What Happened to Web Design?

I’ve been working on some new projects that will require websites (among many other technical bits). These are proper businesslike projects, but they are also personal, and I want the design of said websites to express creativity and authenticity. As someone who has been making websites for over twenty years, I started with a plan to hand-write some HTML, CSS, and maybe a little JavaScript, but I needed some inspiration. What I found in my brief attempt to find some web design that inspired me were:

  1. The truly awful. These comprise the vast majority of websites in 2023 and are the topic of frequent discussions within the online community of web design and development professionals I lurk within.
  2. The boring. These are typically online stores or business pages based on a template and built in WordPress, Squarespace, or the like. The templates vary very little even across domains, and even less within a specific domain.
  3. The maximalist. Some designers, in an attempt to not be boring, create heavyweight sites with a lot of moving graphics. They sacrifice usability and discoverability for their brand. That’s their decision and is fine, but not what I’m looking for.
  4. The minimalist. Most of the valuable content I find online is on personal websites, and the majority of those tend towards the minimalist, much like this very site.

Upon not finding anything that was both interesting visually, creative, and usable, I wondered: What did I think I was going to find? Why do I remember the existence of such sites? I thought back to the early-to-mid-2000s. I tried to recollect the names of some of the sites I enjoyed in that era. I finally stumbled upon the Web Design Museum. I was reminded of Submethod, Designgraphik, and Surfstation. The Web Design Museum even has a category called the “Golden Age of Web Design.” These were the types of sites I was looking for—sites with quality text and images, intentionally placed within a browser window, novel navigation elements, where curiosity was encouraged and rewarded.

I even found Dallas’ own Jared Christensen in the CSS Layout Pioneers category. Jared is one of the few still going, now mostly writing about music you probably haven’t heard of, but should.

That era existed in a world with far fewer tools and technologies at our disposal. Most of those sites in “the golden age” used HTML tables for layout. Those using CSS were true “pioneers”. Advances in CSS were supposed to free us and make our sites more accessible, but here we are with a milquetoast web comprised of hundreds of nested div tags. Smartphones put the web in everyone’s pocket, but lucrative app marketplaces controlled by monopolies shifted attention away from the web; at the same time, web pages needed to work on many more screens, with less time and budget devoted to their construction. It’s no wonder the web is a sea of the same templates.

That might partially account for “the boring”, but my hypothesis also extends into the reasons behind “the truly awful”. One of the problems of designing via metrics or A/B tests is you will always arrive at the mean. In 2014, I wrote in Thanks for Ruining the Internet:

All this data they’re collecting about you is driving product design decisions, and why shouldn’t it? It is your behavior they want to influence. Why is there an annoying popup asking you to sign up for an email list on nearly every site you visit? It’s because those work, and spam works. It’s your fault. Congratulations, we’ve democratized web design and development to the point where we are getting what our depraved attentions deserve. The distance between a fart-noise soundboard app and Forbes has compressed almost to the point of indecipherability.

Diversity is well understood as an advantage in most domains. Biology, finance, HR, etc. But in UX and web design, we seldom celebrate diversity…let alone strive for it. It’s funny to me that in internet technology, where the idea of innovation is fetishized, we’ve designed organizations and systems that default away from innovation. The majority of investors and business founders have spent the last two decades “innovating” lock-in communication platforms or “disrupting” established businesses, turning them into rent-seeking models via a thin layer of web technology. Value extraction is the goal, rather than value creation. This is discussed in detail in Cory Doctorow’s writings and talks about “enshittification”.

These values and organizational models invariably trickle down into engineering functions, as discovered by many designers and developers. Robin Rendle recently asked Why Are Websites Embarrassing?

It’s so bad that visiting a website in 2023 is like falling into a blackhole and being hit by a bunch of random junk on your way to being crushed into an infinite nothing in the center.

…in 2023 it feels like we’ve let websites be one of two things: either confused, junky bloatware or simple white posters with black text and a big checkout button. But the web can be so much more!

…the baseline of web design is so low because there’s a lack of tenderness, care, and empathy. It’s because we don’t see the making of a website as a worthy profession. It’s because we hope to squeeze the last bit of juice from the orange by mulching people in between modals and pop ups and cookie banners.

Matthew Graybosch, one of a few JavaScript malcontents I gleefully follow on Mastodon, replies at first with the technical answer—“It’s usually fucking JavaScript”—but then goes deeper:

Most developers, I would like to think, care about performance. They care about clean design. They probably don’t want to make shitty websites.

But they don’t make the decisions. If marketing wants analytics, the developers generally can’t say no. If they want scroll-jacking, or manipulation of browser history, the developers generally can’t say no. Likewise demands for cookie consent, newsletter popups, ads, and all that other shit.

Actually, the developers could say no – and be fired for it. Or they could just quit. Either way, management will find other developers who don’t give a fuck if a webite turns out to be a complete and other pile of shit as long as they get paid on time. Such developers would justify doing so with the time-dishonored retort: “a man must live”.

He then goes on to advocate for the personal website. A long-time topic of this very personal website:

Creating content on the internet and actually owning all of that content and retaining complete control over that content is still one of the most culturally radical things one can do. Sure, the marketers of the world will tell you you’re wasting your time, but that is only if your horizon for meaningful impact in the world has shortened to the amount of time a news story remains in your social network feed.

This started as a nostalgic story about my personal preference for a design aesthetic that died 20 years ago and has turned into a rehashing of the same topics I seem to keep revisiting twice every decade. What might be different this time?

  1. The value-extraction model is failing or has at least cut open the proverbial goose. The market contraction in online tech is terrifying for those of us who work within it. But all my examples from “The Golden Age” are from right after the first dot-com bubble burst. Many of us survived that era, and some actual innovations did emerge from the rubble.
  2. It’s not just the Very Online who are fed up. This might be because almost everyone is now very online, but it seems like the murmurings extend well outside our industry. Eventually, even metric-driven organizations will have to change their UX to attract and retain customers, as those customers stop falling for the cheap tricks that have worked for so long.
  3. This is a pretty gloomy idea, but recent data seems to indicate that end-times-like events will not slowly creep up on us, as I predicted in 2010, but rather descend in more biblical ways. Nothing inspires collaboration and change faster than finding our enclosing systems failing around us. [Insert “this is fine” emoji here.]

I didn’t want to end on that note, but I’ve been sitting on this post for too many days, trying to make it more coherant and/or put a bow on it. There are some good sites out there these days. The replies to this post link to some.

04/2024 Update

This post, which links to normadesign.it/en/log/nothing-special/, is particularly relevant, particularly the last two quoted paragraphs, and I’m concerned that I did not remember to make the connection when I first wrote this piece. Possibly that was because this post focuses on the market forces that have led to bad design, while the Norma post focuses on social factors. It seems as though real design thinking, as advocated by the likes of Don Norman, would consider all these elements.

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