Web design versus art direction

Right now, the kind of design we're doing online is better than at any point in the history of our young profession. Yet, in some ways, it still fails to measure up to its full potential.

The web is a medium through which designers can express themselves virtually without barriers to entry. It's a medium where it should be possible to create adventurous instances of graphic design with complete inhibition.

But it's not. If anything, the web in its current state is a medium in which we've perfected the craft of design, but remain novices in the craft of art direction.

Execution of ideas

In this context, I think of design as a mode of working that's very closely married to the execution of ideas, whether that means pushing pixels in Photoshop, writing code, or even directing teams of designers in the development of a design solution. For online publications, designers focus on building and maintaining a platform into which content is poured.

Art direction, on the other hand, entails a generally more expansive definition of design. It's a fuzzier mode of work, which often deals with execution and the practical matters of bringing ideas to life. But art direction, as I see it, is more deeply entwined in the development of those ideas, and in expressing them through the most articulate means available.

Much like today's web designers, the best art directors labour intensively to create templated frameworks for the magazines and newspapers for which they work, producing beautiful visual systems to communicate content. But they also go well beyond that, and direct designs that respond to the specific content that appears in a given issue, to address the ideas in a particular article.

The power of art direction

Art direction builds on strong foundations to deliver specific content in the most effective manner possible. It's in this mode of working that the best art directors' ambitions really take hold, conscripting photographers, illustrators and editors to deliver outsized concepts that need a canvas frequently larger than a designer's desktop.

This is where we, as designers working on the web, drop the ball: we fail to follow up on the many hours of labour that we put into the online magazines, the news sites and even the blogs that we create. Rather, we defer the act of laying out the content to publishing systems and databases. We may painstakingly tailor design to match a workflow, but we rarely venture into the murkier arena of responding to the specific content.


Now, I'm realistic about the feasibility of this – it's limitations in our business models and tools that are holding us back. It's a rare business today that can support the continual, active art direction of content that's being published on a regular basis in 'web time'. It's just far too expensive and time-consuming to do so, given that the tools we really need for this kind of work – semantically sound and visually accurate WYSIWYG design tools – have yet to be invented.

So what can we do in the meantime? We can look for special occasions when it makes sense to invest extra effort to produce designs specific to a given article. We can reach beyond the easily acquired tools in our digital toolboxes – vector shapes, screen grabs, Photoshop filters, and so on – and step out from behind those computers to collaborate with photographers, illustrators and editors. Most importantly, we can raise our ambitions and look past the mere development of these platforms. Rather than just building beautiful platforms, we can look to build beautiful expressions within them, too.

Words: Khoi Vinh

This article first appeared in net magazine.

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