A typographer who doesn’t read for pleasure is like a chef who doesn’t like eating.

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The Ghetto of Web Design

I’m a graphic designer by training and the art director of a web design studio by profession. This presents a great number of frustrations on a weekly basis, chiefly a sort of professional self-loathing and a constant struggle as the ambassador of design in a hostile territory.

I meet a lot of web designers (and read rants by many more) that have debilitatingly titanic chips on their shoulders about their relationship to the design world. They imagine an ongoing clash between themselves and print designers. In this imaginary debate, print designers disrespect web designers for not subscribing to the same principles and beliefs about design. The web designer’s response is that “the web is complicated” and that print designers “don’t understand” the medium and shouldn’t “make judgments” about it. And all print designers make websites that look “poopy”. And they write “terrible javascript”. And they’re all “snobs”.

Now, its true that there are a lot of print designers who have hubrisitcally designed and built some awful websites. Its also true that there’s a lot of atrocious coding out there (but let’s not put that all on print designers). The sad thing about this argument is that its actually not happening at all, because print designers aren’t even engaged. Most designers who don’t self identify as “web designers” accept it as the rule that the internet has a serious dearth of good design. They don’t want to argue about it. They’d be thrilled if you could show them some good typography on the web, but no one’s holding their breath.

This isn’t a comment on the awesomeness (or lack thereof) of the web. It is the most profoundly world altering technology since radio and you’d be hard pressed to refute that claim. Its just that when people look at the web, its hard to get excited about the presentation.

The problem facing web design as a discipline is that its practitioners are unable or unwilling to judge the quality of their design work outside the context of the medium they’re working in. When we say that a website is well designed, implicitly we mean “as judged against other websites”. Its like telling a five year old she’s a great pianist after her recital. There are very very few great five year old pianists if you judge them musically, so you can only judge them against each other. When we say that virtually anything else is well designed, we mean that it is appealingly in concord with the visual culture we’ve been socialized to. Its thrown in the same mix with all aesthetic production in history as we understand it, judged according to our cultural relationship to the golden mean, academic painting, classic cars, pornography, video games, family photos and so on.

Web designers try to excuse their bad design with some silly claims about why their jobs are especially difficult. “The internet has technical restrictions” (as do all media) “The internet is dynamic and needs to change constantly” (newspapers? magazines?) “We can’t anticipate the content when we design the site” (ditto publications and signage systems). This last excuse actually brings us to the central problem with web designers’ thinking about their medium. Most contemporary web sites are designed as systems, not as actual sites. The content is abstracted from the design and always changing. The implication is that the design system is a thing that should anticipate and accommodate any arbitrary content that get’s put into it with no further design. In fact, web standards zealots (of which I am one in most regards) consider it a sin to style an element directly in the html document. This means that all styling must be specified separately from the content and more importantly that style should never be treated as unique or intrinsically related to specific content. This isn’t a limitation of technology, this is a philosophical belief espoused as gospel by many of the worlds most accomplished web designers.

Now, if you even consider applying this sort of thinking to any other medium it becomes quickly apparent how absurd it is. Imagine trying to design a magazine before the copy is written and expecting that no one will have to make adjustments after the fact, or making film titles without having the names of the cast or crew and expecting it to actually look good. Or designing a piece of electronic equipment but you won’t know how many buttons go on the thing.

I recently had to explain this to a colleague of mine and it clarified a lot of issues. We were discussing the impossibility of creating truly great typography in HTML. He argued that simply by setting letterspacing, weight, size, and line-height (variables controllable in html) he could achieve an acceptable typographic solution that would obviate the need for a hand kerned image. We looked at a few samples that used arbitrary text. I agreed that each sample had some element that was interesting, and certainly they were formally superior to unstyled type, but that they could never compare to a piece of hand set typography. Was it good enough? Sure. But in all of history, “good enough” has never been “great”, which means that if “good enough” is the dominant standard of web design, it is a medium destined for mediocrity.

We went back and forth. Eventually he ceded and told me that he was going to write a piece of javascript that would kern each letter, which started a whole other argument.

What this particular designer didn’t know (and why would he) is that he was describing a program that could dynamically generate kerning tables for a font. I explained to him “this is the thing that Matthew Carter has spent his entire life doing. He’s one of the greatest type designers alive and the best he could do was what you’re looking at right now (Georgia). Which is to say, despite being the world’s foremost expert in writing software that does this very thing, his astonishingly good product requires the finesse a of professional in order to get the most out of it.”

That’s when it struck me: The design of websites is based on constructing a set of rules, a program if you will, based on constraints and variables that are laid out by several disparate and infinitely more complex systems of rules (web browsers, css specifications, and fonts). The cumulative program presumes to anticipate and guide all possibilities of formal relationships based on arbitrary content of unknown value/meaning.

A font, by comparison is a complex program that specifies the formal relationships between about 300 known typographic forms that were specifically drawn to have familiar relationships to one another. There are a finite number of possible pairings of each of these characters (≈300!), but that number is so large that font designers only bother to specify the most commonly finicky relationships. Even with centuries of theory and knowledge about how to do this the best fonts require the eye and expertise of an professional designer to hand space the characters in order to get optimal results for a unique word form. Before the computer this wasn’t even the work of a designer. This was a specialized technical operation that was performed by people withe professional training.

Now, this is fairly technical and definitely nerdy, but if you’ve followed me this far you can probably see where I’m going. By comparison to a font, a web page is a limitlessly complex arrangement of letterforms and images that must coalesce into a cohesive and formally pleasing composition. Trying to devise a system/program by which we can specify or construct a reasonably pleasing outcome is a difficult task (one that keeps me employed). Designing one that results in a truly great composition, that considers the most sophisticated gestures and refines the finest details (the level of design that we expect from all other media) would be akin to creating an artificial intelligence.

To expand on the infinite monkey theorem: Even if you found super smart monkeys who could spell, it would take quite some time before they could type anything resembling Shakespeare. In design you could definitely come up with Joshua Davis, but you’d never get anything like Martin Venezky.

If web designers want to be taken seriously, if we are ever to be a legitimate design discipline, a few things have to happen:

  • Web designers have to accept judgment by the criteria of aesthetic paradigms, not technical paradigms. Web developers can concern themselves with other web sites, web designers need to concern themselves with DaVinci.
  • Web designers have to reject their dogmatic obsession with flexibility. Insisting that any piece of data or content must be ready to be presented in a different design context at the flip of a switch is needless, but more importantly it denies the possibility of presentation that addresses the unique qualities of the content itself.
  • Web designers need to educate themselves about the history of design. Too many web designers are painfully ignorant about any visual culture from before their awakening as designers. They focus on technical possibilities as opposed to aesthetic ones.
  • Web designers should think more about design details than tricks. In all the years I’ve been a web designer I’ve read countless articles about using javascript to achieve such and such affect (“without the use of images!” barf.) and maybe only a handful that even suggest that designers should consider line-spacing.

There are probably a hundred other things I think web designers should do and don’t, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Feel free to leave your own suggestions below.

Note: May 17, 2009
I recently discussed this topic with a designer whom I have a great deal of respect for and he accurately pointed out that this article treats design solely as an aesthetic practice. I would like to clarify: commonly there is a distinction between “graphic design” and “web design”, graphic design being the domain of printed media and web design being related to everything in a web browser, both the graphic systems and the technical systems involved in production. There is no common term that designates the graphic design of the web, which is the subject of my criticism. I think the lack of semantic designation for this important aspect of the medium further supports my stance.

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Elegance and Practical Convenience

I drink several cups of coffee every day. Like most things in my life I’m very picky about the coffee and I insist on making it myself. However, on weekdays I am in the habit of getting a small cup of coffee to-go on my way to work. I rather like the form of most 10 oz paper cups. The ubiquitous “greek” coffee cups in New York are always fun to have. My coffee shop opts for unprinted white cups, and I’m happy to recommend them (Lodge General Store) by word of mouth without having to walk around with an advertisement in hand. I hate the sippy cup lids that most people prefer to the old-style tear-back flat lids of my childhood. I know that they’re ergonomic and easier to use and cut down and spills and whatnot, but I always feel somewhat infantilized by the experience of drinking from the same form as a two year old.

I thought about bringing a thermos and having it filled to avoid the sippy lid, but quickly discovered that this wouldn’t help my situation one bit. Every portable bottle I’ve ever seen suffers from the same problem as the sippy lid; that is, the entire focus of the design has been given to producing the most convenient, spill safe form possible at the expense of any hint of elegance, and sophistication. There’s a good reason for this too: people don’t like to mess up their clothes when they’re drinking.

The range of designs in beverage bottles is surprisingly narrow. Formally similar, they tend to have some decorative affect falling somewhere on a continuum between granola and warp drive. Most designers I know opt for astronaut style bottles, they’re vaguely late modern and strive toward minimalism by obfuscating the functional components of the form (These ubiquitous bullet shaped bottles for instance could be mistaken as large caliber shells if they were found in a place where large caliber shells were commonplace.)

There are a lot of people that fall on the flower child to astronaut style line. Neo-modernists have a lot of options, gym rats are well catered to, soccer moms, yoga practitioners, etc. will all find something. But there are a lot of us who don’t fit on that line: Edwardian pornographers, Saville Row clients, early industrial era Austrian one armed prodigal heirs, and Fred Astaire. Essentially, people who strive to maintain a state of elegance and grace in their lives and don’t accept the often implied cultural assertion that modern=designed (or is the assertion the other way around?).

For years I’ve lived with this dissatisfaction, constantly searching for the right mobile beverage receptacle. I toyed with carrying a wineskin, in protest. Practical, and a rather daring fashion statement. But not elegant exactly. I wondered why the water bottle industry had fallen down when so many other practical items in our lives have been designed to be useful while still being attractive. Umbrella’s for instance come in a wide assortment of sizes, colors, patterns, and styles, from classic to modern to futuristic. Watches, an entirely practical device until a few years ago, have always doubled as jewelry. Tea cups and saucers for goodness sake! So what’s wrong with water bottles?

I started to try and design a truly elegant portable bottle. It should be decorative, but like all great decorative elements, the decoration should restate and reinforce the form, not simply be applied to it. The form should have an explicit reference to drinking and the fluid it contains. An insulated coffee or tea cup would naturally have a different design than a water bottle, the same way a champagne flute keeps the wine cold and directs the bubbles to the drinker’s lips while a brandy snifter allows you to warm the brandy while letting it aerate properly. It should look natural with a french cuff. It should be wrought in a material that is tactilely pleasing and humanizing, ceramic or glass but never plastic. For practical reasons it should be somewhat spill resistant, but need not be spill proof (like the sippy cups) because honestly, anyone who wants one of these (Fred Astaire’s ghost and me) isn’t strapping it on to a utility belt and running a marathon.

And then it occurred to me: no one has ever designed an elegant water bottle because drinking while on the move is inherently inelegant. I couldn’t imagine Fred Astaire drinking out of any sort of water bottle because Mr. Astaire would naturally take the time to sit down and enjoy his beverage. Drinking on the go is like eating with your fingers: unless you’re eating asparagus, there’s no polite way to do it. Unlike the umbrella or watch, which are practical and necessary, the water bottle is an entirely unnecessary item of convenience.

And this got me thinking about the nature of elegance and its relationship to convenience: A thing or an act is only elegant when its used or performed as if it was the most natural thing in the world despite the fact that its elegance isn’t in service of convenience. I don’t mean that elegance must be inconvenient, but that convenience shouldn’t even factor into it, only the flair and ease with which its used or performed. True elegance defies the impulse to define our lives by practical necessity. It suggests that there is something more than just function, that designed objects are not just “machines for X” (to paraphrase Le Corbusier). Even in my naïve days of modernist fandom I always found the axiom “form follows function” to be a little suspicious, and now I’ve managed to articulate why.

I am not giving up on this portable bottle design but I’m not sure if its actually possible. The hint of impossibility typically gets me excited about a design experiment, either because I am hubristic enough to believe I can achieve the impossible or because I like to frustrate myself. In the meantime, I’m going to practice walking with a cup and saucer.

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BMW Isetta

I first saw an Isetta about eight years ago in Minneapolis. They’re incredible cars, the design is very pleasing, they’re practical (for city dwellers), economical, and I have no idea why no one is capitalizing on this sort of vehicle today (I don’t want to hear about smart cars or minis. They can’t hold a candle to the Isetta.)

Cars are obviously a great topic of design. They’re certainly the most expensive designed object most people will ever own. What baffles me is how narrow the scope of contemporary car culture has gotten. I admit, I’m a proud pedestrian, and I love “old stuff”, but I can’t think of a single automobile in production today appeals to me. If I was forced to choose a car made today the design wouldn’t factor into it. I can’t help but think that small factories making more diverse models appealing to a greater number of lifestyles and tastes could only help sell more cars. Until then, I’ll just have to dream of owning an antique (which by the way gets about 60mpg. Take that, hybrids!)

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Phyllis Diller | Charles Nelson Reilly


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Uncertainty and Ambiguity in web design


A friend of mine sent me this capture of a web form. We both agreed that what at first appears to be a terrible mistake is actually a pretty interesting piece of accidental design. Think about trying to fill this out. There’s ambiguity, but if the user is forced to make a choice, there’s no reason s/he shouldn’t be able to make the appropriate selection. The extraneous elements might leave you wondering about the possibility of subtle variations in what appear to be redundancies.

Since web design has been taken over by functional concerns we haven’t seen enough of this sort of experimentation. I am always excited to see media that challenge the audience, that allow for ambiguity, uncertainty, and interpretation, and I think this does just that. This reminds me of the sort of web work I used to see a lot of in the 90’s, back when there was experimentation and no one was very concerned with monetizing through click conversions.

Additionally, the rhythmic quality of the radio buttons is actually interesting. My friend suggested that its actually somewhat musical, a notation or musical score perhaps? If someone was able to decode it and assign some sort of aural meaning I can imagine a very listenable melody coming out of this. I can only believe this is an accident, especially since it would take a lot of work to do a thing like this on purpose, but I’d like to think that someone would go to the trouble.

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Gérard Paris-Clavel : Everything is Possible

Gérard Paris-Clavel has long been one of my heroes. I first became aware of him as a member of the legendary studio Grapus. I’m inspired by his unwillingness to compromise his values as a citizen and human while working in the graphic design industry, unarguably a vile cesspool of exploitation and social abuse. He’s one of a handful of designers who’s practice engages critically as well as formally, seamlessly creating an exchange between content, author, audience, history, and society. He’s constructed a thorough body of criticism that challenges the mechanisms of image/meaning/signs in contemporary society. I strive to emulate this approach to making in my own life. Basically, I love this man’s design and I love his brain even more.

This transcription of one of his lectures is from the long out of print book Design Beyond Design, edited by the also great (and destined to be discussed on this site) Jan VanToorn. I post it completely without permission. If you are an agent of the VanEyck Academie, Mr. VanToorn, or Mr. Paris-Clavel and you’d rather not have people read this, please let me know and I’ll remove the post. If you ever find a copy of this book, please send it to me as I don’t have one myself.

And finally, thank you Santiago for letting me photograph these spreads so many years ago. Hope I didn’t hurt your book.

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spread 2

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Throbbing Gristle

Throbbing Gristle are performing in New York tonight. I’m too excited to think about anything else.

Its hard to explain my love of this group.

I don’t think there are many casual Throbbing Gristle fans, I’ve never heard someone say “oh yeah, my friend put one of their songs on a mix. I kind of liked it.” I can’t recall ever hearing a Throbbing Gristle track played in public.

They are role models for me, examples of how people can live (not just perform, but actually live) creatively and uncompromisingly in the face of mainstream/mass culture. Most musicians fall into one of two categories: Performers who are just pretending on stage, and performers who have made enough money to pretend wherever they are. This isn’t the case with TG. They’re just people, but they have made it ok to not be “ordinary” people.

I find it telling that their music hasn’t been successfully co-opted like virtually every one of their contemporaries. I can’t imagine “Hamburger Lady” being used in a commercial or as the stirring soundtrack to a movie. Even though its thirty years old, their music isn’t nostalgic for me, its the music that I want to hear today. Its intellectual, its visceral, its primitive and complex, its smart, vulgar, brutal, and caressing all at once. And I’ll bear witness tonight.

Hot on the Heels of Love


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My Design Movement

I spend a lot of time thinking about a sort of design epistemology, its a practical way for me to map history and to place my own work and thoughts in the context of a larger design trade and/or discipline, not to mention mapping the trade to the social and historical forces that drive it. The points of friction between design epistemes are what excite me most, the power that this dialectical process has is thrilling. As a few examples, think about the rejection of printing as ugly among the arristocracy in the 15th century, the controversy over John Baskerville’s radical letterforms, the aggressive program to end ornament carried out by modernists and so on. I organize my history by plotting these ruptures and analyzing the results.

I have a general opposition to wholesale ideology, but I think its important to have a critical position. As designers, we need to be active participants in our trajectory through history. Without this we might as well just be picking colors because they remind us of our grandmother’s sofa.

Now, I have to confess, I was educated in, and to a certain degree still subscribe to a loosely defined and mostly disfavored body of knowledge that, with some reservation among its adherents, is typically referred to as postmodernism or deconstructionism. Its hard to admit that you’re on a losing side, and I’m a little bitter about it. Its astonishing to me that Massimo Vignelli is once again a star and the McCoy’s are more or less unknown to a whole new generation of designers. I try to explain it away. On a good day my reasoning is that deconstructionism as a formal school was a byproduct of a more important and still evolving critical framework, that by letting go of formal associations we’re free to pursue design theory in a more rigorous way that isn’t beholden to fashion. Sometimes I resort to a flattering combination of condescension and pathetic whining by saying “people just didn’t get it”.

The worst part is that so many designers I meet don’t have a position at all, not just in my pet arguments, but in any design argument. In fact, when I talk to younger designers I’m surprised to discover that they don’t even know there are arguments. I’m not so concerned about my own design beliefs having lost favor, but I believe that all designers have lost fuel for our own development. Its like I caught the tail end of a war that my side was destined to lose, and now that a virulent but intellectually vacuous strain of neo-modernism has triumphed none of us have a purpose. I still don’t believe in the winners, but the argument for most people seems to be over.

I want a new discourse, (not a new “New Discourse“) a thing that designers can love or hate, that will spawn new radical interpretations and rejections. I want to find something that will focus our work and give internal meaning to our discipline, because without this sort of discourse we’re not a discipline at all, and while there’s nothing wrong with design as a trade, I believe there is more to this profession.

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