no.25 vol.7 summer 1997

Stop worrying and learn to love the Web

Graphic designers and artists alike are seen to be experimenting on the web with navigational and 'reading' routines that are still in an early stage of development. In a new publication, 'Webgraphics, a source book on screen design for the World Wide Web', a choice of sites has been selected that offers an overview of this kind of work: graphic design integrated with navigational and editorial design for the web.

Strange as it may seem, graphic designers have been late to embrace the web, leaving its coarse screens to the desktoppers and - most of all - the whizz kids.  The low resolution of the computer screen has for a long time put off designers, who are used to work in ever growing detail for printed media - even if they're designing those details on-screen. The intricacies of web technology have been another drawback. This may be the reason why you find so many sites on the web that look amazingly like the templates or standard examples from HTML programmes or software like Photoshop. Webgraphics has for a long time been a technology driven area. And even when graphic designers started to realize that they shouldn't miss this boat and had something to add to it, a lot of them made the mistake of transposing what they were doing on paper to the new medium. Which resulted in loads of JPEG's and GIF's that would have looked great in print, but turned out completely muddled on-screen.

But maybe the single most important reason why graphic designers have tarried in designing for the web, is that web design is to a great extent organizational design. The visual aspect is only a small part of the overall site design and the technical limitations of the medium leave little room for the visual exuberance so coveted in contemporary print. On the web, editorial design is probably more important that visual design. A website is a bunch of loose 'pages' that can be connected in many different ways, so the first problem for a designer is to organize this potential mess by meaningfully structuring the connections between the pages. The second problem is to design the readers' navigation through them. So graphic design for the web has to invest a great deal of attention in matters that are done routinely in print media: the chapter titles and page numbers so to speak.

Nevertheless, interest in the graphic design aspect of websites is growing. Now that navigational routines are beginning to be established, there has evolved an awareness that these aspects of site design can be done differently and visually more exiting than with the standard buttons and toolbars. Graphic designers have teamed up with illustrators, software operators, editorial and interaction designers to cope with the complex mix of interactive possibilities and technical limitations that the new medium offers. The web poses its own peculiar design problems, which graphic designers cannot tackle in their traditional ways. Designing the interaction with the on-line viewer is quite different from interacting with readers in print media. On the web time and movement become key elements of visual design. Choice is another element that needs to be designed in visually clear and strong ways: the simple statement 'continue overleaf' in many magazines is intensified in a host of links on each screen of a website.

Graphic design for the web means to unite these functionally disparate elements of a site's screens: the navigational apparatus and the typography and decorative embellishment of the editorial content. The best thing graphic designers can offer to this multifaceted medium is visual clarity and consistency.

The Place
design: Joseph Squier, USA
The diary pages of 'The Place' incorporate the navigation into the overall design of the screen. You may click on the image of a folded piece of paper and it will open up. A lot of images in this site, and in comparable artistic endeavours on the web, are 'active', which means that the viewer is enticed to search the screen for places that will open up new images and further information. This kind of work can be seen as the web's equivalent of visual poetry, with images and short evocative texts in a highly associative but well organized structure.

The Haus of Jinn
design: John J. Hill, USA
Similarly, though less enigmatic, graphic designer John J. Hill merged the navigation of his index pages with the overall image. Here the designer has searched for - and found - a balance between the aesthetic consistency of imagery and typography and the readability of the site's structure. Hill's site presents his own work and that of his design firm '52mm'.

The Crash Site (screenshot)
design: rVision, inc. screendesign, animation/graphics: Gibran Evans, Jimm Evans. interaction design: Ian Rogers, Vince Koser, Sound design: Mark Driver, USA
This electronic magazine must be the ultimate fanzine for the faces of death generation. The design follows the target audience as closely as the subjects and the lingo: Lots of images with sculls, cut open bodies, bloodstains, distorted heads - in short, the usual post-modern-manerist youth-culture grotesquery. Still, the Crash Site holds all of this - and a lot more - together in a graphic design that is as consistent as stainless steel. The logo's, illustrations and navigation bars, are all carefully made and don't clot the pages. Actually it is rather amazing that a site of this sort has any white or empty space at all! This one does, and it makes the weird virtuosity of the designers stand out.

Images (larger than) 1:1
design: Debra Solomon, Netherlands
Yet another way of designing the navigation through a website is to consider the complete site to be a large plane that can be scrolled horizontally and vertically. This is what Debra Solomon did in her experimental artwork called 'Images (larger than) 1:1'. This abstract work consists of the basic forms of the Web's structural language: blocks, boxes, grids, lines, buttons and a few text lines and images that are repeated endlessly. The experience of scrolling this blue landscape is slightly alienating because one doesn't know what one is looking for. In an almost Zen-like manner the site focusses one's attention on the act of navigating through a flat virtual space.

Samsung website
design: Samsung Data System
This is a remarkably slim and elegant website for one of the largest companies in the world, the Korean multinational Samsung, dealing with electronics, shipbuilding, finance and chemicals. Samsung's site has all the restraint of an annual report, with detailed figures on every division's performance, supplemented with Samsung's historic development since they first started to sell fruit and noodles in 1938. The site's coherent and clear design is a favourable contrast with the powergraphics one encounters on the average corporate website.

websites from:
Website Graphics, the best of global site design.
Editors: Liesbeth den Boer, Geert J. Strengholt, Willem Velthoven.
Contributors: James Boekbinder, Max Bruinsma, Adam Eewens, Sophie Greenfield, Clement Mok, Giles Rollestone, Jorinde Seijdel, Nathan Shedroff, Mari Soppela
Publishers: BIS, Amsterdam / Thames & Hudson, London, 1997 

max bruinsma