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 projectsâ€¦ But when it comes to web sites, I canâ€™t think of a single www that could be comparable â€” in gravitas, praise, or memorability â€” 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 heâ€™s dismissing the obvious answer because it doesnâ€™t fit into his canonical mold of graphic design. In other words, heâ€™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 doesnâ€™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.)