10 Years

It’s been ten years since I started working as a fulltime web designer. It’s been good, it’s been hard really hard but mostly it’s been exciting. Creating websites, web applications and digital media has been such good fun. I like tinkering around on the computer, figuring out how it works and making it happen.

This affinity in the digital world hasn’t helped me as a graphic designer. Web design was obviously a natural fit for me. Switching jobs, however, wasn’t as strait forward as it might seem. It’s like a fashion designer switching to industrial design. They’re worlds apart.

The only thing designers tend to have in common is a love/need for aesthetics, everything else is different. Getting to grips with designing for the web was just simply lots and lots of hard work. There is no easy way around it. When it comes to the nitty gritty the web is very different. The medium visually different and people interact with it in a very different way. A web designer doesn’t need the skills to code the web, but does need to understand it. Just like print designers need to understand how ink interacts with paper, how text and photographs are reproduced. They don’t necessarily need to how, just what the result is. Its form and its function. The details matter when it comes to aesthetics.

In the mid nineties there was lots of resource overlap on the web. Everybody did a little of everything because nobody had done it before. It was mainly programmers hacking code in second rate scripting languages and designers pushing pixels in second rate image formats. You could only join in if you’re prepared to put in the hours figuring it out. You couldn’t just learn it out of a manual because there wasn’t one. Thankfully that is starting to change. Gone are the days of designers pretending that the web could be like print or vice versa. With the advent of digital ink and increasing dpi (dot per inch) we’ll likely see some convergence. Pixel free design, however, is still a long way off.

It was this lack of production knowledge in the industry that drove me to start writing my own HTML, CSS, JavaScript and for a while ActionScript. (Don’t do Flash kids, it’s bad for your health.) On the other hand I wanted to remain focussed on design so I needed to create web sites with a minimal of fuss. CSS was my answer. You wouldn’t believe the resistance I faced when I started using CSS. Everybody said, and I mean everybody, that I was wasting my time. People were baffled. I stubbornly stuck to my guns and quickly found myself, unintentionally, knee deep in a new revolution. Somebody had coined the phrase “Web Standards”, which is actually more of movement not a standard, and the rest is history.

Web standards drove web technology forward not for fun but out of necessity because creating effective dynamic web pages became more and more important due to the complexity of the technology and demands of usability and accessibility. So much so that creating web pages became a profession in its own right. Front-end engineering has arrived and is here to stay. Even if HTML/CSS/JavaScript becomes something else.

There are still a lot of improvements to be made. Thankfully typography is now at the precipice of huge changes. Foundries and typographers will dragged kicking and screaming into the web, a place they’ve worked so hard to keep at bay. Sadly, generating lay-out is still based on hacking around solutions that were meant for something else. There seems to be very little movement in this area but I do think (hope) that it will become very important in the next few years. The ridiculous hype around grids is a bit like a designer finding a pencil and realising he can draw stuff with it but at least it may get the lay-out train out the station. Who knows.

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