amazing designers and amazing coders working to do just that. Why you deride the system placing the blame in the brilliant minds that conceived it and claim designers have the pen-ultimate ability to create a solution in beyond me.

    One final point, and I know you’re going to be upset with this but I have to say it: I wish you would stop making such negative, unproductive posts online. I constantly read your writing while doing my rounds and feel like I’m listening to a young child throwing a fit. You lash out when you dislike something without providing constructive feedback on a regular basis, and you make insulting comments about your contemporaries and non-designers, both of which are toxic to our community. You appear to be an intelligent individual, and you have an established podium from which to preach, so put that brain to work without being such a negative nancy and sour susan all the time. 

  5. Patric King Post author

    there should be no catchup, if you ask me. there was a period when most engineers wouldn’t touch the web because it was too juvenile — it was pretty impossible in chicago in the 90’s to find someone who was taken seriously both as an HTML coder and a actual programmer.
    my point in separating engineers here is to show exactly which things they imagined badly. not to damn them for doing it at all.
    well, maybe that’s not true; blogs and commenting are just horrible and imo damage the idea of journalism. but that’s another topic.

  6. Dan

    When the web started out it it wasn’t capable of all these wonderful things that you mention. Now it can (thanks to engineers). God forbid it should take a little while for design to catch up with the possibilities of the technology.