DesignNews

Are graphic designers ruining the web?

Observer article provokes backlash from web designers

In provocatively entitled article Graphic designers are ruining the web, John Naughton has argued designers are largely to blame for websites becoming increasingly bloated. In the early days of the web, he said, "the browser, not the designer, controlled how a page would look to the user," and he argued that "there's nothing that infuriates designers more than having someone (or something) determine the appearance of their work", adding that designers then embarked on a campaign to exert detailed control over the appearance of web pages.

While Naughton admitted sites became more attractive and, in some cases, more user-friendly, he said this came at a cost: the average page swelling from 93.7kB to 679kB. He said designers and photographers 'rejoice' at this "epidemic of obese webpages", but engineers "fume at the appalling waste of bandwidth", adding that page weight makes many sites inaccessible to users in places with flaky internet connections.

Making the web richer

Designers we spoke to largely slammed Naughton's assessment of the industry. Web designer Daniel Howells argued that design is "making the web richer", and suggested Naughton "had no exposure to the many wonderful sites that leverage super-nimble, lean code that employ almost zero images". Also a fan of minimalism, Howells added: "He's missing the link between minimalism and beautiful designed interfaces."

Designer and writer Daniel Gray thought Naughton's argument was "lost by taking a shotgun approach to the web and then highlighting a single favoured alternative, as if the 'underdesigned' approach of Peter Norvig is relevant to any of the other sites he discusses". Gray added: "News and photography sites are mentioned as examples of bulky sites, but the appropriateness of the quantity and size of the loaded items isn't addressed. It seems ironic to me that I accessed his article thanks to some of the great steps forward in web design: mobile access to an RSS article via Twitter. And illustrating the piece with Naughton's idea of good minimal design contrasted against a page full of LOLcats seems to be missing the point completely."

Keith Butters, chief experience officer and co-founder of The Barbarian Group, also suggested Naughton's argument about engineers wasn't accurate: "He says they're pissed about wasted bandwidth, but every engineer I know believes in the power of design to help communicate. Also, I used text-only browsers way back when, and it wasn't better. It's sort of a sad bit of writing, wishing for the old idealism and blaming it on design."

A lack of optimisation

Not everyone thinks Naughton was entirely wrong. Adaptive Web Design author Aaron Gustafson told us: "Graphic designers are not ruining the web, but a lack of web professionalism is. Without proper training and an appreciation of the ramifications of each decision that goes into building a website, you more than likely won't make the right decision regarding optimising the user experience. This isn't print and it's not television – bandwidth is a factor."

Gustafson said Naughton hints at the fact that a website's beauty is more than skin-deep: "It's well architected and well executed in addition to being attractive. Until more web professionals become aware of this, we're doomed to see this trend continue. I can't count the number of times I've spoken with web professionals about minifying JavaScript or compressing images and they brush it off as unnecessary, or how many sites include jQuery just to achieve a single, simple effect that would be easily achievable without the inclusion of a big library. Our profession needs to come to grips with the fact that every keystroke and every decision we make affects the user experience."

Developer Matt Gemmell also thought Naughton had some good ideas and told us it's "wilfully obtuse" to claim he was really saying graphic design was ruining the web: "Graphic design is a discipline whose output can most certainly include visual minimalism; there's no such thing as 'no design', after all. Like Gustafson, Gemmell agreed page bloat is a concern, and that graphic design is a tool that can be used or mis-used.

A question of balance

However, Gemmell was also quick to point out that while designs can be gratuitous and distracting, they can also be "refined and aesthetically pleasing, in which case there's substantial evidence such designs improve usability". He argued it's a common misconception that usability and aesthetics are at odds with each other: "Usability is primarily a combination of intuitiveness, selectiveness and visual appeal, rather than simplicity per se. Naughton's chosen exemplar of the academic-like homepage of Google's Director of Research is of course artificial and ungeneralisable, and entirely ignores the enormous role of visual appeal in influencing a person's opinion."

Ultimately, Gemmell thought websites were forced to compromise on any attempt at minimalism, due to needing funding (via the likes of embedded ads) and hooks to retain visitors (through rich media), but that Naughton's basic point was nonetheless valid: "Designs should be judicious, and should complement and enhance the content, rather than detracting from it. Surely, that's an argument that we can all agree on, irrespective of the unhelpfully inflammatory phrasing of the article."

Clearleft partner Andy Budd told us that the main issue with the article was really that it confuses and conflates a variety of issues. He said the web is no longer a collection of static pages and if you compare like-for-like, sites probably haven't expanded as much as the article suggested. However, Budd noted: "But bandwidth has risen steadily over time, and site owners have used this extra capacity to deliver richer experiences. So while when I started using the web I could be sat for ten minutes waiting for a JPEG to progressively load, it's now possible to stream HD video almost instantly."

Design is a fraction of the web

According to Budd, the mistake Naughton makes is to assume extra page weight is down to graphic design, and lay too much blame at the feet of designers: "If you look at the weight of any major site you'll see that design only accounts for a fraction of the overall size. And while the author believes only words count as content, images and videos are just as important [and can be] integral to the story."

Budd also told us that much of the weight of today's sites comes from additional functionality added in order to improve usability: "Things like auto-completing search queries, auto-checking the existence of usernames or ensuring that details you've entered into your shopping basket are correct." And while he admitted some designers do try to control every pixel – something Naughton rallied against – they are in the minority: "You see, good design isn't about being flashy – it considers the content and aims to present it in a way that aids comprehension rather than detracts from it. Good design also concerns itself with how services are to be used, and will often focus on making them as simple and easy to use as possible. That doesn't mean stripping away all design. Instead it means making sensible choices around layout, positioning, and legibility to enhance the user experience. As such, it's wrong to blame all designers for the issues outlined as they are usually the ones fighting for the simplicity Naughton so dearly craves!"

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