How Apps Are Changing the Way Designers Create on the Web

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[This article appears in the August 2010 issue of Print. Illustrations by Jennifer Daniel.]

A quick survey of the software installed on your desktop or laptop computer is unlikely to turn up many, if any, consumer brands. Technology brands, yes. But few if any of us are running a Kraft Foods office suite, or a Toyota media-management tool, or an Old Navy web browser.

And yet, all three of these brands can be found hawking wares in Apple’s outlandishly successful App Store, which feeds every iPhone, iPod, and, now, iPad being used by app-happy customers. The brands’ forays into this new territory is speeding up the end of the so-called “PC era,” in which productivity-focused desktops and laptops were the main platforms for software and work. In the new era, mobile devices and tablets focus not on helping users create but, rather, to consume. We might call it “consumer computing.”

The new paradigm is already a force to be reckoned with: Apple alone has shipped more than 100 million iPods, iPhones, and iPads, and each one averages 37 downloaded apps apiece. The new competition from Google’s Android and other platforms, meanwhile, promises to grow the category even more significantly. This enormous market is seemingly irresistible to the Krafts, Toyotas, and Old Navys of the world. And although global brands have, in the last couple of years, begun adjusting to new technology by creating their own content through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, they would never have previously entertained the complex undertaking of releasing software under their own names.

Whether or not you have plans to buy a tablet computer or upgrade to a smart phone, make no mistake: We are now at an inflection point in the evolution of technology, a moment of profound transformation in the digital world. And, as has been the pattern throughout our industrial history, when technology changes, so, too, does design.

Until this point, consumer brands dealing in digital experiences have largely confined themselves to the web, allowing users to encounter them, almost literally, through a window. A company’s website is stored far from the user’s computer, and web browsers in turn let users gaze through their digital windows at the company’s content.

This basic conceptual framework, in place from the first days of the web, has had a powerful effect on how design has been practiced on the internet; it’s fostered a fundamental disconnect between the web and the user’s computer. To look at the web today is to see that every site employs a unique design logic: its own colors, typography—even its own interface language. From brand to brand and site to site, the only constant on the web is that hierarchies of information and ways of expressing even the most basic interface elements—such as buttons, links, and navigation menus—will vary wildly and unpredictably.

This stands in marked contrast to the operating systems themselves—whether Mac OS, Windows, or Linux—as well as the software designed to run on them. By and large, these systems adhere to a master framework of design logic, including elaborate conventions for communicating interactivity, organization, and content access as well as typography and color. This rich ecosystem of user vocabulary is ignored by most websites.

The iPhone and iPad don’t allow such willful disregard of their operating systems. Although they feature powerful web browsers, the truly valuable opportunity they offer is in the realm of apps, which are by definition something other than windows. In fact, apps reside locally on the devices, stored within the units’ internal Flash memories. That is a key point of differentiation, because it makes the apps much more integral to a device than a website ever was.

Such digital infrastructures have significant ramifications for designers. In the emerging parlance of app design, the byword is “native.” Apps strive to look, feel, and behave natively, as inextricable parts of a device’s operating system. The best apps, in fact, often look as if they were designed by Apple, Google, or Palm itself.

This presents a peculiar challenge for designers. Where the web once allowed a brand to express itself more or less without restriction, designers must now carefully balance the nativity of their apps with the attributes of the brands they’re designing for. It was relatively easy for designers to make websites that visually and behaviorally matched the Kraft, Toyota, and Old Navy brands. But now those designers must also factor in the design logic defined by Apple or Google. They have to account for the framework in which the apps must function, reconciling sometimes conflicting modes of interaction and even conflicting interface vocabularies. Achieving this balance is tricky, and it often requires a recalibration of a brand’s attributes that few designers are used to making.

Compared to these new buttoned-down operating systems, the web now looks like a highly expressive medium. Even if its technical restrictions make it a more limited design playground than print is, the freedom to ignore the OS has allowed website designers to design practically whatever they want. And for the past decade and a half, they’ve done just that. As the momentum shifts toward apps, however, this freedom may be coming to an end. Web designers, many of whom have only casually confronted the complex intricacies of designing software applications and working within another company’s human-interface guidelines, must now—like print designers before them—face a new, more technologically constrained medium.

Khoi Vinh writes the “Interaction” column for Print every issue. Read his column from the June issue about the iPad and design, “Jobs Saves.”

In This IssueOriginal art and strong opinions from Art Chantry, Joe Duffy, BarbaraGlauber, Michael Ian Kaye, Oded Ezer, and many others. Also: regularcolumnist Khoi Vinh asks if designers are ready to start making apps,and Paul Shaw reviews Veljovic Script. Cover by James Victore.

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