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.

Author: Rick Monro

Rick has led and managed design teams in agencies in Ireland, provided UX consultancy for both public and private sector clients and is currently a Principal UX Architect with Puppet. He is also a syllabus consultant and lecturer for the Digital Marketing Institute and organiser of UX Bookclub Belfast.

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