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February 21, 2008

Webstock: Good Web Design Ain’t Easy

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Jason Santa Maria is a graphic designer from New York. He currently works as Creative Director for Happy Cog Studios and Art Director for A List Apart Magazine. Ever the design obsessif, Jason is known to take drunken arguments to fisticuffs over such frivolities as kerning and white space.

Jason started his Webstock presentation by changing his subject entirely. He originally wanted to talk about how to use grids and tyopography etc but realized he had to start with storytelling – storytelling with a plan. He decided that a better title for his talk was Design for Communication. How does a design tell a story? Jason explained that we first look at images for the narrative and thread of a story because we can’t read the text. This is called graphic resonance. So the designer IS the narrator. Magazines combine the imagery with the text really well e.g. Wired magazine. Jason explains that the design differs for the story being told. Magazines set the tone for what you’re going to read with design and images. When stories are converted to an online format, things change. The tone changes. The impact changes. The meaning changes. For example, a Wired article looks really boring on the web site compared to the magazine version. Stories online are being distilled down to content.

Why isn’t the design on the web? Where is it? “Design can’t NOT communicate” said David Carson of his Helvetica design. Every line, every pixel, every absence of pixel is communicating something. Our stories are lacking, says Jason, where’s the passion? Jason made this point by showing a slide of 15 different web layouts. Speech bubble logos and web layouts are all doing the same thing, looking the same. Why are we plagued by the sameness? Most web designers aren’t designers at all, he says. Should we just design harder? We don’t have the limited typefaces we used to have. We only have constraints. So why aren’t we using our options?

We all start with a blank canvas so why don’t our designs look that good? It’s the nature of the medium that is separating the print designs from the web designs. We define good web design by our view of what makes good print design. On the metaphorical page, Jason says there is an urgent need for communication based upon precision and clarity. These aren’t new problems but old problems requiring new solutions. We should change the way we think about a page or what a page actually is.

Contraints of the web page include:

-> there are no limitations or definitions to how big a page can be
-> we can only see a small portion of a web page, unlike a book
-> everything needs to be on one page
-> we have a much shorter time to capture the audience

Online, you can change things like navigation. The user and the author can change the way they publish and read the content. Online you can’t grasp how much information there is to read or how much time it will take to grasp the content. However a newspaper or a book has a finite amount of information that you can absorb at a glance.

The golden ratio in the design field (1.6180) is found so often in nature and used as a design principal – the rule of thirds. But these don’t apply online because the web runs on a single fixed dimension (or on user defined or content defined space). You can’t look at design online through the lens of print because we are dealing with a different medium. Jason gives the example of the book of short stories No-one Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July. To promote her book, Miranda created a linear web design which completely captivates the interest of the user because it is such an unusual technique.

Fray is a new type of interactive story telling site where the design/graphic of the site takes over the narrative. Jason says this is a simple, subtle and clever way to use web design. He recommends the book Principles of Beautiful Web Design by Jason Beaird as a source of inspiration.

Images are written with light, Jason says. Innovation makes new information available to the masses. Most stuff on the web is a bit like the first Model T Ford. You can have any color you like, provided it’s black. Well, it’s time to start looking for new colors, he says. Until now, design for the web has been driven by technology rather than by the masses. Jason thinks that the form of web design should be driven by the story you’re trying to tell and he thinks we need to separate the design from the CMS. We’re all capable of telling a story and we don’t need a design degree to do this. Find inspiration offline in magazines, books and history. Turn your web site into a story.