Too late the hero

This is one of a number of archive posts, dating from some articles I wrote between 1999 – 2001. Some read as terribly niave now, but I thought it worth retaining them for posterity.

—–

Cast your mind back, if you will, the mid-nineties. The internet was emerging as the next mass communications medium, and a gauntlet was being thrown down to business to come to terms with a new way of reaching potential customers and clients. A more potent challenge was resonating around the graphic design industry. For decades, designers had dominated the communications field, handling and refining the information we digest in all its myriad forms. In what is now generally accepted as the ‘Information Age’, one would think that designers might have come into their own and stamped their authority on this innovation that was clearly to become widespread in the short to medium term? Sadly not so. The challenge laid down by the internet was one that designers singularly failed to meet.

We designers can be a vain and – if truth be told – lazy bunch. We are reluctant at times to admit that we need to augment our pool of knowledge and offer anything over and above our basic talent, a truth cruelly highlighted with the web’s arrival. To publish online back in 1995/96, we had to roll our sleeves up and get our hands dirty with some rudimentary computer code. Those now familiar with HTML might be afforded a quiet laugh at it being labelled “code”, but it was a hurdle that had to be overcome nonetheless. This was a reality that the majority of designers failed to recognise, instead opting to wait until accommodating software packages arrived to make things easy for them.

In that moment of hesitancy (two years in truth), web design became the domain of the “all-rounder”. Web companies sprang up offering “design” that in any other medium would not even be afforded the name; anyone even remotely capable of producing a web site was deemed good enough. Thus the standard of web design was set at a very low mark whilst designers at large stood idly by, scoffing at the bad results, but unable and unwilling to put things right. The residue of this period is still with us; web sites are by and large poorly designed. To be blunt, design was devalued. And we, the design industry, let it happen.

Our industry was in a state of denial. Only recently (read: two years) have the mainstream design magazines really begun to take web design seriously; only in the same period have design agencies started to take on web-savvy employees, and belatedly offered web design as a service. While I would stop short of suggesting that the boat has been missed, I would stress that there is a fair amount of frantic paddling to do to catch it. Young designers who have grown up with the medium find that their traditional mentors, the senior designers and creative directors, have no significantly greater experience in the field, therefore anything that looks “cool” is deemed suitable to put live on the web. A million shoddy Flash intros are testament to that. The user experience is rarely, if ever, considered.

If I appear to be over-dramatising the significance of this blip in the recent history of graphic design, then let me give you an example to illustrate my point: for years a print designer’s brief has included at least a little technical knowledge of printing processes, paper stock and inks. In short, a firm grasp on the constraints of the medium. I would suggest is that to truly describe oneself as a web designer, then surely the same applies; what can and cannot be done? To this end, at least an outline appreciation of HTML is required, along with the basic fundamentals of dynamic scripting languages. Flash, which at one point seemed like a short-cut to web wizardry, now features an indigenous scripting language (Actionscript), that poses as steep a learning curve as many a “real” programming language. And that is just the beginning: usability issues, information architecture and more are now part of the designer’s remit.

This is not designed in any way to be a finger-pointing exercise from some kind of moral high ground. I became involved in web design in 1996; earlier than most certainly, but sadly for my bank balance not early enough to claim “guru” status and all that goes with it (stand up Mssrs. Zeldman, Davis et al). I arrived late on the scene with the rest of our industry. However my motivation for becoming involved when I did was borne from a duty that all designers have, whether they care to acknowledge it or not. I felt very strongly, albeit belatedly even then, that designers should be at the heart of any information revolution. When a new medium springs into existence, designers have a responsibility to become involved, to tame that medium and ensure that design is never allowed to be regarded as mere eye candy. This is as fundamental an issue for each every designer as I can think of; it challenges our very purpose and role in society. Do we wait for a medium to come to us? Or do we in fact have an obligation to engage with a medium, even if that involves doing so on its terms, not our own? The answer is of course obvious.

Hopefully we are now through the phase when the internet was seen as one huge retail opportunity, and into a time when the ability to inform a global audience is seen as the central principle of the internet – the web is moving on. We as an industry have a duty not only to play catch up, but keep pace in future.

Rockstars, preachers or craftsmen. Time to choose.

My father was a joiner, serving his apprenticeship in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. He took a simple pride in his work, going on to develop his skills in a number of construction firms across the city. I don’t believe he would have labelled himself a “craftsman” and I am confident that, while knowing no project he worked on would be complete without his contribution, he had a balanced sense of where that contribution sat in the greater scheme of things. We are fortunate to still have a couple of pieces of furniture that Dad made over the years as labours-of-love. They are simple, usable items.

Intense introspective

When I first read Jon Tan’s recent blog post it resonated hugely. His thoughtful appreciation of our industry is a heartening summary of how quickly things have changed and improved. On reflection, and without any disrespect to Jon – should so much soul-searching be triggered by what amounts to a moment of awkwardness at a social occasion? Should it matter what others’ perception of us is?

The drive towards a craft-based approach to design for the web continues to gain momentum, something worth fostering. Craft implies care, thoroughness. If we are to be craftsmen, we also need to accept that dedicated craftsmanship is often carried out in relative anonymity. Our contributions, if they are effective, will go unnoticed by most. Intuitive usability implies a lack of conscious effort on the part of the end user which, in turn, suggests a lack of acknowledgement on the part of the user.

My Dad ended his working life as a Clerk of Works. You may not be familiar with that role. I don’t believe Dad would have minded and would quite happily have explained his job to anyone. As our profession matures and we struggle with perceptions and interpretations of what we do, we should prepare for nothing but a muted response from those outside the industry or elsewhere in the design community.

We do great things, but they are not made any greater or lesser by how others perceive them.

You’re either with us or you’re against us

During his years in trade, Dad came into contact with engineers, architects and tradesmen of all kinds. He took an interest in them and how they contributed to projects. It informed his own work. To the best of my knowledge he never took it upon himself to accuse others of not being genuine joiners. As in all professions, he knew there are two types of practitioners: those who are effective, and those who are not.

I have written before of being proud to work in a profession that places effective practice over showboating. However there has been a trend of late for loud, showy pronouncements suggesting what designers are or are not, depending on their approach. The defense is always that these statements are designed to “provoke debate” or similar. I really wonder. Because sometimes, just sometimes, the intention appears to be to create divisions in our field where there are none; to create a ‘them and us’ based on approach and technique, rather than effectiveness of output.

A situation where a relatively small number of (I should state – exceptional) professionals, with the biggest platforms, who shout loudest feel empowered to define what we should or should not be is one that I’ll call unhelpful. Producing great work sets the best possible example to
others in the profession. Sharing of the process gives something back to the community. Does proselytising really add any more value?

Future proof

We want to attract the best possible calibre of people into our industry. A clear sense of ourselves and what we contribute as UI and UX designers is crucial to that effort. Promotion of best practice, which is always changing, is a positive. There are suitable ways and means to do this. I suggest that haranguing those with a different perspective is not one of them.

Reading much of our internal debate of late, I cannot help but hear Dad’s voice and what he said to me in so many situations over the years:

“Just get on with it, son”.

I commend this sentiment to the industry.