The first rule of web design is you do not talk about web design

Quick, right now, go to your three favorite Web designers’ weblogs. Are the current articles design articles? Do the current articles have anything at all to do with visual design? Not likely. I’d wager that the articles you find will be about accessibility, scripting, the DOM, Web standards, semantic code, development technique or industry culture; everything except visual design.

But these are supposedly design weblogs, right? Many of them even have titles that include the word, design. Where are the design articles? Why do Web designers, even the best-known, typically write about everything except design? For example, I just scoured the 9rules Design Community list of sites. Of those, not a single one had an article about design. That’s 51 really good weblogs – weblogs purportedly authored by designers – talking about everything except design.

…the Web design community is hopelessly distracted by technical fetish.

I find this puzzling and disappointing. It is not as if members of the Web design community don’t care about sharing information and it’s not as if we don’t enjoy offering tutorials. Most Web design weblogs are filled with tutorials …on scripting, starting your own business, or accessibility. But certainly not design.

Something is skewed and backward. So far as I can tell, the Web design community is hopelessly distracted by technical fetish. So-called or self-proclaimed designers are refusing to touch on matters of visual design, while at the same time those who have no clear understanding of design are irresponsibly filling the resultant void with nonsense. Designers aren’t controlling the design conversation and that’s problematic if we care about design information at all.

Truly, the only places I see design being discussed are in forum and gallery comments. But these comments come almost entirely from nameless, faceless individuals, strong in their opinions while enjoying the comforts of anonymity. As for these “discussions,” there’s a term for the practice of anonymous voyeurism used to stimulate fleeting moments of self-indulgent activity in private. It’s called masturbation. Anyway, anonymous opinion is worthless. Endeavor to learn from that will you? I certainly hope not.

Where’s The Beef?

Where are the named individuals writing design articles, tutorials and critiques on their own sites? I am not talking about articles on how to achieve a specific aesthetic in Illustrator or how to create a mirrored reflection in Fireworks. I’m talking about articles that show how to establish a specific mood with design or how to support a specific cultural flavor or how to direct and lead the viewer’s eye into and through a composition. Where are the articles about composition? Where are the articles about contrast, balance, texture, viewer comfort, visual speed and tempo?

When some do touch on visually communicative elements, it’s usually obtuse or non-contextual examinations of details.

Where are the design critiques that cite real-world examples of what works and what doesn’t, detailing why or why not? Where are the articles that expose examples of bad design information?

There are a few designers that I look up to, either for their solid work or their substantial understanding as revealed in their words. But seldom do even these individuals offer any information on visual design. They’ll go on all day about how to semantically code content or about how to achieve some tooltip effect, but on matters of design they are conspicuously mute.

When some do touch on visually communicative elements, it’s usually obtuse or non-contextual examinations of details. Some champion or criticize rounded corners, gradients, drop shadows, metallic textures, worn textures, big text, big buttons, small text, etc… ad infinitum. But these elements are seldom if ever examined in the context of design! They’re referred to as if they exist in a vacuum and are either good or bad in and of themselves.

I’m sorry, but “Web 2.0” is not a design approach. Rather, it’s a silly reference to contemporary stylistic fad. The individual elements that are typically used in these trendy designs are just tools, not absolutes. But the vast majority of the Web design community doesn’t seem to care to touch on that fact. We’re too busy saying that rounded corners suck or that drop shadows are so yesterday (or the next big thing). But who’s saying what these aesthetic elements and treatments communicate in the context of design? Almost no one; and this is problematic and misleading.

Doing One’s Part

I think it’s time that the Web design community starts reclaiming responsibility for how information is visually presented online. I think Web designers should begin to let WaSP and W3C do their part in our endeavor, let developers do their part in our endeavor, and as designers devote more energy toward spreading information on excellent, effective visual design.

As designers, let’s dive back into the fundamentals of design and see if we’re still so quick to tutor others.

I think all of this should be happening on our own websites in articles and in event programs rather than as anonymous, inconsequential comments in worthless comment threads on forums and weblogs. I also think many self-proclaimed designers should stop using the badge of design on their sites and more accurately represent themselves as developers. Misrepresentation is dishonest and misleading. If you don’t have a solid grasp of design fundamentals, quit calling yourself a designer. It’s the right thing to do.

We’ve got a good foundation for how technical elements of development play a part in what we do. These fundamentals are clearly presented in thousands of readily available examples now. As designers, let’s dive back into the fundamentals of design and see if we’re still so quick to tutor others. Let’s talk about what works visually and how layout, balance, contrast, texture, color and composition allow us to communicate effectively. Let’s keep each other honest by doing conscientious critiques. We’ve all got websites where we can do this. What do you say, as designers, let’s devote a bit of attention to design.

*Update*
It occurs to me that I may have offered the wrong impression with this article. I am not suggesting that articles on design don't ever appear on popular Web design blogs, just that they're not common fare. There are some designers who periodically examine design in their website posts, but they're the exception.

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This is the personal soap box and playground of Andy Rutledge, principal and chief design strategist at UNIT. A sampling of some of my previous Web design work can be found in my portfolio site.

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