The Undesigned Web

By Dylan Tweney

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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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The success of third-wave tools is in part a reaction to the excessive (and frankly poor) designs that dominate most web pages today. Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 may have been commercial and creative successes, but they've left a legacy of cluttered designs in their wake. And that's not the designers' fault. Led by the dual demands of shoveling readers towards as much content as possible, while cramming as many ad impressions as possible onto each pageview, modern content sites are design disasters, with multiple layers of headers, sidebars, menus, widgets, banners, skyscrapers, and calls to action competing for attention and, often, completely drowning out the narrow bands of true content that they surround.

These designs have in many cases ossified into constricting frameworks that are difficult for web designers to work with. Some parts are industry standardized (just try selling ads that don't fit the industry standard sizes) or have become the well-defended turf of various corporate factions, and so have turned into the digital equivalent of the Winchester Mystery House, filled with useless rooms, hidden tunnels and dead-end doors.

It took a gadget to shock us out of this way of thinking. The iPad has sparked new hope for publishers who see it as a potential way of making money where web content has failed to. But from a design perspective, there's something else about the iPad that's even more significant: its immediacy. When you're reading web pages on the iPad, the pages have a materiality that they lack on the computer screen. You feel like you're holding the actual page in your hand, not just peering at it through a box on a display.

As a result, the iPad invites new, more content-centric designs. The boxy, multi-column layouts that currently dominate the web just don't look as good on the iPad. What works best are clean, uncluttered, wide-format layouts. A good example: Pictory magazine, whose launch predates the iPad but which seems ideally suited for the device.

As a bonus, this clean, uncluttered look is giving designers new room to experiment. For good examples, check out BoingBoing's features and The Bold Italic's innovative layouts.

But it's not just about the iPad, and if publishers and designers focus too much on a single gadget, they're missing the point.

That's because in addition to minimalist visual designs, 21st century content also demands good information design. The underlying structure of the content needs to be well designed, not for human readers, but for the machines that will be increasingly used to parse and reformat those paragraphs.

As Jaron Lanier perceptively observed in the introduction to his recent book, You Are Not a Gadget many -- if not most -- of the readers of any text in the 21st century are not people. They are machines: Google's web crawlers and indexing engines, for instance.

Even humans have different motivations and needs. Sometimes readers will want to engage with a particular story in the calm, uncluttered space an iPad affords, with no distractions and with the content front and center. Other times, they may want to read things -- as we increasingly do -- in the midst of a busy hub of data. That should be the reader's choice, not the publisher's. To facilitate those decisions, as well as the widespread distribution of content via Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Flipboard and a hundred other tools used by readers today, publishers need good information design as well as clean visual designs.

The Undesigned Web will facilitate critical thinking, sharing of information, and the wider dissemination of knowledge than has ever been previously possible. That's because it will be easier than ever to separate content from the, ahem, bullshit with which it is frequently cloaked: Distracting photo spreads, advertisements, backgrounds, faux-official layouts and logos, and the like. It will be easier to tweet, retweet, blog and reblog content, adding layers upon layers of discussion and criticism while embedding it into new social contexts.

In this new world, the end of design -- by which I mean its purpose, its goal, the end toward which it aims -- is to make content easier to parse, both for humans and for machines.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/11/the-undesigned-web/65458/