How empirical is Web design?

Written by Adrian Holovaty on August 8, 2002

Jay Small's latest Sensible Internet Design newsletter is out. A great read. It mentions Jay's "Range of Design Specialties" chart (slide three in this presentation), which places Web designers, abstract artists, programmers, infographics artists and print designers on a spectrum ranging from "emotional" to "empirical".

My take: Web designers should be placed a little further toward "empirical" than where they currently stand (near the middle). I say this because a goal of Web design is not only to make things look pretty, but also to make them accessible to all types of browsers -- unquestionably an empirical task. This goal is seldom achieved by most sites -- particularly the sites of news organizations, which, ironically, claim to fight for freedom (and, it follows, accessibility) of information.

This aspect of accessibility is a focus almost completely lacking from print design, where medium always stays the same. In contrast, the Web is a medium of "sub-mediums": One person's Internet Explorer browser displays content much differently than another person's text-only Lynx browser, which in turn acts differently than the browser in a wireless Internet device.

But designers from the print side often neglect to consider this essential point. Instead, they bastardize the Web, narrowing its reach and cheapening its value by applying their print mentality to a very different medium. Thus we see Roger Black, a leading print designer mentioned in Jay's newsletter, creating sites, such as his very own, that look lovely in the latest browsers but contain absolutely no non-navigational content in text-only browsers. (On Black's own site, in a ridiculous move, all content is in ALT-tag-less images.)

Yes, making things pretty is important. And yes, many print design concepts are valid on the Web, to some degree. But I stress Web design is an empirical art.


Posted by Wohleber on August 8, 2002, at 9:18 p.m.:

You're absolutely right, though I think there's a place--albeit a small place--for non-empirical web design and sites where design and content are inextricably bound. But for those of us in the day-to-day business of putting information online need to think of the web more in terms of user interface than page design.

Roger Black--holy shit.

Posted by Adrian on August 9, 2002, at 12:13 a.m.:

There's definitely a place for that kind of stuff; I agree. This is a Magazine comes to mind.

Posted by Jay Small on August 9, 2002, at 2:30 p.m.:

Thanks for the plug, Adrian. Funny thing is, though I came from a print design background, I love the problem-solving and logic-flow aspects of Internet design and development so much more. So I think I'd put myself more toward the "empirical" side of the scale than I placed Web design as a whole.

I first showed that spectrum to a group of print designers, at an early Society for News Design New Media Workshop. If anything, I was (and still am) hoping to slide a few of them over to the empirical side of the scale. :-)

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