What happened to the web?

16 Oct 2018

I recall attending a Saturday course in HTML back in the early 90s. A number of established graphic designers were doing so, and for some it was an added insult to having been forced off drawing boards thanks to the advent of digital production only a few years prior. My take-home was a hefty tutorial book – more of a coding book than anything else. It found great use as a door stop for many years – honestly. This was not for me, particularly since the process of production seemed to be all about impossibility as opposed to possibility. Yes, the platform was very agricultural from a design point of view, but for programmers working from a kind of design ‘ground zero’ and bringing this all to life it was another thing – probably quite the opposite. A short time after, the advent of ‘frames’ saw me design and produce a client website that stood successfully for many years. But after that project I still preferred to keep away from the code and worked with independent programmers and producers for the many websites produced by the company from that time on. 

In the middle of the timeline referred to here was an exciting and wide-spread body of work produced by the hands of Flash. This was a proprietary animation and motion graphics program from Adobe®, the same company that was cornering the market with software for page layout, photo editing and vector illustration along with everything else in between (and to follow). Flash had not much to do with restriction, rather it was a designer’s paradise with no boundaries. If you could think it, you could build it. The web seemingly had no boundaries in terms of design. But there soon came a wall – a very high wall. It was built by Apple and instantaneously excluded all Flash content from its browsers – desktop, tablet and phone – as a default. It was over in, you could say, a flash. 

There was, however, another change brewing that would put the brakes on what graphic designers could and were creating for the web, although it was definitely a change that represented great value for individuals and organisation investing in the Internet for marketing and communication purposes. It came from the realisation that almost all functionality for the web was repeatable across sites and could be packaged for sale. And it came at the same time the expectations of the web were becoming so complex that building anything from scratch, by tapping code, was suddenly obsolete. One of the early markers of this was content management, and the result was CMSes (content management systems) that put the task of content upload and editing into the hands of clients, for a faster and less expensive execution of site structure and page content – there was no reliance on briefing third party consultants or providers for such tasks. Now think further to the requirements of calendars, payment systems and the like – nobody would think to code such functionality from scratch, since these needs are common and have been competitively produced and put to market as boxed solutions. More bang, less buck. 

A side effect of this development is the unwitting standardisation of design in the web space. There is little expectation or opportunity now for designing from first principles, at least not the way Flash had allowed in years prior. Now issues like device responsiveness and pre-set themes force designers to consider a site as a vertical space divided by rows made up of blocks, all with the ability to tumble and scale into place from desktop display through to tablet and mobile. And from a design perspective we now think about designing within the context of fulfilment and content rather than starting with a completely blank piece of paper. Ahem, screen. 

There is a big plus side to this, and it calls on designers to be focussed on a bigger, more valuable client picture. And that is to become custodian of all content, marketing and business function, not just what is designed, and consider the purpose and functionality of a website in consultative and managerial senses as well. So, conformity, yes – but with great reason, and scope for a refocus on what the web can truly do for a client. 

And today, literally today (Tuesday), the studio finds itself not only designing but producing it’s first website since those early days, using the newly-launched Oxygen 2 builder, a platform within Wordpress that dispenses with themes and enables a click/drag build direct into the CMS. Whoa!  

That’s what happened to the web.