The Golden Age Of Web Design

When you’ve come a long way it may not be easy to discern just how far you’ve come. In 25 short years the web has grown into the most widely and rapidly adopted medium in history.

Radio and TV certainly had their Golden Ages. Technology, culture, and other factors converged to make that so.

How did we get there?

1. Mobile

When the small screen arrived in the mid 20 aughts I was petrified. Being visually impaired I knew this would be the end not just of my ability to access information but to teach web design as well.

Desktop computers were hard enough. How was I ever going to go mobile? How would I ever use a smartphone?

Fortunately, I got this all wrong. Mobile has been heaven sent because it forced designers to think anew about how to design to serve the largest possible audience for the widest variety of devices. Until mobile, that concept received a lot of lip service and little action. The small screen forced designers, developers, and content creators to focus on what was most important for the user, not the designer.

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25 years ago we had gray backgrounds, black text, a few images, and blue links. Lots of links. Too many links. Home pages with hundreds of links. Who was going to click on all of them?

Then we had a raging debate about the optimum size of a web page. Remember 640 X 489, 800 X 600, and finally 1024 X 768? Some of us were talking about fluid design that was meant for the electronic canvas, but too many were not listening. The use of markup for styling was the standard and nested tables provided the framework for web page design.

If that were not enough, we had user agents that did their own thing, connection speeds measured in kilobytes, and operating systems not quite ready for prime time.

But on May 5, 1996 something big happened. The first version of CSS was approved by the W3C. Web design took a huge step to the Golden Age. By 2010 Ethan Marcotte would tell us in Responsive

Web Design that responsive design could largely be achieved with the tools we had: grid layouts, responsive images, and media queries.

The Golden Age of Web Design was ushered in once designers realized that designing first for mobile was the appropriate approach for the medium.

2. Development Of And Adherence To Web Design Standards

Before order, there was chaos. The web entered its Wild West era of designers and user agents that made up the rules as they went along.

Enter the Web Standards Project, a group of forward thinking designers who urged browser makers to observe a set of recommendations being developed by the W3C.

Designers and developers were reluctant to embrace standards until the challenge to separate content from styling requirements was taken and met with Dave Shay’s The CSS Zen Garden. Finally, site creators could see that the way forward was to design with principles established in architecture, furniture or any designed product for that matter: a division between structural elements and appearance.

Over time, standards became the backbone of the web. While artists balked, commercial interests mandated the need for an accepted norm that would inure to the benefit of all.

3. Designers Now Understand The Medium

As with every new medium, when the web came into existence designers relied upon conventions established by existing media. Their need to mimic a printed page manifested in using spacer gifs, text graphics, and non-semantic markup culminating in the use of data tables for grid layout.

Designers were pixel mechanics. They were locked into the fantasy that the web could be tamed like the printed page. Their design tool of choice was Photoshop, the antithesis of what web design needed. They did not appreciate the inherent uncertainty of web design. WYSIWYG truly was What The Designer Saw Was Not Always What The User Got.

In the bad old days, I was teaching, preaching, and converting print designers to understand and embrace The Electronic Canvas at Pratt Institute in New York City. Most of my students were hard coded to units of measurement that favored fixed dimensions. Endless discussions ensued over why pixels and em units would eventually be chosen for electronic publishing.

What they saw was that the web was not print. It had a canvas of unknown dimensions operating within unknown environments. I led them to Jon Allsopp’s prescient A Dao Of Web Design to bring about an endurable zeitgeist they could take from one project to the next.

My job was to break them of print-think as I called it.

It took a generation to move beyond print to understand what it meant to work in a medium where users could influence design. Designers and business owners were resistant to giving up control of their work product as they enjoyed it with print media. Once they saw that control, as they understood it, lay in the hands of users and that working for – not against – their needs would result in successful designs that achieved meaningful goals.

4. Site Development Tools, Such As WordPress, Embrace Standards

The broad WordPress development community – those that work on its core, develop themes or plugins – understand the importance of creating software that promotes standards and a best practice approach.

This is not to say that all WordPress themes and plugins validate to published norms nor has that alone led us to the Golden Age of Web Design. But credit surely goes to those in the WordPress community who have contributed to the advent of menu toggles, modals, accordions, light boxes, carousels, tabs, better form inputs and other UI that allow users to more easily accomplish tasks while occasionally delighting them with a surprise.

As much as anything, the WordPress community has embraced accessibility as a design standard for its admin and the generated web pages. They understand that – as in the physical world – accessibility is not just a way to make something a possibility for the disabled but to make something better for all.

Perhaps we know it is the Golden Age of Web Design when someone who is neither developer nor designer can now create meaningful sites using open source tools like WordPress.

5. The User Experience Has Added Much To The Golden Age

Over time, users acquired expectations expressed in a feedback loop to developers that resulted in a better web. How this came to be was through anonymous, randomized A/B testing. Such testing – much like double blind drug studies – makes it possible to test anything one encounters on the web.

Digital technology makes it easy to record any user’s activity without their knowledge. No longer do site owners, developers, and designers need to rely upon their intuition on human behavior and how one interacts in a computer mediated environment. A/B testing is used for everything. Is that the right shade of blue? Should the navigation interface be horizontal or vertical? Should the button be “learn more” or just “more?” Everything can be evaluated then optimized in real time to reach a desired goal. Small tweaks could have big impacts.

According to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz in “Everybody Lies,” Facebook conducts 1,000 A/B tests each day. To be sure most of these tests are to reach a better commercial outcome, but does that preclude the possibility of also achieving a better web? While there certainly is a dark side to A/B testing, it has given us insights that have brought us to a better web.

Is That All There Is?

What’s next if this really is The Golden Age Of Web Design? Radio of the 1920s and TV of the 1950s were thought to have gone through their golden eras not long after their arrivals. What followed for both did not exactly produce much quality of content. TV became the vast wasteland for years until its rebirth in the first decade of the 2000s when great writers, directors, and producers re-made a large sector of the medium.

Will web design enter a similar wasteland – perhaps we’re already there – a time of low quality design and copy cat experiences only to be saved years from now by the fresh eyes of new designers, developers, and content consumers?

Or will we always, as Marshall McLuhan said, “…look at the present through a rearview mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

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