Class and Web Design, Part 6: Breaking The Class Barrier

(This is Part 6, the final part of this series. Please check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 3a, Part 4, and Part 5.)


Despite my calls for increased class consciousness, I actually think that class may be less and less important as American culture evolves and as class exploration becomes more fluid and amorphous.

Let’s look at New York’s legendary Greek-motif coffee cups. The class fluidity of this design is striking: The original design inspiration is ancient Greece, where the class system made you either a citizen or a slave. In the 18th through early 20th centuries, Greek themes became a key marker of the highest classes in the form of neoclassicism. Greek immigration to NYC in the early to mid 20th century led to the advent of the working-class Greek diner: the Greek-motif coffee cup emerges. Since the 1960’s, the design has proliferated in many varieties around New York’s diners, delis, and coffee shops. It has become an esoteric but endearing symbol of New York City, beloved by all New York coffee drinkers regardless of class. And now, super-cool earthenware replicas are available at the MoMA Design Store for $14 each.

The Flattening of Class

Although income disparities in the USA are growing more stark and economic mobility is lower than it has been in decades, class-based cultural differences are indeed breaking down. People with lower-class roots have greater access than ever to traditionally upper-class products and pursuits. And the upper classes are attracted to the cultural ideas and products from below, as well. As Steve Bryant commented in a previous post, “the rise of mass media has made fluency in low culture just as much an asset as your ability to navigate a conversation about Wittgenstein”.

Witness the following weird trends:

  • Super-wealthy NASCAR fans are buying million-dollar track-side condominiums., belying the myth that NASCAR is strictly a working-class entertainment.
  • Despite their attempts to accuse the left of cultural effeteness, conservative Republicans obviously eat sushi and drink lattes at Starbucks just like everyone else who has a little bit of money.
  • Jazz, once thought of by the upper classes as degenerate music, is firmly esconced at Lincoln Center and most other major classical music venues.
  • Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Liechtenstein are loved equally by T-shirt wearing suburban mall shoppers and tony art collectors at Sotheby’s.
  • Trust-fund hipsters are drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon out of cans in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and trendy enclaves across the country
  • The stars of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour talk about football… but play golf

What more, technology and the Web in particular can further flatten class differences. A hundred years ago an heiress could hardly be expected to operate a fountain pen, but Paris Hilton has a sidekick and uses it religiously. Famous and wealthy people who you’d expect to avoid computers sometimes end up have MySpace pages and use email endlessly. I remember a decade ago demo-ing a video game I was developing to Mario Cuomo back when he was New York’s governor — he held the mouse in his hand like it was going to bite him. I can hardly imagine many of today’s younger politicians and captains of industry being uncomfortable using the same desktop technologies secretaries, cashiers, and data-entry people use.

On the other hand, new technologies may also enable the perpetuation of class. Here’s an example: Many e-commerce sites send out targeted promotions to potential customers, containing links to the web site where the resulting “landing page” is a customized page that looks entirely different depending on where the user came from. If you received a promo URL from a paper insert in People Magazine you’d get an entirely different home page than if you clicked a link in your Business Week daily email alert. The design of these landing pages ensures that the user’s experience is catered to their class background from beginning to end.

The Digital Divide

Even after all the cultural and social flattening of class boundaries, however, it is likely that the vast economic and educational gaps between the different classes in society will persist for a long time. In the case of interactive design, there’s even a word for it: the “digital divide”.

Unless you take class issues into account, you can make greivous design errors. Simple things you may assume about your audience may not be true at all. This is particularly true when you are designing for technology in a world where so many people, including many Americans, can’t even afford the basic technologies the majority might take for granted: email, mobile phones, the web.

It’s hard enough reminding my fellow designers, and even to remember myself, that in 2006 26% of our audience is still on dial-up.


I once attended a lecture by the New York design firm Antenna Design in which they described their work on the MetroCard machines for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. While most of us would think that you could begin with the assumption that users would be familiar with how to use an ATM at the bank, their research showed otherwise: that the majority of New York City commuters do not have bank accounts. New York City, despite its great riches and cultural sophistication, also contains millions of people who, for reasons entirely dependent on their class, have no idea what it’s like to use an ATM. This information radically affected Antenna’s design approach.

I’ll See You After Class

I’ll confess that even after all this I don’t have much of a concrete theory about how web designers should specifically factor class into their process, nor do I have a well-articulated opinion on whether or not class differences are even good or bad for America. The New York Times last year ran an intensive analysis of class structures in America, but even they positioned their excellent work as merely an “inquiry”, a start of a dialogue:

The series does not purport to be all-inclusive or the last word on class. It offers no nifty formulas for pigeonholing people or decoding folkways and manners. Instead, it represents an inquiry into class as Americans encounter it: indistinct, ambiguous, the half-seen hand that upon closer examination holds some Americans down while giving others a boost.

The Times‘ series is excellent, by the way, and offers even more insight into how class affects Americans’ lives and ambitions, from our health and education to our tastes in the things we buy.

I see my own series in the same way, as a start. It’s a call for web designers to stop assuming that the people who are using your web site share anywhere near your own personal class values: they may be radically different from you in their economic, social, educational, and cultural assumptions and preferences. Ugly is beautiful and beautiful is ugly, deceptive is trustworthy and trustworthy is deceptive, the familiar is alien and the alien familiar. These differences may be hard to accept, too, and may involve confronting some tough ideas, not just about the people using your site or product, but about yourself and how you fit into the class landscape.


5 responses to “Class and Web Design, Part 6: Breaking The Class Barrier”

  1. Brant Boucher Avatar
    Brant Boucher

    The proliferation of “Greek” designs in New York City looks more like a case of a cultural icon sinking. As Russell Lynes noted in his cultural taxonomy of “high brow”, “middle brow” and “low brow”, ideas and artifacts go through a product life cycle which takes them from exclusive luxery to “common” and sometimes back again via kitsch, ironic quotation and other channels of appropriation of popular mass culture.

    You may find Greek “objets d’art” or classical moldings in upper class residences and advertising, but you won’t find anything ressembling the décor of a Greek restaurant–or even a Greco-Roman villa. It wouldn’t work with all that austere steel, glass and wood (veneer).

    Lynes noted the decline and fall of the Mona Lisa from High Brow (early 1800s) to Middle Brow (late 1800s to World War II) and its absorption by popular culture 1950s to present.

    While there has been a flattening of brands and consumption, with all classes more willing and able to buy up or down according to personal priorities, I don’t really see any flattening of the class structure. On the contrary, the rich have been pulling away from the middle classes and the middle classes from the working poor and lumpenprotelariat.

    They (the upper classes) may not be buying houses on Fifth Avenue any more, but they are certainly putting a lot of money into getting away from it all–private islands, super-yachts and even renting a patrician estate or a resort in Africa (and these are Hollywood actors–not the top rungs) for weddings, birthings or adoptions.

    The Jet Set is dead. You have to be able to BUY the destination now. Only the middle and lower classes fly commercial and stay in hotels when they don’t absolutely have to….

    Plus ça change….

  2. Brant: Thanks for bringing up kitsch. I think the Greek coffee cup example is, as you say, an example of cultural “sinking” — but it’s also been raised up once again via the higher classes’ newfound appreciation for kitsch, in this case in the form of the MoMA ceramic mug.

    And I agree with you 1000% that the class flattening I speak of is only happening at the cultural level. The social, educational, and economic aspects of class are still firmly in place — in some cases growing even more stark.

    We’re far from done with the class struggle. Thanks for pointing that out.

  3. […] This dovetails nicely into a series run late last year on about class and visual design (final part linked) and the much talked about preliminary notes of danah boyd comparing Facebook and MySpace demographics. […]

  4. Sruthika Avatar


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  5. Philip S. Avatar
    Philip S.

    A thought-provoking series. Thanks.