>We’re all journalists. Can’t we be designers too?


Why do web sites still look so dull? Ten years ago when broadband adoption and the content management tools we take for granted today were evolving this was understandable. Now though, the opportunity for anyone, anywhere to knock together a free site with federated content, streaming media, real-time integration, lots of storage, payment options, embedded BI, bolt-on UX functions (gadgets/web-parts), graphically engaging templates and critically – keep it up-to-date all without writing any code (maybe CSS if you really get into it) does not afford the same excuses.
So why are – organisational sites and blogs are just as dull looking now as they were a decade ago? We have real-time integration and video but; from a graphical design perspective, they haven’t really moved on. Of course the focus always needs to be on content; form follows function after all but can we not just have a little graphical integrity on top?
Here are the main reasons why sites are dull:
1) Trend. There is still a Googly/Web 2.0 trend for basic, almost amateurish looking text with minimal graphics and an informal almost chummy way of addressing the consumer even for large organisations. This is partially a marketing approach to engendering trust in the consumer (you are dealing with a friendly colleague-kid/folksy dad/generally laid-back individual who does not just want to take your money – he has a cause). This trend extends to the name (something snappy/abstract; typically with an ‘r’ at the end) and certain marketing approaches. As with all trends, people will tire of them. Given that this one has been running for a good decade, we are due for a new one. There is an embryonic trend among career designers for overlaying text on web sites. Previously this was considered anathema due to usability reasons. It has been used for ages in print media but all you need to do there is read. When things become interactive, use of this technique needs to be handled with care. It can make sites more organic and stimulating though.
2) Tool. Existing free tools do not go far enough in supporting design. The Blogger Template Designer released earlier this year does a great job of allowing the user to customise fonts, backgrounds (and has a good quality variety of templates to start with). It is highly functional. It stops though (as with most tools in this space) at providing support for the creative process itself. In a sense it provides too much freedom and not enough creative support.  It is not a stretch to imagine core graphic design principals – proximity (are you sure you want to put that there?), contrast (your pink on cyan scheme?), alignment and repetition being supported through a tool. Also, Google has a ready-to-go tool with “Find similar images” (potentially driven by Image Swirl that could help in building composite background images. The underutilized grid system could be implemented within a tool. At the very least, let’s have a way to get text anti-aliased.
3) Fear. Most people are not designers. Everyone is a critic on the Internet. People are worried that their design will be wrong, weird or somehow not good enough. These are the same worries people in the mid-nineties went through went they started blogging. Blogs have become complementary to the established newspaper industry. No-one (blogging in their first language at least) now feels threatened by comments criticising their use of semantics, grammar, structure etc. by journalists. Their enthusiasm more than makes up for any lack of storytelling narrative.
4) Advertising. It is straightforward for organisations and bloggers in particular to advertise through their sites. Over half of all bloggers do it. Typically, this entails embedding banners on a page in corporate colours/graphics/typeface (and so unable to be changed) which can break a design. There needs to be less restriction on what can be done to these banners (Photoshop etc.) so that they can be adapted to a particular design. This means more designers will eventually incorporate them. Bloggers should also consider whether the pennies they receive in advertising revenue is worth corrupting a design. If a blog starts getting serious hits (around 10K unique visitors/month) then by all means advertise but advertising is generally not compatible with graphical design right now.
This post has been about why sites are dull. They are by no means insurmountable reasons and a movement to amateur web design is to be welcomed. Why? – Because it will complement and ultimately improve the graphical design integrity of the Internet. Is this (non-tangible) result worth the effort? That is too large a question for the tail end of this post. This audience will be likely (fairly equally) split into those that maintain content is so much of the WWW-equation that it is barely even worth discussing presentation. Others will argue philosophically that life without art is impossible. Let us just leave with the knowledge that graphic design services are a $12BN/year industry in the US alone and attractive sites (like attractive people) will bring others back to them.

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