An Event Apart: Understanding Web Design

by April 28, 2014

At An Event Apart in Boston MA 2014, Jeffery Zeldman explained why we all need to represent and evangelize Web design so others understand what we do and why. Here's my notes from his talk Understanding Web Design:

  • When people don't know why you do things, it makes it really hard to create good design.
  • The Art Director's Club in New York has recognized many influential designers over the years. Business people and designers pay attention to the people they highlight. Their process of selecting award winners is exhaustive but only 2 out of 20 people judging the interactive category had built Web sites before. They were judging TV ads as interactive media because they were on the Internet.
  • The Art Director's Club decided "its interactive if its on the Internet." But something is wrong if a web page can win a prestigious award for interactivity when the only interactive elements are a play button.
  • Sales are a measure of effectiveness. Awards are a measure of greatness.
  • But most award shows treat Web design as an afterthought of ad campaigns. In this view, Web design is a crude domain for people not good enough to do TV.
  • Other Web award programs like High Five (which was short-lived) and the Webbies (still going but pay to play) have also come along.
  • Organizations like the W3C focus on the right issues on the Web but they are incomprehensible to the general public.
  • When the agencies that judge our work don't understand it, how can our clients and our teams?
  • Who speaks for us? Who is highlighting our work and explaining why its excellent to others? Nobody.
  • People hire you because you understand Web design and they don't. But this is also your greatest weakness. Our partners need to understand what we do so they give us the autonomy to do our best work.
  • When Facebook's mobile app moved from HTML5 to native, the press focused on the technical implementation issues and whether Web technologies were appropriate for mobile. Instead, the conversation should have focused on the experience.
  • Facebook approached mobile as a technology problem, when it was really a design problem: how to remove needless complexity from the Facebook experience, regardless of device used.
  • Are we strategists or waiters? Do we think or follow orders?

Judging Web Design

  • We don't design for browsers. We design for people. Layout is always the servant of purpose.
  • We naturally get excited about technology. Its great to think about what we can do with the new tech. But we don't make things accessible to get a godl star, we do it for people.
  • Web design is service design.
  • We create better design when we understand our medium.
  • Web design is not book design or game design or poster design. The highest achievements of those disciplines is not what Web design aims for.
  • It is more like type design (it enables others to tell their story). It is more like architecture (people take over the space and make it their own).
  • Web design is the creation of digital environments that facilitate and encourage human activity; reflect or adapt to individual voices and content; and change gracefully over time while always retaining their identity.
  • Web designs are like typefaces. Some impose a personality through their style on content. Others recede and let the style of content take over.
  • Web designs are like buildings. Many are similar but differ in the details.
  • A great website makes interaction easy. A great website guides you subtly toward your heart’s desire. Great web design can be invisible or in your face. Great web design delights.

Creating Partners

  • Every designer is an ambassador of this profession. Represent it appropriately.
  • Don't wait to be invited to do your job. Arrive early and often. Push your way in to the right conversations. Volunteer. No one was every fired for taking their job seriously.
  • We may need to use the wrong reasons to do the right things. We went to the moon because we were afraid the Russians would get there first. The space race was part of the cold war. Many life-saving advances have happened during periods of war.
  • Semantic mark-up only became important because of search engine optimization. Bosses weren't interested in saving money and bandwidth.
  • Your boss may never care about the Web for the reasons you do. Your job is to find the reasons why they care.
  • Empathy is our greatest virtue.
  • We need more evangelists than rock stars. Louis Armstrong was not a pioneer of jazz but he created a market through his straight-ahead approach that appealed to many people.