The Undesigned Web


Design reigned supreme in the 20th century, when it was an integral part of the way artists, publishers, governments and political parties communicated to the first mass audiences.

Message and presentation were inextricably intertwined, with the latter lending power, impact and even meaning to the former. Not for nothing was Marshall McLuhan able to say, with gnomic brevity but not a little insight, "the medium is the message."

But in the 21st century, Internet standards have successfully separated design and content. The two live more interdependent lives, sometimes tightly tied and sometimes completely separated from one another.

The message is now free from the medium.

It's that separability of design and text that has led to the third wave of the web, in which readers (or what some would call end-users) are in control of how the content they are reading looks. And, as it turns out, many of those readers like their designs to be as minimal as possible.

Call this wave The Undesigned Web.

This wave has two faces. One is the trend towards more minimal, readable designs. The other is the imperative to make content as easily reformattable as possible, separating content from the designs in which it's initially clothed.

You can see it at work in tools like Instapaper and Readability. You can see it in applications like Flipboard, which filter and reformat news through the lens of your social network. And you can see it in news readers like Google News, which present every website's latest articles in a consistent, quickly-scannable and easily searchable format.

In fact, it's possible not just for publishers, but for readers and viewers to recast the message into new media, stripping it of its former context and reformatting, republishing, and reframing it at will.

Don't like the way your book is laid out or the formats it comes in? There's software that will convert your book into whatever format you want. Oh, you meant a paper book? No problem, you can easily digitize that too.

Looking at an ugly web page? Click one button and it will become instantly more readable, thanks to an aptly-named JavaScript utility called Readability.

And while that's a difficult thing to accept for those of us who have spent our careers creating publications that weave content and its presentation together into seamless, beautiful packages, it's a trend that is only getting started.

One of the most popular iPad apps is Instapaper, a tool that reformats web pages as more-readable, minimally-designed, booklike pages, then sucks them into your app for easy offline reading. Readability features are even built into the latest version of Apple's Safari browser, enabling readers to reformat web pages at will.

That's not to say that design, or designers, are becoming irrelevant. In fact, web designers are leading the charge in this wave, just as they have in the first two major waves of web innovation.

The first wave, in the late 1990s, saw the emergence of websites that served commercial ends. Designers figured out how turn static HTML pages into sophisticated online storefronts, communities and publications. It gave rise to a whole new profession: That of web designer.

The second, "Web 2.0" wave, kicked off with more-dynamic designs that incorporated cleaner looks and page layouts that let some elements change (like refreshing a photo) without reloading the entire page.

And now it's clever designer/programmers like Instapaper's Marco Arment who are leading the third wave.

A web standard called CSS (it's short for Cascading Style Sheets) was the beginning of the end for the design-centric way of doing things. The core notion of CSS, which is baked into the definition of HTML 4 and HTML 5, is that presentation is separated from content. The tags that mark a piece of text as, say, a heading, are separate from the code that tells the browser to display that heading in 36-point Futura.

Style sheets have been part of computer-based text layout and display since the 1970s, but it wasn't until the adoption of CSS as a formal standard by the W3C in 1996, and the subsequent support for it in browsers from about 1999 on, that it became possible to use it in a widespread way.

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An award-winning writer specializing in technology, science and business, Dylan Tweney is a senior editor at and publisher of tinywords, the world's smallest magazine.

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