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Re: [css-d] What happened to design?

Sent by Chris Kaminski on 28 January 2002 11:11

<!--adapted and expanded from a note I wrote to the author of 'Your CSS 
Bores Me'-->

There are two factors at work here, both stemming from the fact that 
we're entering a new phase in Web design and construction.

Where dotcom excess made howd-dey-doodat eyecandy the peak of chic, 
dotbomb malaise has made economy and utility the order of the day. 
Bandwidth-hogging photoshop montages, multi-megabyte Flash files and 
hudred-plus-KB table layouts fairly reek of the folly of the late '90s. 
With the focus now on the basics--especially the bottom line--such 
excesses just don't impress the way they once did, as comments from list 
members such as Drew McLellan demonstrate.

At the same time, the rise of servicably CSS-compliant browsers has made 
such economy attainable while still satisfying the branding imperatives 
of the marketroids. Lightweight, structurally sound, valid (X)HTML 
allows us to do much of what we did before with woefully nested tables, 
<font> tags and proprietary attributes.

As <> points out, the combination of increased 
standards support and the whims of fashion combination has led to a new 
focus on technical excellence. It's now becoming cool to pursue 
structure, fast downloads, accessibility, standards-compliance and other 
'invisible' attributes in lieu of retina-frying visuals.

In addition to being a fashion statement, however, the 'boring design' 
is also symptomatic of the industry trying to grow up.

Not too many years ago, the Web biz was small and marginal. Just knowing 
HTML bought entrance to a relatively exclusive club. Having a site--let 
alone making a living building the things--was all that was necessary to 
be part of a relatively exclusive club. More, that club was perilously 
tiny, and marginal in the extreme to the rest of the world. Evangelizing 
and soliciting new members was necessary for survival, and to reach the 
critical mass necessary make the club worth belonging to. Now, what with 
Blogger and Radio and suchlike, having a site isn't a big deal. More, 
layoffs notwithstanding, there are still thousands of professional Web 
designers/builders/authors all around the world.

People love to belong to a group, but it can't be too large a group. 
Once any group reaches a certain mass, it will begin to segment and 
stratify. Some animals will be more equal than others, in other words. 
'Web designer' no longer connotes much exclusivity, so people naturally 
begin to try to separate 'real' Web pros from the hordes of poseurs and 
dilettantes. To do that people push boundaries, most especially 
boundaries others don't even know are there. They hone the skillsets 
unique to the Web, the stuff people outside the club never see and can't 
appreciate. It's no longer about beeing cool to the rest of the world, 
it's about being cool to the rest of the Web designers.

So no, people aren't doing visually interesting things. Anyone can 
appreciate that. The audience is now smaller. It's not so much about 
saying to the rest of the world 'I belong' but about saying to other 
members 'I'm 3733t.'

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. By focusing on the techniques unique 
to the Web, people will move the Web forward. They will help it evolve 
into its own animal, rather than being impoverished print or television. 
By exploring fully the things that make the Web the Web, they'll learn 
to exploit them in ways we couldn't have thought of a few years ago.

The tradeoff is that, to those who aren't 'in the know,' it all looks 
rather boring. In fact, it is--or soon will be. The cutting edge is 
always the first to get dull. Such navel gazing quickly loses relevance 
to all but the hard core few, now so 'exclusive' that no one else can 
know or care that they are '3733t,' marginalized by their own pursuit of 
technical excellence. Then along will come someone who combines the 
flare of 2000 with the technique of 2002 and unleashes something wholly 
new in the process.

It will take time, though, as this stuff is hard. Once the low-hanging 
fruit is gone (say, multi-column CSS layouts), pushing the limits 
becomes the povince of a few very gifted individuals and a small horde 
of talented imitators. It's the law of diminishing returns, and there is 
no David Siegel book to teach us how. We gotta make it up as we go.

So yes, much of the current CSS design looks pretty boring, but it's a 
boredom bred of necessity, and it lays the ground work for better things 
yet to come.


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