I was browsing through the CSS Zen Garden recently, and I was struck again at just how great it is. [If you’re not familiar with the CSS Zen Garden, go there and you’ll figure it out]
I don’t mean to say that I think the designs are all excellent (more than a few of them are a little cheesy). But I deeply appreciate that all of the examples are art directed, in the traditional sense of the word, to a degree that I rarely see on commercial web sites these days — even on sites for very stylish products and magazines.
Compare this to offline (i.e. print) editions where bold and dynamic art direction changes, often radically, from article to article or issue to issue. Flip through any issue of Wired, The New York Times Magazine, or almost any fashion or lifestyle magazine, and you’ll see new and different design approaches — different art direction — for nearly every feature article. Khoi wrote a very thoughtful peice about this over a year ago, lamenting that web design is more about safe, functional systems than about creatively ambitious art direction, but since then this unfortunate state of affairs has still not changed.
Most contemporary web sites strive to be effective content platforms, with a unified but flexible style in which the actual content — the words, pictures, and media — can shine. My own site is certainly of this sort. Very few of the biggest and highest-budget content web sites, in fact, have any strong sense of style or art direction outside of the limited set of page templates (often less than ten) used to deliver the aforementioned content, templates that differ so little from one another that they are essentially variations of the same page.
So if content is king, then design is at best the royal tailor. This is because, for most sites, the design of the site is not considered content at all.
But this is not how many of the best art-directed print magazines work. They’re more like the CSS Zen Garden, customizing the design as needed to not just work with the content but also to be a kind of content in itself.
Why can’t online magazines (especially online-only magazines) do exactly what the CSS Zen Garden does?
- Keep the site’s content normalized, semantically consistent, as it resides in the content management system — but apply a different, customized style sheet to many, or even all, of the articles posted in the site.
- Treat the site’s various cascading style sheets as another kind of content, integral to the article and to the site’s overall content strategy. Hire art directors and graphic designers proficient at CSS to build new style sheets for every new article and issue just as their print counterparts have been doing for decades.
In this model, when the user browses from an article about fashion to an article about science, the page template can change dramatically. The “cascading” part of this scheme will ensure that some underlying design essentials are kept consistent — for example maybe the body copy fonts and the core page grid — even as the page’s layout, illustration, colors, headlines, and other design elements change dramatically.
It’s a shame that for many of the talented designers at CSS Zen Garden, this free work may be some of the best work they’ll ever do, since so much of the real web design world is still unfortunately focused on eliminating idiosyncratic style wherever it crops up — instead of using it to make sites and user experiences better.