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

Web Misunderstandards

February 14, 2007

As I referenced in my last article, the benefits and characteristics of Web standards are not being effectively communicated to many who need to hear and learn about them. The result is that some understandably leap to inaccurate conclusions while gross mischaracterizations are allowed to fester among members of the design and development community.

Arriving in my inbox this week was a response to my last article that clearly illustrates just how far off the mark many remain in understanding Web standards. Though I want to keep the author anonymous, I believe his mistaken sentiments can serve as a springboard for examining some specifics of Web standards and how design relates to the Web, as a medium. I believe that addressing the misconceptions held by one individual may allow us to clear things up for many. I hope so, anyway.

Here is the note I received this week, verbatim:

“Frankly I think you're completely wrong about this. Web standards stink because they're not being created by real designers but by people who seem to have no clue about what design means or have chosen to ignore it. The existing Web standards are artificially stifling for design from the number of colors available to choices of typefaces to the ability to really craft good design. Look at print design and compare it to Web design. Why is there such a tremendous discrepancy in terms of what the designer can work with? Our advanced computer technology can work with tens of thousands of colors for print but only a few hundred for Web, most of those outside the Web safe colors. It can also access and use a vast range of typefaces and even variants of weight and width while the Web recognizes four variants and only those fonts that might be found on someone's computer. That's not a standard, that's crappy design on the part of the folks who claim to be fashioning a standard.

“Web standards should not be little rules because it's little rules that kill creativity. They're an attempt to build a box to contain design when any good designer knows there isn't a box and there aren't any rules when it comes to creativity. The Web standard has little flexibility, isn't conducive to creativity, and I think it's actively preventing our moving forward in truly creating the next step in communications. Real creative development on the internet has reached a dead end with people trying to convince themselves that Web 2.0 is the next big thing. Web 2.0 is only more users finding out how to use what's already available rather than anyone trying to take a step forward and truly innovate. And if bloggers arguing about whether nice looking websites matter is the future of the internet then we're pretty much done with the internet as a communication tool.

“Web standards are a tool when what designers need is a big box of tools and the ability to make tools that haven't been invented yet. This is why most designers don't follow the standards; it makes no sense from the standpoint of design.”

Okay, there’s a lot there to take issue with, regarding both perspective and just plain old accuracy. In this article I want to concentrate on issues of design (while ignoring the fact that the writer mistakenly equates creativity with design) and how design relates to the technical issues addressed by Web standards. In doing so I hope to clear up a few misconceptions held by those not familiar with the specifics involved.

For those who aren’t familiar with them, let’s first define Web standards. The general requirements involved with Web standards mean that Web pages possess:

Design vs. standards smackdown

First of all, it’s important to understand that design has nothing to do with Web standards. My correspondent, for instance, has the mistaken impression that his design must change or diminish in order to be represented online in accordance with Web standards. Those who believe that Web standards somehow place limitations on what can be designed and served to the Internet are laboring under an unfortunate misapprehension. Anything that can be graphically designed can be presented online – and can be presented in accordance with Web standards.

Thinking of Web design as merely something visual is to think of an ocean as something blue, featureless, and flat. For both the oceans and the Web, there’s an entire, rich ecosystem below the surface that has specific requirements.

It is ironic that Web standards are perceived by some as being limiting to design or creativity or expression because it is the purpose of Web standards to diminish those limits and expand access to web content. But this is where there is a sad and shortsighted disconnect on the part of many graphic designers. Too many want to ignore the medium and blame Web standards for inherent characteristics of the environment.

For instance at present, the Internet can no more offer a tactile experience than a print magazine can offer a video on its pages. What that means is that designers have to respect the strengths and limitations of the medium and work to communicate within the relevant context. Online, we’re limited to metaphorical representations of certain kinds of sensory input, but this is in no way the fault of Web standards (as my pen pal seems to mistakenly believe). Rather, it is simply an aspect of the medium that has to be dealt with.

The medium demands that designers understand that the design is not simply graphic, not simply visual. The graphics, the fonts, the visual design elements as a whole are there to serve the purpose of conveying information. Unlike in magazines or posters, visual access to that information is merely one aspect of how that information will be accessed. A poster is only 1 to 2mm thick and is consumed only by human eyes, but web design and the content that the design presents is very deep and multi–dimensional.

It is not just human eyes that are meant to consume web content, but all sorts of technologies, too. Those technologies are based on scores of platforms, have many different methods for accessing, evaluating, sorting, and using Web content, and most have their own individual preferences for what sort of “presentation” of the content is most appetizing or even meaningful. Thinking of Web design as merely something visual is to think of an ocean as something blue, featureless, and flat. For both the oceans and the Web, there’s an entire, rich ecosystem below the surface that has specific requirements.

With regard to the Web ecosystem, there is a set of best practices that serves the greatest good for the greatest number of inhabitants and the greatest number of those who visit. Those best practices are called Web standards.

Web standards + design = better, more powerful design

It may seem counterintuitive, but while design has nothing to do with Web standards, Web standards do actually have a lot to do with design. Web standards expand the scope and effectiveness of design, given the context of the medium. When you recognize that design is an effort at communication, and that Web standards allow for greatly increased access to that communication, the benefit of their connection is clear.

Well conceived, well executed graphic design can communicate to the average human being’s eyes, but it is semantic markup that communicates to important technologies and mechanisms vital to the Web environment and even many humans who access it.

Well conceived, well executed graphic design can communicate to the average human being’s eyes, but it is semantic markup that communicates to important technologies and mechanisms vital to the Web environment and even many humans who access it. It is important to remember that a part of many human beings’ experiences in consuming Web content has little or nothing to do with what is visually presented.

Not all website visitors possess eyesight. Not all website visitors can see colors as you can. Not all website visitors are using a popular browser brand or model to access your website. So not everyone is accessing the content in the way you intended it to be accessed. This is part of the dilemma Web designers are faced with. Therefore, if you’re not providing as detailed and rich an experience as possible for these people, you’re not communicating well, so your design… well, it sucks.

If traditional graphic design is 2–dimensional, Web design is 4 or 5–dimensional. Such is the context designers must appreciate in order to understand the benefits and relevance of Web standards and design’s place is in the online environment. Yes, it’s complex. But this is no barrier to accomplishment where human beings are concerned. We humans overcome barriers like wind overcomes the landscape.

Many members of the Web standards community have developed ingenious ways of surmounting technological and communication conundrums. For instance, the author of the note I received laments that computer operating systems have a very limited number of fonts and typefaces they can recognize online. He concludes that Web standards are therefore severely limiting in this regard. Well, (let’s gloss over the fact that Web standards has nothing to do with computer OS limitations) there’s a handy little tool created by members of our community for serving whatever font you desire to Web pages (sIFR) – and it allows for fully accessible content to boot. No problem here.

Further, our designer has a problem with seemingly having to be limited online to Web–safe colors. Well, anyone still working merely with Web–safe colors is doing so unnecessarily. Few systems around today are still limited to 256 colors. And regardless of what colors are available to computer systems and graphics cards, color limitations are NOT the fault or even the concern of Web standards. Common sense awareness of contrast issues is always a good practice, but there are thousands upon thousands of colors available to Web designers. Most of us use far more than a couple hundred of them.

So, designers:

Create the designs you want. Be conscious of the practical characteristics of the medium, but create anything you can conceive of and know that you’ll not be limited when you take your work online, even in a manner consistent with Web standards. You may indeed have to work hard to gain skill and understanding of the technical factors involved in doing so, but this is a situation common to all professions.

Be a pro and stop blaming Web standards for your ignorance and lack of imagination. Admit that there are things you don’t understand and get busy remedying that situation. This is what everyone has to do in order to gain skill and understanding; it’s called education and it’s never finished until you’re finished. The bottom line is, if there is something you cannot do with design online it’s because of your ignorance or lack of skill, not because of Web standards. Your shortcomings are your responsibility. Don’t play the blame game.

By the way, I did respond to the writer and directly addressed his misconceptions, to which I received a response that indicated that he was entrenched in those misconceptions. I made a last effort to try and clear things up and offered to assist with what I hope will be his direct investigations into Web standards and how design and programming need those standards in order for either to be effective online. I hope that he and others make the effort.