In Defense of Graphic Design on the Web

Published on Author Christopher Fahey

At the Speak Up graphic design blog, Armin Vit laments the lack of “landmark” or canonical web designs. After giving several examples of iconic designs that are truly landmarks in the history of graphic design, from Paul Rand’s IBM logo in the 1950s to Paula Scher’s Public Theater posters in the 1990s, he writes:

Myself, I could list projects in every category from logos, to annual reports, to magazine covers, to packaging, to typefaces, to opening titles that could be considered landmark projects… But when it comes to web sites, I can’t think of a single www that could be comparable — in gravitas, praise, or memorability — as any of the few projects I just mentioned.

Joshua Porter, however, thinks that Armin is barking up the wrong tree, arguing at his own blog that Armin’s singular focus on graphic design is misguided:

But, frankly, I think Armin has missed his own point. He wants to know what web designers see as canonical, but he’s dismissing the obvious answer because it doesn’t fit into his canonical mold of graphic design. In other words, he’s looking at Google from a graphic design perspective, when web designers necessarily have to look at it from an interaction design perspective.

If Armin were to ask web designers and web development teams what the canonical web designs are, he would get very clear answers.

Joshua then goes on to cite Google and Amazon as canonical web designs because they do what they do exceptionally well — and that doing things is what web design is all about. He continues:

So while Armin doesn’t want this to be about graphic vs. web design, it has to be at some level because web designers necessarily approach design from a different perspective than graphic designers.

That’s where he loses me. This is, at least to Joshua, just another turf war between interaction design and graphic design, an unfortunate debate that I had hoped had been put to rest in the last decade.

Joshua is buying into the idea that “graphic design” on the web is at best a lesser practice than some other, bigger thing called “web design” (which he says is really “interaction design”, but whose purview also apparently encompasses programming, strategy, content, information architecture, interaction design, and presumably even graphic design itself).

It’s certainly a good thing to talk about web design holistically and to see all of these things as interconnected, but must such discussion be at the expense of graphic design? Is discussing graphic design off limits? It’s clear that Armin was talking specifically about graphic design, but Joshua sees this not as a professional focus but, rather, as a fundamental shortcoming.

Perhaps Armin brought it on himself by using the phrase “web design” when it seems he really means “graphic design on the web”. Given that Speak Up is a *graphic design* site, I would have thought this focus would have been presumed by most readers. But when Joshua compares Google to Armin’s historical graphic design examples, and then claims Google’s iconic stroke of genius lies in its functionality, he is doing the equivalent of claiming that:

  • Milton Glaser’s Dylan poster’s “design” includes Bob Dylan’s lyrics
  • Vignelli’s subway map “design” includes the engineering of the trains and tunnels of the NYC transit system
  • William Golden’s CBS logo’s “design” includes the groundbreaking journalism of Edward R. Murrow.

Joshua is casting too broad a net by claiming that web design is everything when clearly Armin is focusing deliberately and precisely on the profession of graphic design.

Armin is not talking about functionality, and that’s okay! He is talking about the color, typography, shape, layout and all the other formal elements that make up a site’s graphic design. Hell, Armin would probably be quite happy to see just one truly great logo for a web-based product, a logo whose design has the same timeless gravity as the logos from the history of graphic design. Instead we get endless swooshes and reflections.

Is it wrong of Armin to ask for this?

Well, only if it is wrong to want excellence in graphic design. On the web.

Back to the 90s

Why is it that when we talk about web design, “graphic design” is often treated as the red headed stepchild? In other media, and in older times, we can talk about the genius of a particular product’s graphic design independently of the larger system that that design represents or serves. We can talk about the graphic design of the Westinghouse logo without talking about the engineering of a Westinghouse refrigerator. Why should we not be able to do this about graphic design on the web?

My theory is that many web professionals, even graphic designers who work exclusively on the web, look down their noses on the crafts and traditions of “graphic design”. They have been doing this since the early days of the web, back in the 1990s, when it was common for smug young designers to feel superior to print-based graphic designers who didn’t yet know what they were doing on the web. How many of you slick web design professionals remember a time back in the 1990’s when we laughed at the poor old graphic design geezers trying to make HTML pages using Quark Xpress?

Well, those days are over. The joke is old. And you know what? All these years of people believing that graphic design was a lesser discipline, of contending that graphic design is barely an important factor in the bigger picture of web design, have led to precisely the predicament that Armin is complaining about: Web sites, in general, still don’t look as compelling as the historical graphic and visual icons we’ve come to know and love in other media. His point is entirely valid, and Joshua’s attitude only manages to prove Armin’s point. Graphic design on the web kinda sucks.

And as long as we continue to insist that graphic design is a non-entity, we will never have good graphic design on the web.

(I’ve written about this before when I argued last year that the AIGA fell into the same trap when they decided the G no longer means “graphic”. It’s sad that it’s still happening.)

26 Responses to In Defense of Graphic Design on the Web

  1. You have defended graphic design on the web well, Chris.

    If you’re going to reformulate this as “graphic design on the web” and not “web design”, then I will gladly bow out of the discussion and leave it up to graphic designers to argue over.

    But if the question is about *web design*, go ask web designers and developers what the canonical sites are…and you’ll get pretty clear answers.

  2. Christopher,

    I love standards-based design, but in my opinion it has had a negative impact on graphic design on the web. It produces a look that reminds me of desktop publishing fliers (or worse). Sterile, uninspired, predictable…(template-based).

  3. Part of the problem when talking about “graphic design on the web” is that there is no “graphic design on the web.” Graphic design, by it’s nature, is medium independent. A logo, for example, can be a 2d graphic on paper or a screen, it can be embossed on paper or a relief in metal or plastic.

    Google isn’t a web site. The question isn’t “where is good design on the web?” It’s “why do so many very successful companies that arouse out of tech industry in the last 15 years employ such crappy graphic design?”

  4. Eric, if you’re such a fan of standards-based design, you ought to know that it doesn’t “produce […] sterile, uninspired, predictable [design]” any more than table-based design did. For whatever reason, there is a paucity of people that have a firm grasp on both engaging graphic design and effective, responsible web design. As far as I’m concerned, that is the issue that needs attention here, not the perceived inadequacies of forward-thinking technology.

  5. @twhid: I hear you. I suppose Armin’s critique is about why this particular medium seems to be comfortable with a lower standard of excellence than we expect from other media, from magazines to posters to films.

    @Eric’s critique of standards-based design is really interesting — it may be because the web is so much about automating publishing, and so less priority is placed on the visceral or emotional power of graphic design and more priority is placed on the efficiency of the system itself.

    Efficient systems are, of course, important graphic design objectives, and I don’t want to suggest that the standards-based movement isn’t an important graphic design acheivement. Perhaps it’s not that graphic design on the web sucks, but rather that we seem to have two styles of design on the web (efficient standards-based design and self-indulgent bells and whistles), neither of which has achieved that kind of harmonious balance that elevates the work to landmark status.

    But despite Eric’s critique of CSS (that it has in some ways hindered the visual excellence of graphic design on the web), I would venture to propose that the development of platform-independent design skills and techniques in the graphic design community is in fact a landmark graphic design achievement of our time. It’s more of a technical achievement, like the development of movable type or lithography, I suppose. But still.

    @Joshua: Thanks for joining in!

    If you’re going to reformulate this as “graphic design on the web” and not “web design”…

    I think my point is that it was a “graphic design on the web” discussion to begin with, and that it was your (apparent) opinion that graphic design is incidental to web design — that users generally don’t care about good design, that “good” design doesn’t exist anyway except in the minds of certain aesthetes, that it is mere glamour — that led you to shift the focus over to non-graphic design and business topics.

    My point, and I think ultimately Armin’s and maybe Khoi’s, was to ask people stop changing the subject every time we start talking about trying to have excellent graphic design on the web. We’re trying to raise the bar on the practice of graphic design here.

  6. Hey Chris,

    But with this I agree with Joshua. When you discuss web design we’re not judging it purely on it’s visual design (as you would judge a poster or logo). We need to keep in mind the purpose of a specific object.

    Amazon might visually be none-too-interesting but it accomplishes the task of getting folks to buy stuff very, very well. Joshua’s point seems to be that to critique it visually entirely misses the point of the object. You may as well compare the command line vim text editor to Glazer’s Dylan portrait.

    My point is that to critique *just* the visual design of a site like Amazon or Google’s web sites also misses the point — simply critique the design as you would any other company.

  7. @twhid: What’s wrong with critiquing *just* the visual design of a web site? We do it all the time for almost everything else in the world, why not the web?

    Besides, when was the last time you critiqued the design of a company without focusing on particular aspects? When everyone was talking about UPS’s big logo redesign, nobody was talking about their interactive customer service system or their airbill information design. They were talking about graphic design, period. Why can’t we do that regarding web sites?

    If this whole topic leads us all to stop saying “web design” and to start saying “graphic design on the web” (when that’s what we mean!), then I’ll be happy. The problem goes both ways — if graphic designers working on the web weren’t so ashamed of calling themselves graphic designers, we wouldn’t have this apparent ambiguity of using the term “web design” to mean both graphic and holistic web design practices.

  8. Hey Chris,

    I think that perhaps we’re saying the same thing from different angles…

    I agree, critique Google’s logo within the traditions of graphic design. But what does the web have to do with it? (Except for the fact that Google runs a bunch of extremely popular web sites and services?) Their logo exists beyond one particular medium.

    We could then critique the visual design of Google’s search results (which I think is pretty good).

    Is visual design tertiary to the functioning of interactive applications or web sites? No. But different decisions need to be made that wouldn’t make sense in terms of purely visual design that requires no interaction.

  9. @twhid:
    i think you make a great point when you say “google isn’t a web site.” it’s a corporation, so why shouldn’t it have a great logo, right?

    but graphic design, by it’s nature, is not medium independent. i would argue that there is a very intimate relationship between graphic design and the medium used. a designer’s tools and materials are defined by the process of designing, and vice versa.

    a good logo should aspire to be medium independent. in order to do so, though, the different media must be considered when creating the logo. colors, resolutions, ink options, etc, are all important factors.

    regardless, i think this is a great post, and more importantly, a great discussion. it’s meaningful to talk about graphic design, and own our identities as graphic designers. at the same time, for a lot of us the point made by armin resonate because the challenges of interaction design, and information architecture, are just as much a part of our job, and pose some very challenging problems.

    good stuff, thanks to all.

  10. Trying to clarify…

    If one wants to crit Google’s logo, crit Google’s logo. What does the fact that Google makes its money via the web have to do with anything?

    Now. If one wants to crit Google’s home page in regard to it’s visual design, that’s another story. The main design decision of Google’s home page isn’t the logo. It’s the singular search field. You could put any reasonably designed logo above this search field without significantly changing the function or feel of the page. This distinction, IMHO, embodies the disconnect between graphic designers critiquing the web and web designers critiquing the web.

  11. The Zeldman article ( seems to be in part a response to Armin Vit but he doesn’t come out directly and say that.

    Personally, I think Zeldman takes too much of an “us/them” stance in his analysis of the definition of web design. I was also struck by the large number of commentators who seemed to be beside themselves in strong agreement, which makes me wonder why those who commented (many appear to be web designers) really felt they had nothing more to add than in effect “I completely agree!” Some seemed almost speechless. I would think they (we) would have more to say. (And I chose not to comment on A List Apart because it doesn’t really seem like it’s a topic open for discussion.)

  12. My theory is that many web professionals, even graphic designers who work exclusively on the web, look down their noses on the crafts and traditions of “graphic design”. They have been doing this since the early days of the web, back in the 1990s, when it was common for smug young designers to feel superior to print-based graphic designers who didn’t yet know what they were doing on the web. How many of you slick web design professionals remember a time back in the 1990’s when we laughed at the poor old graphic design geezers trying to make HTML pages using Quark Xpress?

    It seems like what you describe above may have given fuel to what sounds like a palpable amount of resentment on the part of some print designers toward web designers.

    I started my career in print in the late ’80s (during the time pre-computers and definitely pre-Internet) and worked as a print designer until switching to the web exclusively in the late 90’s, so  I know both worlds pretty well.

    I think a lot of print designers were turned off initially, during the early days of the rise of the web, by the bold declarations that “print was dead” and that anyone who didn’t — or couldn’t — translate their skills to the web would soon go the way of the Dodo bird.

    Unfortunately I think such declarations caused many in the print world to eschew the web altogether. They embraced the silo constructed by “smug” web designers and found no role for themselves in this brave new world. That was a huge mistake that we’re all paying for today.

    Similarly, web designers at the time were largely non-designers. In the early days, most web designers were coders and programmers. You see far less of that today but back in the 90’s, it was rare for me to be in the company of web designers and not be the only one with an actual BFA in Graphic Design.

    Many of those new designers felt that the huge surge in demand for web designers compared to the level of demand for print designers was a reflection of them as professionals and not a reflection of a huge shift in monetary resources that continues even today.

    And in allowing themselves to think that there was no value in traditional media channels and not seeing that the Internet must work together with traditional channels in order to achieve the best, most effective communications strategies, they only helped to reinforce the silos on their own sides as well.

    So here we have 2 groups of communities, walled-off from each other in world with increasingly fewer barriers.

    IMO, those of us on the web side need to embrace our print brethren, of which I was once one. The same is true in reverse.

    Web designers need to focus our conversations with each other not as much on the “how” and more on the “why?” There needs to be more design theory and methodology around web design than there is currently.

    Print designers need to understand that while they may work in print, they STILL need to understand how the web impacts them, as well as their clients. Clients have come to this realization and across industries, clients large and small are rapidly trying to figure this out. Remaining behind the silo is not acceptable anymore.

    Web and print designers need each other, whether we know it or not.


  13. Chris, I appreciate your argument that we should be able to critique the design of sites regardless of their functionality. However, one of the biggest problems in this debate is that the metaphors have been completely wrong. Dylan’s lyrics would be unchanged without Glaser’s poster, Vignelli’s subway map had little bearing on how people used the subway, and Murrow’s journalism didn’t require a good logo.

    In web design, the look is deeply integrated with the functionality. In this way, the field of web design is much more similar to architecture, industrial design, magazine and book layout, or perhaps fashion than it is to poster or logo design.

    I don’t think this changes the fundamental debate. However, let’s at least frame it in terms of looking for the Frank Lloyd Wright of web design, rather than the Milton Glaser.

    And it strikes me that I haven’t seen a single mention yet of Shaun Inman’s Mint, nor much talk of Facebook – 2 sites that succeed on both technical and visual grounds.

  14. @David Warner: The examples I cited were Armin’s, and I totally agree that he picked examples that were largely superficial to the thing each design represented (although I wouldn’t say that graphic design doesn’t have some influence: Murrow didn’t need a good logo, insofar as the logo plays a part in the success of the company that paid him and the logo made his reportage more credible to the public). And I agree that the architectural example (as cited in Zeldman’s rebuttal to Armin) is a better metaphor for how web design works, holistically. And I agree that, all that being said, we should still be able to discuss graphic design on the web independently of functionality. The Google logo really is a disappointment — whether or not it has any bearing on the site’s success and usability, I’d rather it looked better.

    @Chris Gee: Great insights about the wall between traditional and web graphic designers.

  15. But if the question is about *web design*, go ask web designers and developers what the canonical sites are…and you’ll get pretty clear answers.

    That sounds good an well, but…people have asked us web designers what the canonical sites are, and so far, most of us haven’t been able to come up with good answers. Even the answers you came up with (Google, Amazon) are certainly contentious and not universally agreed upon.

    So, really, that argument doesn’t hold water.

  16. When you discuss web design we’re not judging it purely on it’s visual design (as you would judge a poster or logo).

    This statement shows a lack of understanding of what graphic design is. When someone judges a poster or logo, they aren’t judging it solely on its visual design, either. Logos and posters have important functional components, too. A logo must communicate a brand’s identity and evoke an emotional response from the viewer. A poster may need to do these things, and often has to convey some important information (the date and location for an event, for example).

  17. Web designers are the problem.

    We’re always looking forward, never back. The web is growing at unprecedented rates and the future of the web means ever-growing possibilities to define and shape this medium which has, literally, flattened the world. Sometimes this causes us to throw out what has been done and learned in the past, certainly in the past when related to print but sometimes also the past when it relates to the web.

    We have to collectively share what we’ve learned with each other and build on that knowledge. Web designers have always been pretty good at doing this, the web standards movement is a great example, but we have to start focusing more on WHY we do things and not just HOW. I can easily learn how to implement CSS tactics that don’t fail in IE6 but I can’t easily figure out what constitutes good web typography. That’s a problem.

    Print designers are the problem.

    We’re always looking backward and not forward. I’ve seen very little debate or discussion amongst print designers regarding the future of print design and where they fit into a rapidly changing world. Print design is steeped in it’s glorious past, which often looks far brighter than it’s future. Print is not dying but it is in decline. What and where are the opportunities? They’re there, they just need to be uncovered. However no one is discussing it. Just pretending it isn’t so.

    I was around when print designers buried their heads in the sand in the late ’80s and denied that the desktop publishing revolution was happening. “We like our t-squares and ruling pens just fine and we’re not using these computers” the industry said. The market disagreed and a massive shake-up ensued. We print designers learn from the past but only selectively, it seems.

    Until we can collectively look forward and see the opportunities and the dangers as well as look back and learn from the lessons of yesterday, we’ll never really advance as an industry of professionals. Web OR print.


  18. […] I’ve been reading this post on graphpaper about the current perception of graphic design for the Web. The inspiration for this post appears to have been inspired by Armin Vit’s thoughts on the lack of “canonical” web designs. Vit wonders aloud why there are no web designs that are considered “landmarks” in the industry, just as there are milestone examples of design in other disciplines: Milton Glaser’s Dylan poster. Paul Rand’s IBM logo. Paula Scher’s Public Theater posters. Massimo Vignelli’s New York subway map. Kyle Cooper’s Seven opening titles. These are only a few landmark projects of our profession. … Myself, I could list projects in every category from logos, to annual reports, to magazine covers, to packaging, to typefaces, to opening titles that could be considered landmark projects… But when it comes to web sites, I can’t think of a single www that could be comparable — in gravitas, praise, or memorability — as any of the few projects I just mentioned. […]

  19. Hi Chris and T. (and all),

    Summer 2008 (once I’m out of graduate school), I’ll write the sequel to this book ( ), so these are timely issues for me.

    It seems like there are a couple of issues here.

    The first has to do with Armin Vit and his polemical blogging mojo. Homeboy got spanked here recently ( ). This frame is particularly telling ( ). There is a saying that any contemporary author who complains, “Nobody reads anymore,” usually means, “nobody reads me.” When Vit says, “Where is the canonical web design?,” he’s saying, “Where is the canonical web design that I have been able to find which fits into my Philip Meggs-esque understanding of how the history of design is supposed to be archived?” The problem is not that there is no good looking, canon-worthy web design out there (just check daily for a week. It’s everywhere.) It’s just that the web is ephemeral by nature, and it’s going to take someone with more acute screen-capture archiving sensibilities than Meggs (or Steven Heller, or Vit) to canonize it. So the problem is not that web design inherently looks bad, but that the “canonicity” of web design is more fluid than the canonicity of graphic design because the medium itself is more fluid. This article is about net art, but it seems related ( ). Vit’s quesetion is tautological. It begs itself. There’s a bias built into it before he even starts answering itself. The history of web design will be archived differently. Its revolution will not be televised.

    When will the form follows function modernist dichotomy roll over and die? More importantly, when will “aesthetically” handicapped information-architect-interaction-designer-usability-expert-human-computer-interface-designer-ajax-programmers stop using it as an excuse to make lame and boring web sites? Why does function necessitate ugliness? I’ll never understand it. The dictum that functionality excuses blandness would have been equally baffling to any designer from William Morris to Maholy-Nagy to Charles Eames to Muller-Brockmann to Wolgang Weingart to Massimo Vignelli to David Carson. I just don’t buy it. Web sites can look good and be quite functional. They should.

    Then we can begin to have a dialogue about what “good-looking” means in conjunction with functionality. By now, we’re all (mind-numbingly) aware of what “functional” means.

    Having said all that, Vit is wrong to thing that the Google logo should look good in How Magazine. That’s like me saying Kyle Cooper’s film titles should look good as animated gifs. There are different aesthetic criteria for different media. Even prioir to the “print vs. web” wars, nobody would have compared a teapot to a poster using the same aesthetic criteria.

  20. @Curt Cloninger: I sense a little contradiction in your two points, perhaps because I disagree a little with the first but agree completely with the second (maybe I’m the one with a contradiction, but bear with me).

    You’re criticizing Armin for critiquing the ugliness and forgettability of graphic design on the web, and then you lament the ugliness and forgettability of graphic design on the web. See the problem?

    I agree that a web design can become canonical without being ensconced in a Taschen book. Leaving aside the question of what the “archive” for great design on the web actually is, the fact remains that as of today for many people graphic design on the web just doesn’t feel very good. You seem to be one of them, too (I also don’t get the contention that canon-worthy design happens every day followed by the contention that form-follows-function is perpetuating ugliness).

    We look back to other eras when, at least according to legend, graphic designers would periodically produce things that everyone thought was jaw droppingly good, and that people would talk about and remember and be influenced by for years. We wonder why that doesn’t happen these days. Your interpretation of Armin’s measure of canonicalness as being whether or not it looks good in a coffee table books is besides the point (and I’m not even sure he said that, either). We’re still left with boring designs.

  21. Hi Chris,

    My point is that corporate web design may be ugly, but Armin Vit’s skewed critique of its ugliness is not going to solve the problem. His critique is just increasing the same old ill-considered divide between print designers and web designers. It’s not an informed critique. it’s too overly polemical.

    It’s wrong-headed to compare the google logo to a Paul Rand logo, but it’s not wrong-headed to say the google logo could look better. But why specifically should it look better and how specifically could it look better? Don’t you think the people at google have thought about this (a lot)? They’ve got the money to make any logo they want. They’ve chosen to leave the google logo like that. Why? Because it suggests a kind of no-brainer, any-kid-can-use-it functionality. Could they lose the cheesy, pointless drop-shadow and still suggest this same functionality? Definitely. Would the aesthetic improvement be worth the risk of harming the brand recognition of their current logo? Evidently someone at google thinks no. Right now (in 2007) that drop-shadow is an allusion to an earlier, cheesier web when people did stuff like that. In ten years, the drop shadow will be silly and irrelevant, but now someone at google thinks it still looks kind of cute.

    “Form follows function” doesn’t inherently lead to ugly design or good design. In the hands of someone like Charles Eames who understands it in context and is already a good designer anyway, it leads to good looking work. In the hands of non-design-savvy web programmers who mis-understand it and use it as an excuse for blandness, it leads to bland looking work. So just put it out of its misery. It problematically implies an “essentialist,” causal dichotomy between form and content. Things aren’t so simple. Rather than argue, “function is important, but form is important too,” I’m arguing, “Style=Function. The two are inseparable. Neither follows either. Both are contingent on each other to the point that they are inextricable — especially on the web, where the “architecture” is entirely virtual. If your web buttons “look and feel” aesthetically clunky, they actually “function” clunkily. What is the “gravity” of the web, the natural force that necessitates certain formal structures? Is the “gravity” of interaction design the disembodied human “brain/mind”? Good luck with that one then, since cognitive scientists are miles away from even figuring out how it works at all.

    If we must have some maxims to replace “form follows function” and “less is more,” here are some more nuanced alternatives:

    “Every force evolves a form.” (Mother Ann Lee)

    “When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. But in the end, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” (Bucky Fuller)

    “Less is a bore.” (Robert Venturi)

    “Just enough is more.” (Milton Glaser)

    “Life doesn’t simply happen to us; we produce it. That’s what style is. It’s producing life. Rather than accepting that life is something that we passively receive, accept, or endure, I believe that life is something we generate… Style is a decision about how we live. Style is not superficial. It is a philosophical project of the deepest order.” (Bruce Mau)


    In short, web design can be functional and sexy, but it won’t get this way by comparing it to Glaser’s Bob Dylan poster (and it really won’t get this way by comparing its canonical archiving to the canonical archiving of Glaser’s Bob Dylan poster).