What are the true challenges in web design


plastical on trends in web designIn these years, to stay competitive and offer the best possible service to whoever asks for a website, our job as designers consists of two main abilities: technical (building a site that works) and strategic (give advices on what it means having a website and make it successful).

But is there a way to define what’s good and bad in our job? And what are the true challenges that we have to face as designers?

To find an answer, I thought that the best way is to reconsider what I learned and did during these past ten years, a sort of a back look to the important technology shifts that I personally consider as milestones.

Nested tables and static presentation

My first experiences as web designer, around 1999, were built around few dozen local small business clients that were more concerned with what their competitors were doing, than building a real and up to date presence online.

nested tablesSince they were having no clue of what meant building a website, the safest form for having a signed contract was to stick with the safest layout possible, avoiding visual extravaganzas and building them something that was more close to a printed catalogue than a real (and unique) online presence. By offering them few static pages like “about”, “services”, “links” and “contact” I was sure to meet their expectations. Tables were great for that: I can’t even remember how many times I had to follow the nested paths to find the right cell to insert a right corner… But, although tables weren’t meant for that purpose they just worked!

Those were also the years of discovering dynamically built sites. Sometimes I gained some extra bucks by building a dynamic news area in the home page, but, trust me, as far as I can remember, no one bothered too much and for months there was only the placeholder article I wrote them: “Welcome to our website”.

From those times I remember that the most interesting things learned were nested tables, 760pixel width layouts, Javascript image rollovers, the ASP vs PHP debate, forums, java chats (as the most popular – and unique form of interaction) and the 30KB page limit; I’d like to forget animated gifs or the hated marquee tag, but sadly I think is impossible.

Flash and all that popping out stuff

Meanwhile I kept learning and reading a lot, thus practicing the earliest versions of ActionScript and Flash. Sites like MTV or Mini gave the chance to discover a new way of experiencing web pages. At first, my clients were enthusiastic and they all wanted intros and full-page pop-ups (Uh, I always hated those!), but the implied costs were, at least in the first years, a no-go. However we switched from tables to divs, and that already seemed a big step forward (or towards headaches).

2003 flash award winnerMany of my colleagues also began offering sites built in Flash and, around 2003 also my clients finally accepted the step forward in technology and the higher bills.

It took less than a year and the shift toward flash developed sites was complete.

I was impressed by agencies like Group94 and Fantasy Interactive, and among many unmissable sites, there was a source of inspiration that I had to visit every day: The FWA. Great designers and great coders were pushing the technology forward, and every day there was something new and unseen.

Clients stopped asking square shaped sites in order to provide them more “movement, dynamism, fun, colors, sound” and non skip-able intros of 30 seconds. And no, telling them that it wasn’t a good idea to place a tiresome and useless slideshow, did not help them change their minds.flash product site

Those who discovered the beauty of big images, full screen pages, roll-overs and auto-played sound asked me to develop sites that had almost no content, but aesthetics that were just glurge… Intros were more important than the rest of the site and no one bothered to consider that visitors eventually were looking for information and they did not care of movements and unexpected rollover bubbles. However those were the years where the so called webmasters became multimedia designers, switching from a static, bi-dimensional concept to a far more sperimental and visionary way of designing websites.

Your virtual, second life.

Around 2006, right before LinkedIn spread across the web and social media entered in our lives, it was the time of Second Life: you remember those Linden Dollars and all that noise around your virtual avatar? Well, millions of people spent hours with their alter egos. virtual realityBroadband internet was entering our homes, while video and stunning graphics were an unmissable feature in almost every website. But it didn’t last: nobody even mentions Second Life or its clones today, and that’s because virtual reality, as already happened in the early Nineties (and also in the early Eighties), is just a recurring trend (ah, by the way, its coming back again in terms of Augmented Reality) and it’s not so appealing as it may sound.

The massive diffusion of blogs came shortly after, as a sort of counteract to the evanescence of pixel built identities. Back to basics, finally?

Well, not exactly: we were entering the era of AJAX and the mobile web was right behind the corner.

Another shift of technology and another way of intending design and content. Flash or JavaScript widgets for loading contents, YouTube as the favorite media player and bloggish style design was the new trend for all of us. User driven sites started spreading online and the focus, apparently, went straight to the content (and less to the design). So two or three columns, and let me add sticky footers, were the most popular words.

War of browsers 2.0

html5 and css3 trendingIf in the late nineties the battle was between IE and Netscape, from 2007, after almost a decade of Microsoft’s dominance, new and more innovative browsers entered the browser market: Opera, Firefox and Safari (in 2 flavors: Mobile and Desktop) and, a bit later, Chrome. Steve Jobs, at that time not officially, declared that the future was open standards and iPhone would probably not run Flash in the early months. We all know how it ended: Flash will never run on iPhone.

The huge number of browsers brought a new layer of difficulty to our designer’s job: different rendering and different capabilities lead to build sites top-down (to the most advanced, then back to the less capable). Again, new possibilities stimulate new ideas and for us designers the shift from Flash to HTML5 is already happening.

awesome example of design that will lastSpeaking of graceful degradation is like drinking coffee in a bar: sites are updated to the new W3C, not-yet-standardized, specs and the design community is thrilled by all this new potential. There are already sites blowing full HTML5 videos, canvas rendering, CSS3 transforms… Bloated over usage of styled graphics and super-effects are back again, and the content, again, becomes a plus.

But wait: isn’t that what already happened 10 years ago?

Well, yes! This post is a sort very condensed and superficial review of web design history, but I think you understand the point: trends are what drive our jobs and our profession. But trends, as far as I understand, influence the way we design sites a bit too much, and the right balance between technical possibilities, aesthetics and content richness is what really gives quality to our work. But the most important lesson I’ve learned in these years is that clients do not really care: they value the final result and the opinion of their stakeholders. If a client is happy and it pays you your invoice, then you’ve been successful as a designer.

iPhone is a new challengeTrends are changing very quickly and also clients expectations: many clients now own an iPad and they want to be able to proudly show their sites during meetings and work dinners. And they would be seriously disappointed if their great designed site doesn’t work because entirely built in flash… That’s the point: you are in charge to explain why and how to solve the problem upfront. Being able to anticipate and professionally advice them is the real challenge we, as designer, have to face!

Design is the job to find a solution (or a compromise) between aesthetics, functionality and clients happiness, and trends are another layer of difficulty that is part of our profession, which requires to learn new things and new ways to deal with uncertainty.