Designering.

June 21st, 2008

Jason Santa Maria’s call to arms continues to fester in my stomach.

Santa Maria, a wonderfully talented designer, has launched a new site where instead of the once-designed-soon-forgotten interface-esque design we’ve all come accustom to on the web, he plans to design individual entries. Altering text treatments, adding visuals, changing the page layout, whatever he feels necessary to better visually communicate. While this is common in print - especially in magazines - it’s fairly unheard of on the web.

Excuses, Excuses.

There are numerous, fantastically lame excuses for why design on the web has become such a static affair.

Often web sites are designed once by an outside firm, only to be handed off to editors and writers. The level of technical knowledge required to produce compliant, compatible markup and CSS styling rules is high. And while applications such as Dreamweaver attempt to make the entire affair visual, the code they produce is often subpar, even when it technically works. The task of creating unique visual presentations is not an easy one, and most folks just wouldn’t be up for it.

Most sites are powered by a content management system, or CMS. Systems love normalization. The more alike each thing is, the easier it is to deal with. When designing, we look for a rhythm that elements will share; header, sub-header, date stamp, paragraphs. We design those elements, then design a content management system that demands they exist. We tell our clients never to stray from our structure. And while these systems make our lives easier in some respects, they do destroy our ability to create designs as varied as what you may see on your news stand.

CSS, the language designers use to describe the appearance of a page, is sadly very broken in many ways. Browsers interpret the language differently. The language lacks any type of conditional statement - at least officially - making it difficult to craft a set of rules that describe every possible permutation a client may try.

Beginners.

Interestingly, some of the most “designed” pages – and I use that term loosely - are often pages I run across on sites like LiveJournal, or Geocities; sites crafted with no concern for all the so-called “best practices” our industry has established over the last decade.

Without the self-imposed constraints, without the content-management system gargoyle on their backs, the novice is in some ways more capable than the experienced. If you walk around, you can find sites that appear to be lovingly curated, each page unique. Sure, beneath it you have tables and image maps, and I’m sure a folder full of HTML pages that have to be updated by hand – all horrible ideas we threw away long ago. But the end result is something less static. More explorative. It’s strangely compelling.

You adopt templates and content systems because you know they save you time. But what good are they if they’re making us look lazy in the face of the dedicated amateur?

Fester.

The reason Santa Maria’s post festered so long in me is that, like many designers I’m sure, it feels like I’ve perfected the art of the template. I can sit down and layout a content-heavy site in a day or two, knowing what elements to account for, what uses are most common, issues I’ll have to resolve to translate the design into markup and eventually into a data store and administrative interface. Worse, as a data nerd, I’ve come to love my perfectly partitioned systems. I think in text and repetitive texture, not necessarily in visual systems. I have my grid and vertical rhythm like everyone else, but it’s a problem I’m used to solving once. Not solving every day. I design the “home page”, then an “article page”, then an “archive page” and I’m done. Lorem ipsum fills in the white space and I move on to the markup and back-end code.

Yet, Mr. Santa Maria seems to be on the right path. As browsers continue to advance, and as our libraries become more stable, problems more predictable, capabilities better documented, it makes little sense that we wouldn’t turn back and look at the techniques of print designers. That we wouldn’t revisit the idea of the template itself, making it broader, more elastic. In retrospect, it feels almost amateurish that no one had done that before. Or at least, done it well.

Jason’s post makes me feel amateurish. Lazy. All those terrible adjectives that should make a professional cringe. This is a problem I feel I should have solved years ago. Something more important than rewriting my personal CMS for the fourth time in as many years. Damn you Mr. Santa Maria!

Next.

What’s worse of course is that, despite my agreement, it will take me a long time before I can try what Jason is trying. Time is a bitch. Never enough of it to explore everything. But it’s something I’m going to keep in the back of my mind until I can come back to it. It’s something that will eat at me every time I open Illustrator.

Don’t just design the site. Design the page.