By Goran Batic (researcher for the Institute of Network Cultures)
In 1994 the World Wide Web crept out of its scientific and academic egg and entered the first phases of popular consciousness. At this point the web design explosion began. Ten years later, we would like to stand back and attempt to map something of these years of frantic and inventive interdisciplinary work.
This was the starting point and the guiding quote of the two day international conference “A Decade of Webdesign” taking place on 21st-22nd of January, 2005 in Amsterdam. Ten years after the invention of the WWW an urgent need to reflect upon many events which shaped the Internet as we know it today was present, and the conference aimed at exactly that.
When the web started off, its purpose was informational, and now when we look at it, it is everything but that. Content was the sole purpose, to offer the audience access to information from any place on Earth. However, as it is case with any new medium, imagination played the crucial role in its development. Many designers fled to the web, thinking it was the way of working and publishing their ideas and projects. When we look at the situation now, many web designers who have been with the web from the beginning are giving up their jobs, since they are fully dissatisfied with the web direction, and the way the pre-conditions of starting a project are being imposed on them. The line between art and commerce is invisible by now, and most of the sites online are designed for the entire audience, which is a great mistake. Designers can not fulfil their intention unless they know who they are designing for!
According to Jeffrey Zeldman, many web designers view their craft like pop culture; it’s either cool or crap! Exactly that jargon ‘cool’ has influenced the direction of the web design in the past decade. As it seems, users are unable to say what is good or bad, but they can say what is cool. One of the reasons for that is the fashion of web designing by using Flash. Ever since designers started using Flash, it had become the ‘non-written rule’ of designing on the web. “The Web used to look like a phone book. Now much of it looks like a design portfolio. In fact, it looks like the design portfolio of 20 well-known designers, whose style gets copied again and again by young designers who consider themselves disciples.” (Jeffrey Zeldman)
The fact is that we live in a society obsessed with surface, and it seems that style has become fetish in the field of web design. A remarkable point which design theorist Max Bruinsma said two years ago “Form over content seems to be the new condition on the web.” seems to be very much applicable today. In his view, the dynamic interplay of artistic criteria and functional demands has become more and more narrowed down to the realm of style. However, designers should be aware of that fact that the main ‘lesson’ they have learn is to able to communicate with the web users, since information they are trying to present without a proper interpretative interface is nothing but chaos! Web designers must be able to transfer information into cultural content. As Guy Bonsiepe claims, the interface goes beyond the duality of material/immaterial, it covers what they have in common. And indeed, the interface creates the tool for users to fully use the site to its limits. Anything other than that results in the designer’s failure.
However, we must not forget one of the web features – freedom of speech. Anyone who has a computer and knows how to use programmes for creating web sites is free to create a site. Users have realized that from the beginning of the web, and as the consequence, the Internet is packed with amateur web sites. What rules or theories do apply for them? We can not and should not omit them from the impact on the web development. The paradoxes of the web design as it the fact that amateur web designers have more freedom than the professional designers.
Many questions arise from the detailed look of the past ten years of web design, and very often, we are left with indecisive opinions. Is web designing as the profession going to cease? What were the key directional changes in the past decade? When should we expect certain standards in the professional web designing? What will be the new buzz characteristic of the web in the future? Shall we simply be as realistic as Jeffrey Zeldman when he said “As long as our society values Style over Design, surface over substance, this situation is not going to improve.”?
In order to answer those questions, discuss and analyse the events of web design in the past decade, to envision new directions, and to hear the first hand web creating experience, the organizers of the conference (Institute of Network Cultures – Amsterdam, Piet Zwart Academy – Rotterdam, and Stedelijk Museum – Amsterdam) gathered 15 experts of different fields related to web design to present their views, critiques and predictions. Among many important topics, five themes seemed to be inevitable to be discussed into details and thus the presenters from the fields of media, design, art, economics, software engineering, gender studies…were divided into five different panels: Histories of Web Design, Distributed Design, Meaning Structures, Digital Work and Modelling the User.
Approximately 350 guests attended the conference in order to listen, reflect, and actively engage into discussions caused by various views presented by the conference’s speakers which included: Angela Beesley, Hayo Wagenaar, Geke van Dijk, Michael Indergaard, Helen Petrie, Franziska Nori, Danny O’Brien, Adrian MacKenzie, Rosalind Gill, Schoenerwissen/OfCD, Peter Luning, Peter Lunenfeld Olia Lialina, John Chris Jones and Steven Pemberton.
One of the features of the event was the inclusion of “The Design Timeline”, an online project (www.designtimeline.org) and also the chance of each guest’s to present his view on the theme during the “Timeline Hotspots” slots. The entire event was also blogged by the Institue of Network Culture’s Ethnobloggers, and it can be found here .
The conference was opened by the introductory speech by Geert Lovink, a lecturer of interactive media at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam, a creator and a chair of the conference.
“We are really going to try hard not to historicize the last decade too much. Nonetheless, there is a lot of reason to at least look at what has happened over these turbulent years in a more schematic and analytical fashion. We thought there is a great need of that. The idea was to not just write a history, or indeed histories in plural, but also maybe further develop the vocabulary that exists; that we should extend. Of course the critiques have been that web design is very superficial, that it has over identified itself with late 90’s techno libertarian ideas; that it’s been too experimental, that it didn’t focus enough on the user etc. Over the next two days of course we are going to look into all of these ideas that have been floating around about web design and we are also going to look into all of the changes in the industry itself, not only the working conditions, but also the enormous changes in the standards, protocols and applications that have been used. So we are really going to try hard to get away from the question, ‘what is a cool web page?’.”
Following the opening lines by Lovink, Matthew Fuller from the Piet Zwart Institute, a creator and a chair of the conference also shared few thoughts regarding the event.
“The idea of an anniversary, the idea of some kind of birthday celebration; we thought this was really something to celebrate here. But of course there are many potential birthdays for the web. One could say and the timeline has already had many arguments, over what was the first birthday or the first tenth anniversary of web design. We don’t propose that this particular day is particularly meaningful, but we want to find a way of looking back on roughly ten years of work, and that roughly ten years can also of course stretch to forty or fifty years, but who’s counting.”
Panel 1 – Histories of Webdesign
In this session chaired by Matthew Fuller the following speakers spoke about social, technical and cultural proposals as ways of making an account of the last decade.
By pointing out that the web design was thought to be a profession with unlimited earning potential and the promising “post-economic” future, Lunenfeld had given a promising and debatable approach to the conference topic. He explained that the first decade of web was so exciting due to the opening of new modes of self-expression. However, this leap into design was also a leap into a void. Lunenfeld also made the parallel between the web design and new economy, by pointing out that nothing exemplified the new economy more that the ubiquity of the web.
In order to show how the web changed as the typical western medium to the global usage, he argued that Madarin might well overtake English as the most used language on the net. Finally, since he argued the web histories and overviews do not use the language of the critique, but the language of hype, he states that the most useful histories of practice are those that contribute to the future of that practice, because what’s coming ought to be better than what’s left behind.
Nori talked about the establishing collections of works of digital origins within the museum context, raising some critical questions about the changes that museums and other art institutions face in a communication society. How to collect works that are in constant process of modification, what relevance they have in terms of cultural history, what will be the outcome of the preservation process vs. rapid innovation of software and hardware? Through her personal experience in the digitalcraft project of the Museum of Applied Art Frankfurt,she outlined their activities in the website collection. The main stress in on a clear structure, a well founded selection and easy access. The goal is to preserve institutional memory as well as to create cultural meaning, where by avoiding the “cool” jargon of the scene and yet to capture the singularities of style and functionality.
The major concern of long term preservation and long term accessibility of digital resources is the quick pace of software and hardware innovation, making accessibility of digital works a real challenge. A span of data retrieval from CDs and DVDs is approximately 5-7 years and old databases can not be accessed after 10 years. More and more researchers are concerned with soon-to-come “Digital Dark Age”. According to Nori, it is of great political and national interest to act in this field, because why should we not act on this before Bill Gates does?
Mackenzie started his presentation by asking how we can understand the construction of the WWW as a process in time and by pointing out that the relation between programmers and web designers was an important part of the history of the web. Not because the net was developed as a design material but as a communication protocol. He argued that the construction of the web was coupled in a code of visual-typographic-animated objects and processual information systems. Exactly this code-centric view of the net treats it as software, and this code seen as a material had been used by programmers and designers over the last decade. The important notion is that the code was a cultural process rather the technical infrastructure. According to Mackenzie, Java gives a way to track some of the crossovers between programming and design.
To show Java’s roles in the construction of the web, he based his arguments on three general concepts from contemporary social theory: agency – the concept of who does what, materiality – what counts as the basic stuff that exists, and sociality – the concept of how we belong together.
The construction of the net has been associated with processes of identity, new modes of production, commodification and consumption, and most importantly as a re-invented public sphere. He argues that in terms of code, we can understand the net as a vast, distributed program, but there is no single end product or outcome of what the program does. Perceptions of materiality and the materialities of perception figured centrally in relation to the Web. While some significant desktop software was and continues to be written in Java, Mackenzie states that Java failed to become widely visible. The idea that whole desktop-software style interactions would be appear in web pages as Java applets languished. He also argued that like any other media, the Web was a form of sociality. But sociality, like materiality, is not given once and for all. According to him, sociality is mutable relationality, constantly challenged, mobilised and transformed.
Panel 2 – Distributed Design
This session chaired by Femke Snelting dealt with the notion of amateur design, and it asked what happens to design once it becomes a non-specialist network process.
Wagenaar’s precise view of the amateur design had shaken up the conference’s audience. He asked what we thought about it, whether it was about improving the web, or something else. Hayo, as the representative of the IJsfontein, Amsterdam based interactive design company, argued that future design would function as an extension of human communication, and nonetheless as an extension of human capacity. According to him, some notions of human processes will be replaces by computers!
By explaining his company’s activities, and the importance they give to children, he argued their products worked on developing children’s mental abilities. In his view, interactivity motivates them to work together. The main activities they pay the biggest focus on are playing, learning and most importantly the process of exploring. He claims that our imagination is no longer restricted by anything. In conclusion, he claimed design is about human needs, and it requires people to be engaged. Design is here to improve life, and we need to engage kids.
John Chris Jones
Among all the speakers, the most experienced person in the field of design, John Chris Jones gave a different and yet very valuable overview of web design. By stating that all design and all products are protheses, he reminded us about design’s magical properties. On the first place, he doubts mechanical seriousness that comes with replacing the human efforts. According to him, there is no separation between the social and the technological networks. In the complete world, there can be no absolute divisions, either between life and death, thing and spirit etc.
John Chris Jones lobbies that the highly skilled in narrow jobs take back from what remains of creativeness and initiative that was long ago lost to them. We must find this notion of ‘ancient’ magical intelligence of technology, since technology is about mediating new ways of being human. He argued that we are given the chance to perceive new ways of being, rather that the given roles which are dominant in the metropolis. He concluded by saying that if we could tell what exactly the future of web design would look like, then it would mean it was dead.
Through the analysis of features of amateur design, she gave the audience ‘a trip to the web past’. According to her, we have to think of amateur design as the powerful past. As the answer to the question of what were the common features of the old design, she offered two key characteristics: Under Construction sign and Starry Night background.
Under construction was such a common sign of the last century design, where as the permanent construction is a quality of the professional one. According to her, the construction is actual even today.
As the most common background of non-professional design, the starry night was sort of a metaphor for science fiction, since the web at its early days was seen as a new dimension. According to Lialina, even if the starry night would be done in Flash, it would still look amateur. She concluded by saying that if we were to redesign a web site from the 90’s, the very first step would be to remove the Style Sheets from the background.
Panel 3 – Meaning Structures
This session chaired by Richard Rogers dealt with the notion of interweaving of technology and culture up to the point of semantic engineering being mapped out.
Beesley introduced Wikimedia Foundation as a non-profit organization, which operates Wikipedia and its sister projects such as Wiktionary, Wikibooks, Wikinews, Wikisource, Wikiquote and Wikimedia Commons. This volunteered created encyclopaedia started in January 2001, it is freely licensed and most importantly it is based upon a neutral point of view. Naturally, the question of whether the content was trustworthy was raised almost immediately, but as Beesley explained, there are many review processes before the content is published online. It is an inspiring model of a creative international community which gives voices to many. It is a tool that encourages and celebrates diversity. It uses the collaborative software, which stores each version of the page into its archive. Nowadays, the software is used by many non-wiki pages. An interesting fact about Wikipedia is that users create their own pages, create their own interfaces, and it increases the sense of shared ownership. The history of Wikipedia design over the past few years changed from content to user-centric design. It separates readers from editors, and more importantly it is more dynamic. All in all, the audience was given a great example of features and benefits of open design sites!
Pemberton opened up his view of the past decade by saying that the “ineluctable modality of the visible” is what dominates our experience in design. According to him, the web is often treaded as a new visual place; it was not intended that way. Designing tools such as HTML were designed to represent the structures, not the aesthetic of the page! By looking at the typical web site today, it is hard to get the true info out of it, since it is a real mess. He implicitly argued that the visual was not unimportant for the web, but its function was to subordinate the meaning, and the two should not be mixed! According to Pemberton, many designers nowadays omit using Style Sheets since they are old, but they are good. It is simpler than HTML, it is cheaper to produce and the search engines will find the site easier. He strongly argued that programmers and graphic artists should not be designing web sites for simple reason; their psychology is very different from most of the population. He claimed as well that the 4 most important properties of a website are: good content, usability, fast download speed and regularly updated. He concluded by predicting the future of the web design as the end of the pixel perfect page and the beginning of the visual semantic and proper fluid design.
This German duo made of Anne Pascual and Marcus Hauer, currently based in California, offered the audience their personal selection of the most remarkable websites of the last 10 years of web design. They asked the guests to reflect on what the designer’s aim is, and according to them, the visual design should mediate the technology, and not the other way around. OfCD based their selection of striking web sites on their innovations, and they mainly focused on the sites that introduced characters, that through out the time became the web characters. Naturally, many examples came from the Japanese web design, since the character introduction is its typical feature. They concluded with some future directions, where they claimed that visual design would no longer be the one. According to them, designers should focus on structure! They also see big developments on the Blogger – the biggest blogging portal, and especially stress the future usage of RSS – a new technique in web designing!
Panel 4 – Digital Work
This sessions chaired by Geert Lovink dealt with the notion of redesigning work, and commenting on the decade from the economical, sociological and designing points of view.
The author of the “Silicon Alley: The Rise and Fall of a New Media District” outlined the most important features of his book, and offered the audience the first hand argumentation about the impact of the Web on the New Media in New York. He introduced the networks media workers belong to, while imposing the questions such as who holds the power?; and whether workers have any power at all? According to Indergaard, new media producers managed to produce creative and authentic works more than ever before. They had an enormous chance to ‘make it’ in the ideal alley, and as an example he mentioned Kyle Shanon, the creator of Urban Desires magazine. More importantly, he challenged the guests by asking where the commercial entity of Silicon Alley came from. He claims it came from the ads and commerce, within the media as well. In conclusion, he argued that the impact of 9/11 was too big, and the investments were rare and many companies went bankrupt. The alley as the entity died. However, as the consequence of the alley’s previous development, New Media is used interactively within the city of New York, and the idea of rebuilding the alley worth of 5 billion dollars is underway, where the long time presence of artists and cultural workers would again attract new media workers and businesses, in order to create urban areas as a field for imaginative expressions and aesthetics.
Gill introduced a very spread myth of new media workers, or so called “Technobohemians”. They are often thought of as alternative, arty, cool, anti-establishment oriented and highly individualistic. These edgy people value self-employment, exploration and self-fulfilment. Obviously, media image was the key player in spreading the myth of the new media workers, by presenting them as artistic, young, creative, exciting, and most importantly focused on diversity.
Through Rosalind’s research results, the audience learnt how it really is to work in new media. She opened up the door to precarious labour and the related social struggles over the last ten years. Most of the workers are among 20-40 years old, and the overwhelmingly white! 93% of them have a university degree; many of them create their own work. Most importantly, the earnings are very low, especially among the women. Gill also pointed out that the cultural, political and social implications of technologies on gender and identity is huge.
The truth is that women get fewer contracts and earn less, and they became part-time workers, often working from home. The teams are often male dominated teams, and only 2% of the jobs are filled through the resumes! There is a serious divide in regard to access to information and media infrastructure.
O’Brien gave the guests a great overview of the first web entries, their function, content and the stories behind their creation. According to him, the year of 1994 was the year of explosion of self-expression. The creators of the first pages were used to the idea of self-expression, and were not being moderated by anyone. The web promised the solution of notion of freedom to advertise your work, the problem of distribution and so on.
The fact is, as O’Brien claimed, were done by workers from big corporate companies. While being on a site, it was impossible to know whether it was done by the company, or by one of the company’s employees. He presented a site as an example of the web in 1994: suck.com – the site done by employees who worked at Hotwires and thought it sucked. They stole the time of Hotwires to create the site on which they could trash the company. According to O’Brien, the suck.com creators became the web heros.
Panel 5 – Modelling the User
This session chaired by Caroline Nevejan dealt with the notion of user needs and desires of the past decade of web design.
Helen Petrie’s stunning presentation was started with the straight forward question to the audience “Why should we worry about access to the web for people with disabilities? Because there are many more disabled people than you think who want to use the web!” She pointed out that we often talk about the information overflow, where as in this approach, there is the information desert! Many people are aware of the fact that blind people have difficulties accessing the web, but many other people are affected as well, such as print disabled, dyslexic, deaf and hard of hearing people have the same problem. The web is not the only discriminatory medium! Only 3% of books are produced in Braille, often 2 years after the mainstream publication.
She also talked about her personal experience in the largest comprehensive study of website accessibility ever taken, where 39,000 sites were tested. Overall, the study participants were successful on only 76% of the tasks. She demands of web designers to address the issue of accessibility, and automatically they will address the usability issue as well. Petrie demonstrated the usage of programs used by sight disabled people in order to access the info on the web. Not only are there just a few programs, but they are hard to use! She concluded by saying the basic technical accessibility of most of the sites are very poor, and something needs to be done as soon as possible.
Geke van Dijk
In Geke’s presentation, the audience was given the outline of her research in the field of commercial web design. As she pointed out, the aim was to understand where we are now and where we are going to be soon. In order to bring the topic a bit closer to the guests, she defined the web as a pond, where each thrown stone made an impact and contributed to the shaping of the web as the whole.
According to her, the web past through different periods:
Technology period (1995) – where sites were feature driven, programmers were opinion leaders and the web design didn’t exist as a profession. Users were interested in technology and they had to adapt to it. Usability period (1998) – sites are driven by technology but with changes within the fields of aesthetics and usability. Web design was a profession, the audience got wider, user research was visible, and guidance through sites was given importance to. User experience period (2001) – the main feature was the user’s experience. Good design meant it had many hits. Design developed many branches and user research became a profession. User value period (2004) – the focus was on the balance between technology and people. Most importantly, it is still in progress. The general audience is online by now. Geke argued that the web users are very active and sophisticated, but unpredictable. Design has nothing to do with user’s choice any longer.
This Amsterdam based artist and designer gave some great examples of interesting flash animations of the web and demonstrated a bit of flash hacking as well. The audience was given the positive characteristics of the flash, where Lunining remixed the code of filter, vectored pixels via vector graphics, plug ins, source codes and browser pages turned into tones and visuals. He presented the possibility of creativity on the web, the benefits of experimentation with software codes and programs, and a valuable lesson to web designers in the audience.
Some would say that the current state of the web is the result of the past couple years of designing. After hearing all the 15 brilliant and intriguing presentations, it is most certainly clear that the current state of the WWW is the result of more than the last ten years of the net evolution. Various fields of professions had a big role in shaping out the web, the way it started, the way it is now, and it will probably influence the way it’s going to end.
The web is not only the biggest and the only universal medium in the entire Globe, but it is the ‘place’ of unique collaborations which the world has never seen before. Art and Science, Economy and Engineering, Politics and Psychology all merge at one place in order to create make the human communication easier and better.
This event perhaps is not the only event which celebrated the decade of web design, but it has most certainly fulfilled its original aim – to map out the web’s evolution events, to create new vocabulary and get rid of the ‘cool’ jargon. How will the next decade of web design look like? It’s hard to say. We tried to offer some aspects, but one thing is certain. The ‘key player’ will be the same as it was during the last decade – long live self-expression!
A Decade of Webdesign was developed by the Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam (Geert Lovink, Sabine Niederer) and the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam (Matthew Fuller, Femke Snelting)
Researchers & producers: Jelle Bouwhuis, Goran Batic, Kim van Haaster
Documentation: Goran Batic & Nancy Mauro-Flude (ethnobloggers), Todd Matsumoto
Graphic design: Loes Sikkes & Leon Kranenburg
Design timeline: Michael Murtaugh, Femke Snelting
The conference was made possible through the financial support of:
Gemeente Amsterdam, Dienst Maatschappelijke, Ontwikkeling (DMO) afd. Kunst & Cultuur, Mondriaan Foundation, Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst, Digitale Pioniers, Thuiskopie Fonds.
Many thanks: Jelle Bouwhuis (Stedelijk Museum), Maike Vernooij (11), Jelle Nijhuis (Westergasterras), Calum Selkirk, Leslie Robbins, Dirk van Oosterbosch, Claudia Maria de Azevedo Borges, Michael Murtaugh, Roxana Torre.