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So what is web design?
November 21, 2007 7:41 AM   Subscribe

Jeffrey Zeldman on what web design is and isn't.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (40 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
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.

I just saved you 5 minutes. loloma.
posted by mrgrimm at 7:49 AM on November 21, 2007


Can't say I'm a big Zeldman fan necessarily, but I did like that particular article of his.
posted by spilon at 7:53 AM on November 21, 2007


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.

but is their use of ambient informatics ubiquitous?
posted by quonsar at 8:03 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


I read the article yesterday. It was interesting enough. His comparison to magazine layout seems apt. The other stuff, i'm not so sure.
posted by chunking express at 8:04 AM on November 21, 2007


I thought this essay was a better take on the subject Zeldman was address in a round about way: Do Canonical Web Designs Exist?
posted by chunking express at 8:05 AM on November 21, 2007


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.

Or it's about corporate image and promotion. Whichever is paying the bills today.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:06 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Is:

1. Design on the web.

Isn't:

1. A rock
2. A cat
3. A hat
4. A bird
5. A house
6. Your mom
7. You
8. Me
9. Everyone We Know
10. Yojimbo
11. Goodfellas
12. Ulysses
13. Brad Pitt
14. Angelina Jolie No, wait, it totally is Angelina Jolie. Just put that as number 2 on the Is list.
14. Stephen Fry
15. Mass Effect
16. A PS3
17. Metafilter
18. A Mapplethorpe photograph
19. A perineum
20. Mr. Show
21. Mac OSX
22. Windows Vista
23. Rock Band
24. 3:10 to Yuma
25. Britney Spears
26. Your Dad
27. That sound your wallet makes when you bend it that they used to use to make cartoon sneaking footstep sounds

This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.
posted by shmegegge at 8:14 AM on November 21, 2007 [4 favorites]


And as so many other definitions, it's quite useless for actually understanding what it's all about. But it sure does sound nice.

I found this to be more agreeable that the actual definition: The inexperienced or insufficiently thoughtful 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.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:16 AM on November 21, 2007


I would have liked to see more examples. The one he links to is a good example of design that takes a back seat to the content, but at this point I want to gouge my eyes out whenever I see it.
posted by iconomy at 8:18 AM on November 21, 2007


I would have liked to see more examples.

*sigh*. Okay.

28. The sky
29. Grass
30. Weeds
31. Marijuana
32. Your subconscious
33. My subconscious
34. The subconscious of everyone we know
35. My ex-girlfriend
36. Litter
37. Cat litter
38. Space
39. Western Imperialism
posted by shmegegge at 8:43 AM on November 21, 2007


Am I web design?
posted by blue_beetle at 8:51 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Web design is the creation of digital environments that facilitate and encourage human activity;

No. By this definition World of Warcraft falls under web design. He's not describing web design, he's not even describing online/internet design. He's describing digital environment design which can be both online and offline.

reflect or adapt to individual voices and content;

Can he be any more broad? Again this applies to areas well outside the web.

and change gracefully over time while always retaining their identity.

This is flat out opinion and seemingly contradicts his statement about adaptation. If a voice changes, the identity might change as well. Think a political party's change in policy. Suddenly their old identity (pro-issue) is inverted (con-issue).

Zeldman is being too broad; trying too hard to sound enlightened. He's swimming in his own muck at this point.

Web design is simple:
Facilitate access to information via the web medium.

That's it. It's glorified user interface design*. Content isn't design. Presentation of content is facilitated by design, but is not design itself. You might argue brand is built into the design of a page (for example a logo on the top of the page), but you'd be wrong, the logo is one piece of information. How that logo gets delivered to you, that's the design.

There is good design and there is bad design. Both fall under "web design". If I want I could create a website that's just red. That's it. No text. No images. No anything. Just Red. By Zeldman's definition this is not design. But it is.

To put it in a more personal scope we can say good web design is the ability for users of your web service (it's not just web pages, it's streaming content, it's XML pages such as RSS feeds, it's web services) to access the information they need with the least amount of effort.

Bad web design is making access to information (nearly) impossible for your users.

In both cases it's about providing access to information. That's what the web is about. That's what web design is. It really is just that simple.

* the term "user" does not necessarily mean "human being". perhaps the largest issue with web design right now is its prejudice against non-(visual)-human users.
posted by ruthsarian at 8:51 AM on November 21, 2007 [5 favorites]


I like A List Apart better when they don't do OP-EDs.
posted by sciurus at 9:07 AM on November 21, 2007


What a ridiculous article. How in gods name do people get the balls to stand up and declare that everyone else is wrong about something that's a matter of oppinion. This isn't what web design "is" it's what Zeldman would like web design to be considered. It seems absurd and somewhat delusional to stand up there and say that all the reporters who cover it, and all the awards, magazines, etc are wrong. when you're talking about something that, at it's core, is a matter of opinion.
posted by delmoi at 9:25 AM on November 21, 2007


Am I web design?

No.

40. blue_beetle
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:32 AM on November 21, 2007 [3 favorites]


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.

This sounds more like an ideal or a vision rather than a definition of 'what web design is'. Web design is the organization and layout of pages, sites and applications for the World Wide Web. Or something equally dry and boring.
posted by romanb at 9:37 AM on November 21, 2007


Yeah, Zeldman's article is a little convoluted and pretentious but, like the Porter one, it's fundamentally a response to designers who don't really and truly love the web for what it is.

Even nowadays there are lots of them around, and I wish they'd stay the fuck away from working on web projects.
posted by malevolent at 9:44 AM on November 21, 2007


well, his definition (the one he felt strongly enough about to repeat with emphasis) is sort of wanky rather than useful, but his idea of comparing web design to architecture makes a lot of sense, and if I were a web designer I'd take a lot of what he said in the article to heart. Especially his points about emerging commonalities. That's particularly strong. I think there will eventually be a successful movement past this, but at the moment successful web design seems motivated mostly by his sort of proscriptivist bare elegance aesthetic. Really incredible design nowadays really does seem to be about tiny details within a larger largely recognizable and reusable columns and headers framework. He gives decent reasons for accepting that state of things for now.
posted by shmegegge at 9:53 AM on November 21, 2007


More discussion:posted by kirkaracha at 10:06 AM on November 21, 2007


perhaps the largest issue with web design right now is its prejudice against non-(visual)-human users.

Not even. There's an entire industry that shills off improving how a certain non-human user based in Mountain View see your site.

And if bias is the problem, the things that Zeldman and ALA advocate for -- standards, accessibility, the Semantic Web -- are most, if not the entire, solution.

I think the biggest issue with web design right now is the bogging down of the accessibility battle. After that, I'd say the debate over the very thing Zeldman hints at -- the emergence of a de-facto user experience framework, somewhat exemplified by the poo-flinging over Jeff Croft's post.

But that's just me. I'm just a web generalist at a university. I'm not one of the blessed.
posted by dw at 10:13 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


In both cases it's about providing access to information. That's what the web is about. That's what web design is. It really is just that simple.

Perhaps you can clarify your argument: you say that you have a problem with Zeldman's definition because it is too broad, but this definition is equally as broad- it applies to all sorts of non-internet and non-electronically based systems as well. I can design a library in which my architectural considerations facilitate access to information, but that's not web design. I can design an interface to easily access all the information stored in my phone, but that's not web design either, yet it fits under your definition. While I generally agree that web design is more about information than strictly human activity, I don't think the argument that Zeldman is wrong because his definition is too broad is an effective one.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:28 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


If you're reading this Mr. Zeldman, Happy Thanksgiving!
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:30 AM on November 21, 2007


Ceci n'est pas web design
posted by shoepal at 11:05 AM on November 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


Perhaps you can clarify your argument

I think the best way I can put it would be that Zeldman's definition comes off sounding like a marketing piece; something he would tell a client.

I think by trying to define web design with/as "voices" and "environments" and "human activity" he's creating a blurry, confusing, broad picture of things.

It's like an advertisement for a car. "This car is power!"

Well no it's not, it's just a bunch of plastic and metal. It doesn't even handle that well and the engine is a bit weak at high RPMs.

He's not describing what web design is, he's describing what he would like people to think web design is. And in doing so I think he gets overly broad in his description and uses terms that are ambiguous at best.

Maybe that's what I mean. When I say broad maybe I mean ambiguous.

I'm saying it's metal and plastic. He's saying it's power. To me his defintion is broad to the point of having no real meaning.
posted by ruthsarian at 11:13 AM on November 21, 2007


A web is a set of digital documents that are connected together. Web making is connecting them together.

The cyclic progression of doing this over time makes it difficult to define, but web design is about connecting digital documents with each other to communicate additional meaning.

Doing it well is a matter of choice, but doing it poorly is no less web making that doing it well. I connect this document to that one. I make web. I see that I can do it better and decide to do it well, i.e. more meaningfully.

"Ah! I will be a designer of web. Yes, that's what I am. A designer!"

The difference between making and designing is more meaning. A designed web has more information than a made web.

Info theory meets info science.
posted by RoseyD at 11:26 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


41. Thanksgiving.
posted by Imperfect at 11:31 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Since I started reading stuff with my Treo on the bus, an essential aspect of good web design is that it works on all screen sizes.

I give Zeldman a C-, leaving me to wonder by what authority he claims to lecture on web design.

BTW, Metafilter gets an A-. Kudos! Meanwhile, Wikipedia has been banished from the grounds, and guards have been given orders to shoot on sight.
posted by bjrubble at 11:34 AM on November 21, 2007


Not bad, Zeldman is endorsing common sense in web design. Good to see that.
posted by Mister_A at 12:30 PM on November 21, 2007


Which web design is like that? For one, Douglas Bowman’s white “Minima” layout for Blogger, used by literally millions of writers—and it feels like it was designed for each of them individually. That is great design.

I can't believe he thinks Minima is great design.
posted by jayder at 1:10 PM on November 21, 2007


webdesign:

the arrangement of graphical, textual, referential, interactive or other elements in a document or application for the World Wide Web.

Does that cover it?
posted by romanb at 1:11 PM on November 21, 2007


I can't believe he thinks Minima is great design.

It's clear, it's simple, it's low on gimmicks, and it's neutral. It's one of the most popular Blogger templates -- and Blogger users have a number of default templates to choose from.

That sounds like great design to me.
posted by dw at 2:35 PM on November 21, 2007


ruthsarian :

I think the best way I can put it would be that Zeldman's definition comes off sounding like a marketing piece; something he would tell a client.

I think by trying to define web design with/as "voices" and "environments" and "human activity" he's creating a blurry, confusing, broad picture of things.

It's like an advertisement for a car. "This car is power!"


I hope that's what Happy Cog tell their clients. I like Zeldman's definition because it cuts to the heart of what web design is for: a promise of change, a relationship to the people who use it, all in a digital, networked context. Good marketing (perhaps you mean sales?) speaks resonant truth about the relationship of people to products: cars are power, they are also mobility, or maybe they're access. These "definitions" are more significant, to me, than reductive definitions comprised of parts catalogs, because they explain the reasons why people might build or buy cars. I'm reminded of a change BMW made to their mission statement a few years ago: they replaced mentions of cars with "personal transport", which puts the company on a very different footing in light of peak oil, electric power, changing cities, and what-have-you.
posted by migurski at 2:37 PM on November 21, 2007


I'm saying it's metal and plastic. He's saying it's power. To me his defintion is broad to the point of having no real meaning.

That's pedantic to the point of being silly. A car IS power. There is meaning in that, even if it doesn't precisely define the term.

Does a poem have no real meaning if it doesn't quote the OED verbatim?
posted by dw at 2:49 PM on November 21, 2007


Mockup.
posted by Luddite at 3:55 PM on November 21, 2007


Web design does not equal rounded corners.
posted by djgh at 6:24 PM on November 21, 2007


People who are smart about print can be less bright about the web. Their critical faculties, honed to perfection during the Kerning Wars, smash to bits against the barricades of our profession.

Um, okay. Obviously web and print aren't exactly the same but there are enough similarities that you have web pages and not web buckets, or web turkeys. In fact, I would imagine web design is exactly what print designers used to dream of being able to do in document design (well, I did). Fluid layout, anchored floats, hyperlinked related material, hidden/revealed material, having an idea of who is reading the document, what they might be looking for and being able to personalize accordingly, being connected to a live database, and even the lowly acronym tag; these are fantasy features for document designers. A formerly static slab of information becomes a living, dynamic interface that is more accessible. Then again, the discussion can get muddled if we start out with a comparison between Google and a poster.

I just don't understand all this web design is not like print design talk. I guess it's more about validation and distinction than anything else. Design is functional aesthetics. Everything else just sounds like a bunch of pretentious twits overthinking their plates of beans.

Okay, here's my crazy analogy: print design is like a sophisticated woman, you have to explore to understand; web design is like a flasher with his trench coat always open.
posted by effwerd at 8:05 PM on November 21, 2007


I have yet to meet a designer that understood fluid layout. I'm sure there are some out there, but I've never met one. The first time I ever heard one say "We should make it for 1024x768 minimum rez as nearly 80% of users have that now and our target demographic skews wealthy" I wanted to shoot myself. And him, come to think of it. Stupid laws getting all up in my face.

I'm not in that side of things vocationally anymore, so prima donna designers and the managers that enable them can just keep riding that handbasket to high temperatures.
posted by Sparx at 3:27 AM on November 22, 2007


chunking express: that 'canonical websites' article is, indeed, very good. Thanks for sharing.
posted by Sparx at 3:32 AM on November 22, 2007


Web design is the creation of digital environments that facilitate and encourage human activity

or if you are at my company...

Web design is the creation of utter crap that confuses people. Usability? Why? Audience analysis? Fuck it. Password encryption? Surely you jest. Having an application that works on all browsers? Pfffttt why? We're more concerned abou which VP knows that it doesn't work.

I'm in hell.
posted by dasheekeejones at 6:31 AM on November 22, 2007


I AM NOT TEH WEB DESIGN. I AM TEH CEILING CAT LOLZ!!!1!
posted by triv at 6:41 AM on November 22, 2007


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