Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Painting a Better Landscape

April 15, 2006

It’s this simple: if you don’t understand the fundamentals of landscape painting, you don’t understand the fundamentals of web design. In fact, if you don’t grok landscapes you won’t possess the requisite understanding for working in photography, music composition, ballet, filmmaking, architecture or any other art or design endeavor.

This idea is much on my mind lately. I regularly receive something on the order of 10 or 12 emails each week from budding web designers asking after resources to help improve their efforts. They’re not asking about CSS or development resources, but design fundamentals resources. Today alone, I received 7 such messages, which is a bit exceptional (and probably why I’m writing this article now).

I don’t have to wonder why this is happening; why web designers are looking for information on “real” design – there are many. One reason is that traditional design and web design have long been, and in many ways still are, antagonistic toward one another. Members of the one are not often welcome at the other’s party. The traditional design community often looks at the web with skepticism and contempt. The web design community has always been happy to keep to itself, with its vast and ever-expanding resources, and enthusiasm for new and shiny tools and techniques.

Our community provides a virtual banquet of learning opportunities for Web development, but if you’re looking for actual design information you’ll need to tighten your belt. The fare is paltry.

Another reason for this disconnect is that Web design has not often been about design. Instead, the Web community’s fascination with technical fetish has often contributed most in defining what is supposedly best on the Web. Of course the fact that any old idiot with a couple hundred bucks for (or a pirated copy of) Dreamweaver and a few weeks of practice can call himself a Web designer hasn’t helped.

And, of course, we’re now working to recover from what that has done to the state of the Web design profession.

Chickens come home to roost

And what of the Web design community? As I’ve mentioned before, there’s plenty of community and fellowship among Web designers when the topic is the latest Web application, a cool new use of CSS, entertaining effects utilizing JavaScript or the DOM. But where design is concerned, the “Web design” community is conspicuously less gregarious and certainly less prolific in what it shares amongst members.

Our community provides a virtual banquet of learning opportunities for Web development, but if you’re looking for actual design information you’ll need to tighten your belt. The fare is paltry. Ever wonder why that is? Don’t wonder, because the answer is rather simple: You can’t buy design off the shelf from Adobe and you can’t learn it by playing around with it for a couple of weeks.

It is not a flattering characterization, but it’s damned accurate from my experience to observe that many Web designers are Web designers because they don’t enjoy working hard to be able to realize some measure of success. It does not take a great amount of acumen or effort to learn to use FrontPage or Dreamweaver or Fireworks or Photoshop with moderate skill and get paid for it. So armies of Web designers possessed of no understanding of design at all are born. Additionally, because of the current blog free-for-all culture, many of us go forth to badly misdefine design. (I'm sorry, but design has nothing to do with divs or semantics).

Do you understand the logical conclusion of all this? If not, then here’s your wakeup call. You’re about to be obsolete; downsized, optioned out. That’s right, unemployed. Time to polish up your résumé.

It doesn’t help that the Web design community tends to devote lots of energy toward maintaining distraction and entertainment at the expense of tending its own garden when it comes to design. For example, there are scores of online web design galleries, but these neither teach design nor have or exercise any standard for what constitutes good design. And if the gallery allows comments from viewers, the commentary invariably lauds artistry, technique and programming almost exclusively. Design concerns are seemingly irrelevant to these design venues.

There are a few individuals who devote some significant effort toward providing design insights, but they are the exception. And with the Web design community being largely incestuous, the lack of fresh information leads to stagnation and thematic repetition – the internet version of genetic deformity. Shapes and textures are mistaken for design and their merits sadly debated in worthless discussion threads.

As a result, Web designers are not often really designers at all and the Web design community’s chickens have come home to roost with little to crow about.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Professional Web designers who don’t understand the fundamentals of design are frauds. And soon, the people who pay for web design will catch on to that fact. It’s happening already, as design has begun to garner more of its fair share of attention in the business world. This will only increase and the business community’s grasp of design will continue to expand and become more refined, making room for skilled designers and very little for the rest.

Do you understand the logical conclusion of all this? If not, then here’s your wakeup call. You’re about to be obsolete; downsized, optioned out. That’s right, unemployed. Time to polish up your résumé.

So if you’re a Web designer, maybe it’s time to devote some effort toward actually learning the fundamentals of design. This is not something you can do in a weekend and it’s not something you can get from a magazine. You’ll need to learn this from a reputable institution and you won’t need your laptop. Pen, pencil, paintbrush, ink, charcoal, paper, canvas, textbooks – that’s all you’ll need. It’ll take time, so you’d better get cracking.

And while you’re at it, be sure to devote plenty of effort toward understanding information architecture, human psychology and interface affordance issues, too. Can’t do much Web designing without understanding those fields.

And if you’re looking for a good book to help with your design study, forget the Web design books. Forget the whole internet section of the store. Go and buy a landscape painting book. Go to the art shelves at your favorite bookstore and look for titles with the words, “landscape” and “composition” in them. That’s what you need. I’m serious.

* * *

I’ve been critical here, but for good reason. I love design and I really dig the Web design community. But as a professional I don’t like how so much idiocy has been allowed to masquerade as professional practice. As a community, I think we’re somewhat misguided and lack sufficient focus on what’s relevant to our endeavor. I’d like to see some fundamental changes in our community and by this essay and others I hope to inspire some sober thought and action toward that end.

UPDATE: I've already received a couple of notes chiding me for equating Web design with art, but I'm not doing that at all. It is a fact that design is based upon the fundamentals of artistry and if you don't have those fundamentals internalized, you can't be an effective designer. I've written about this before and won't expound on that again here. Sadly, this sort of misunderstanding is indicative of just how much work is left to do in the "design" community.

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