Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Truth, transparency and the web

My current preoccupation is with visual characteristics of websites I've encountered lately. I'm working on two web projects - one for a client and one for my own idea - and in my research I've been observing some interesting trends in digital space.

When creating an identity for a new business, one of the most important components is the web experience. Like a building facade, it has to communicate the brand, but a website also has to attract and interact with the user.

The most successful web designers have a style that is clean, luxurious and polished - Happy Cog for example, helmed by Jeffrey Zeldman (who I randomly just found out that I'm related to in an extended family kind of way).

However, I'm fascinated by the sites that seem raw and unfinished, that evoke an earlier era of web design. It was ugly back then, with layouts dominated by tables, low resolutions and bright flashing pixelly icons. Remember the kitschy counters? The ones at the bottom of web pages that tracked visits?

Ah, the days before Google analytics seem so barbarian now, but I love it and here's why. People are attracted to truth and to transparency. Early web design had a distinct way of exposing all the seams and being so innocent, true to its medium, quirks and all.

And here's why I have massive respect for web developers now. There are so many layers involved with website development - HTML/ CSS/ javascript/ Content management/ etc. That something so flat and linear as code can create beautiful dimensional designs seems farfetched, but design on the web can be clean, beautiful, minimal, textured, delicious. That developers can disguise the limitations of digital space is a massive feat.

I appreciate the juicy navigation, illustrations, and that letterpress look that web designers use to make the web more beautiful, but is web design about disguising the limitations of digital space? Or can we play with the limitations and expose the seams?

A website for the wine label Casa Mariol by Barcelona designers Bendita Gloria exposes the quirky characteristics of web design by using antiquated clip art and tables, which no self-respecting web designer would dream of implementing... until now. How unconventional and beautiful is this brand? This style reminds me of the Metahaven.com sites (at this moment it's gyrus.net, selling domain names), which offers every product and service imaginable and do everything but refer to the design studio. The real Metahaven site still doesn't show images of past work, only a list of clients and current projects.

These are clever plays on the quirkiness of the web. Also, I am really interested in sites that expose the architecture underneath... in a more organized Swiss modern kind of way. For example, I love this site, the grid system that shows the grid underlying the content of the page. And on this theme, this site is nicely done, revealing the grid that the page is organized with and using it as a bold navigation element. Another example of being really straightforward with no bells and whistles, Google (everything) is an example of functional utilitarian web design. The user interface on those sites makes me comfortable because I know it just is what it is, and it's not trying to be something it's not (print).

This portfolio site from Rebecca Stephany (is there a distinct style from Gerrit Reitveld?) has a carefree, intentionally haphazard collection of work and conveys a distinct personality. And Stephany's artist statement is translated by the Dada poetry generator, which I think is a perfect complement to her work. This site, Forms of Inquiry, isn't much to look with the bold, blue headlines and no styling whatsoever. But now I'm getting the feeling that:

unfinished/"undesigned"/whatever you want to call it

= transparency

= truth.

And that will always be what I'm after.

Maybe ugly is the new beautiful.

I'll leave you with a way to visualize the changes happening in web space. Here are two sets of icons, pixel-based vs letterpress.

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