Ian Maleney
Thu, March 24, 2016

Art, Design, Web Design

William Morris ‘Trellis’ wallpaper design

It’s William Morris’ birthday today, so I figured that’d be a decent excuse to spend some time thinking about something that’s been bothering me these past few weeks. I’ve spent a significant part of the last 15 or 16 months learning about web design and development. It’s been really interesting and exciting but, as someone coming from an ‘artistic’ background, also deeply frustrating in a couple of important ways. As I’ve gone through various stages in learning what I’m doing with code on any given day, and learning how the industry of web design and development functions in the real world, I’ve found a nagging voice in the back of my head asking that tired, age-old question: “Yes, but is it art?”

The answer to this question is always no. I’m interested in finding out why that is the case. What are the differences between art (in the broad sense of William Morris), design (in the 20th century sense of print-media design), and web design (in the 21st century sense of contemporary web development)? Are there key differences that mark each area as something unique? Where do they cross over? Do they share philosophical or theoretical backgrounds? Can any one become the other? If so, how and when?

The full teasing out of these questions is well beyond the scope of a single blog post, but I want to try to articulate the feeling I have about where the various boundaries lie, and why it’s somewhat dangerous to ignore or elide these distinctions.

One of the most familiar distinctions between art and design is that of function: the former is generally considered to be ‘purposeless’, art pour l’art and all that; the latter is, to quote Michael Bierut, art with a purpose. In general I like this distinction as far as it implies that art’s purpose, its function, is undecided until it appears in the world. The artist’s work is always completed by the reader, the listener, the viewer. It emerges from an inspiration of some sort, an obsession or an irrational (from the perspective of capital) entanglement in an idea, and proceeds until the point where it engages with the spectator who, in perceiving the work, defines its hitherto unknown or vague purpose.

Design emerges from a brief, a set of goals. It has its function inscribed in it from the beginning, even if its meaning may change and grow as it moves out into the world. There is a certain object to be presented in a certain light – the designer’s job is to manufacture that light as best they can. For me, there is always an imperative latent in a piece of design work, something which shapes a perception, which guides the viewer to something ultimately outside both the design and themselves. This might be as simple as a chair reminding you that your legs are tired, or as complex as the feelings triggered by a familiar piece of branding. A piece of art foregoes the imperative and invites a connection between viewer and work without a concrete external presence. This is broad-stroke stuff and not meant to be taken as absolute, but it’ll do as a framework for now.

So, if we accept this as a working distinction between art and design, what is the difference between design and web design? We can probably define web design as the visual element of information shared across a digital network. The work that goes into presenting information online – shaping it on any number of screens – is web design. The key practical differences between this and traditional print design is the nature of distribution and, increasingly, the elasticity of the work itself – its latent imperative must continue to function across multiple screen sizes, and in multiple environments. It may be embedded, emailed, discovered on a phone or a watch. It will be viewed on different browsers, at different pixel densities, on different operating systems. Unlike print media, web design’s final resting place is largely undefined. It’s always in flux.

Looking at these distinctions, we can see that the difference between art and design is largely philosophical while the difference between design and web design is primarily technological. Web design, just like traditional material design (note lack of capital letters), has its competing philosophies, but these are largely technological preferences dressed up as fundamental choices. SMACSS is not a philosophy, Material Design is not a philosophy. Which organisational tools or frameworks you use is not generally a philosophical question – it’s a matter of taste, aptitude and context, not a moral or even aesthetic dilemma.

There’s an old blog post by John Allsop called ‘A Dao of Web Design’, and it’s a great post, full of insight and understanding of the technology at hand. It’s remarkably relevant to web design today given that it’s 16 years old. But it’s not philosophy. Allsop knows this, and the title is a light-hearted one, but in the intervening decade-and-a-half, this approach to discussing web design – a series of technological choices underpinning an aesthetic result – as something like a way of life, a way of being, an ontological question, has become widespread. Beyond the bad taste of shallow cod-philosophising, it also obscures a central aspect of what 99.9% of web design in 2016 is doing: selling something.

“The Way is shaped by use”

For the web design industry the end-user/consumer is always right. This is no different from traditional retail or hospitality industries. Web design is overwhelmingly focused on giving users the smoothest experience possible, making the transfer of information as clear, defined and intuitive as it can be. With almost all web design, you’re meant to get the message immediately. You’re meant to buy into it. Even if that message has to be delivered in dozens of different contexts, ambiguity is still something neither code nor design is meant to contain. Here we see an important difference between elasticity/responsiveness and subjectivity/ambiguity.

Let’s go back to the art again. Take that William Morris piece at the top of this post. It’s beautiful. It has no distinct purpose, it does not make me think of what I can do with it in a material sense. It appeals to my senses in a direct way, through the use of colour, line and form. I do not know if there’s a message in there, but I doubt it. It seems concerned with the mediation of perception, in taking a sense of the world and making it into material which might, in some small way, retain that deeply human sensibility. At a very basic level, it’s about noticing, about a subjective, imaginative re-ordering/re-presentation of our relationship with the world around us. Its purpose is in itself; it is autonomous while it waits for us to absorb it, engage with it, build some kind of relationship with it.

How different this is from the norms of contemporary web design: “We help brands tell stories.” This commercial element, something Morris himself hardly ignored, flattens the entire process of web design, turns it into a game of efficiency, testing, behavioural directives. It highlights the generally debased state of narrative in the 21st century, something cut to measure for a desired reaction, something which is manipulative and eternally mediated through the filter of commerce, something which can be tweaked and iterated upon in order to improve its performance within a marketplace.

Traditional material design retained strong links to art because its end-point remained somewhat vague. The print advertising designer has no real control over or even significant knowledge about how someone engages with their work in the wild. Contemporary web design is something altogether different to traditional material design in how it attempts to stage-manage the behaviour of the person engaging with it. Even as web designers give up control over how a piece looks, they increase control over how users interact with it, how they’re tracked during that interaction, and what the end result of that interaction is supposed to be. This, to me, is the opposite of a piece of art, which is concerned entirely with how something looks and allows the person looking at it the freedom to engage with it on their own terms, without surveillance and without a desired result.

None of which is to say that design, particularly web design, is not important or unworthy of serious thought or even that it’s not good. I’m simply wondering if there is a way to think about and practice web design that follows a similar path to a work of art, something which is about the perception and representation of an imaginative reality. Is there a mimetic web design? Is there a way of going about these frameworks, a way of navigating this technology, that actively resists integration into a narrative of capital realism? Where in the massive chain of technological and aesthetic processes can the link between web design and capital be broken? At what point can web design serve itself?