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Understanding Web Design

We get better design when we understand our medium. Yet even at this late hour, many people still don’t understand web design. Some who don’t understand web design nevertheless have the job of creating websites or supervising web designers and developers. Those who understand the least make the most noise. They are the ones leading charges, slamming doors, and throwing money — at all the wrong people and things.

If we want better sites, better work, and better-informed clients, the need to educate begins with us.

Preferring real estate to architecture

It’s hard to understand web design when you don’t understand the web.

Most of what people know about the web comes from the media; and their focus on web businesses to the exclusion of all else is like reporting on real estate deals while ignoring architecture. In 1994, the web was weird and wild, they told us. In ‘99 it was a kingmaker; in ‘01, a bust. In ‘02, news folk discovered blogs; in ‘04, perspiring guest bloggers explained how citizen journalists were reinventing news and democracy. And now its Web 2.0, whatever that is.

Then each year, advertising and design magazines and professional organizations hold contests for “new media design”. The creators of winning entries see the web as a vehicle for advertising and marketing campaigns in which the user passively experiences Flash and video content. The winning sites look fabulous as screen shots in glossy design annuals. Thus sites that behave like TV and look good between covers continue to be created, and a generation of clients and art directors thinks that stuff is the cream of web design.

Critics who are smart about print can be less bright about the web. They lament on our behalf that we are stuck with ugly fonts. They wonder aloud how we can enjoy working in a medium that offers us less than absolute control over every atom of the visual experience. What they are secretly asking is whether or not we are real designers. More sophisticated critics understand that the web is not print and that limitations are part of every design discipline. Yet even they cry, Where are the masterpieces of web design?

Typography, architecture, and web design

The trouble is, web design, although it employs elements of graphic design and illustration, does not map to them. If one must compare the web to other media, typography, the art of creating type or fonts, would be a better choice. For a web design, like a typeface, is an environment for someone else’s expression.

Architecture, the kind that uses steel and glass and stone, is also an apt comparison. The architect creates planes and grids that facilitate the dynamic behavior of people. Having designed, the architect relinquishes control. Over time, the people who use the building bring out and add to the meaning of the architect’s design.

Of course, all comparisons are gnarly by nature. What is the “London Calling” of television? Who is the Jane Austen of automotive design? Madame Butterfly is not less beautiful for having no car chase sequence, peanut butter no less tasty because it cannot dance.


Web design is not book design, it is not poster design, it is not illustration, and the highest achievements of those disciplines are not what web design aims for. Although websites can be delivery systems for games and videos, and although those delivery systems can be lovely to look at, such sites are exemplars of game design and video storytelling, not of web design. So what is web design?

Web design is the creation of digital environments that facilitate and encourage human activity; reflect or adapt to individual voices and content; and change gracefully over time while always retaining their identity.

Great web designs are like great typefaces: some impose a personality on whatever content is applied to them. Others fade into the background, magically supporting whatever tone the content provides.

Great web designs are like great buildings. All office buildings, however distinctive, have lobbies and bathrooms and staircases. Websites, too, share commonalities.

Although a great site design is completely individual, it is also a great deal like other site designs that perform similar functions. The same is true of great magazine and newspaper layouts, which differ from banal magazine and newspaper layouts in a hundred subtle details. Few celebrate great magazine layouts, yet millions consciously or unconsciously appreciate them, and nobody laments that they are not posters.

The inexperienced designer complains that too many websites use grids, too many sites use columns, too many sites are “boxy.” Efforts to avoid boxiness have been around since 1995; while occasionally successful, they have most often produced aesthetically wretched and needlessly unusable designs.

The experienced web designer, like the talented newspaper art director, accepts that many projects he works on will have headers and columns and footers. His job is not to whine about emerging commonalities but to use them to create pages that are distinctive, natural, brand-appropriate, subtly memorable, and quietly but unmistakably engaging.

If he achieves all that and sweats the details, his work will be beautiful. If not everyone appreciates this beauty — if not everyone understands web design — then let us not cry for web design, but for those who cannot see.


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