Discuss while giving an example of a website.
Strangely, websites with “cool” design are not the more innovative ones, but those which imitate the appearance of old-fashioned media. Alan Lui gives the example of “web page presented as a notebook complete with a spiral binding” (Lui, 2004: 228), such as this one for instance . Why does a whole new media like the internet, which allows almost infinite design possibilities thanks to the evolution of HTML and CSS, still reproduce preexisting design characteristics?
This trend takes root in the broader phenomenon of continuity (or “remediation”) between the modernist design movement and web design (Lui, 2004: 214). In the modernist era a new pattern appeared in design, whose philosophy was clarity, minimalism and harmony. With the emergence of IT, this paradigm flowed on the internet. Designers were unconsciously influenced by this heritage, and built websites’ design accordingly (Lui, 2004: 206).
For instance Steve Job revendicates that the design of Mac computers was inspired by old calligraphy, as he explains in his famous speech “connecting the dot” (start at 3:00 stop at 5:00).
According to Lui, “cool design on the web copies the look and feel of modernist graphic design”. At the contrary, “pages suck if they become too busy with background images” (Lui, 2004: 210). Similarly, the font “Comic Sans” was mostly inspired by the typography of old American comics book (Merz, 2009: 9).
Moreover web design imitates the characteristics of preexisting media to recreate a familiar environment for computer users. Indeed the internet space can be destabilizing as it differs so much from all traditional conventions. By reproducing familiar conventions, by designing a blog as a calendar for instance, designers make internet users feel comfortable with the interface. The same reason lies behind the “desktop metaphor”, which transfers the symbols of desk, documents, folders, and trashcans to the computers (Merz, 2009: 10). Many Human Computer Interfaces use similar standardization metaphors.
Last but not least, metaphors from preexisting media are used to overcome the spatial and temporal conditions of the internet which “scramble design”. It is indeed difficult for designers to define proportions online as there is no “grid” like in print-based media. There is also a temporal problem as “text and images download at different paces” (Lui, 2004: 223). Designers therefore use frozen visual metaphors from old media to “fight the conditions of the medium” and to control spatio-temporal disturbances (Lui, 2004: 225). For example this photographer uses a flipbook effect to display his portfolio in order to create a façade of spatio-temporal unity. This is why Lui writes that designers “naturalize the limitations of the new medium by disguising them within those of older media” (Lui, 2004: 228).
Yet his statement should not be generalized. Firstly some websites reproduce old media metaphors just because they need it to add veracity to their content. This is the case of this website which displays old archive books: here the flipbook effect is necessary to convey sensations attached to collector’s books.
Moreover a whole new trend of “anti-design” develops online, challenging the philosophy of “good” web design. This deconstructivist movement embraces the unexpected spatio-temporal characteristics of the internet instead of fighting them (Lui, 2004: 228). They put disturbance at the core of their design, creating fluid pages, such as this one, playing with the “distortions of scale and form” and “the shocking use of colour” (Lui, 2004: 216). According to anti-designers, it is foolish to try to reproduce a fixed design harmony online as “good design cannot be equated with informational clarity because information itself is profoundly unclear” (Lui, 2004: 222). For instance this website plays with the internet’s fuzziness by taking visitors to many fake or irrelevant pages.
Leo Merz, ‘Comic Resistance’, in Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied (eds) Digital Folklore Reader, Stuttgart: Merz Akademie, 2009, pp. 225-237.
Alan Lui, ‘Information is Style’, in Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, pp. 195-230.