Every generation of art and design seems to revolve around a political debate with the previous generation. On one side you have a custom, hand-made, personal approach to design and on the other you have a more uniform, systematic and functional perspective. From Realism Vs. Modernism to New Wave Vs. Swiss Design, the design debate pendulum swings from generation to generation.
We, in the UI design world, did for a moment have our very own debate, and that was skeuomorphic Vs. flat; but I feel that this was us being lazy with language, as these approaches are not antithetical. Skeuomorphic is to reference a piece of design that was a fundamental feature in its original form. For example, the borders of a Polaroid photograph used in advertising posters for travel companies reference the spontaneous nature of a Polaroid or perhaps the retro feel that they represent. They were a necessary feature of the design of a Polaroid and their use conjures an emotional attachment to what they represented. Flat is just a stylistic choice of block colours and a lack of dimension. Perhaps what we meant was Realism Vs. Post Modernism but that debate had already happened. Most of what we see today is a reflection of the flat argument ultimately winning. But it wasn’t like this in the beginning.
The first web designers were mostly inspired by the graphic designers of the 90’s who, at the point of the pendulum, had swung towards the anti-design sentiments. Notable influences was Ray Gun magazine, designed by Sociology teacher turned designer David Carson. The layouts broke away from the conventional grids of the Swiss style and treated type as a graphic. Some of Carson’s design choices were incredibly brave — for example in one instance, when he found an interview really boring he decided to use the symbol font Zapf Dingbats, as he felt it didn’t matter if the article was read or not.
This was the birth of web design. It was the era of the Wild Wild Web. Completely custom, full of life and originality, but in some cases entirely unusable for the average person. Towards the end of the 2000’s the industry was craving standards and consistency. Then came the rebirth of grids and typography, introduced as “revolutionary” design movement, which took the web design world by storm. Suddenly every site was using a 960-pixel grid and they all looked either like a Wordpress theme template or a Bootstrap website. We had a uniform feel and consistent elements, a great responsive grid, but no soul.
“I‘m not an admirer of people who draw like Picasso. I feel his influence has been a bad one, demoralising. It’s reducing the world to a farmyard.”
-H. M. Bateman, The Tatler 1919
As native platforms emerged, their designers looked at the flaws of their older web sibling. They would take little bundles of the internet functionality and weave them into a single simple program that they would call an “app”. The native app designers had full control of the devices they lived on and didn’t have to worry about linking to anything.As long as they followed the rules of their respective app stores and fit the design guidance of their platform, then all was good. From an app perspective, they want to have a degree of originality, but from the platform’s point of view, everything that lives on a device is part of an ecosystem and thus, should obey to some form of consistency.
These days all of the paradigms of native and web seem to be colliding. On one side, you have the progressive web that wants to behave like a native app, and on the other, you have instant apps that want to have the reach of the web. At some point, it will be hard to tell the difference. In the world of technology, the argument of Web Vs. Native has raged on since the release of the first iPhone. But does it matter? The struggle I have is not so much the platform or technology, but rather the health of design. We seem to be living in the Modernist / Swiss Design time. I keep thinking that any day now Johnny Rotten is going to burst out of my Material Design touch screen and declare a new creative counter-culture movement that will shake the world before it’s turned into another ‘style’ adopted by agencies. The cycle continues.
Perhaps the world doesn’t need designers anymore. In the closing paragraph of the book ‘Graphic Design, a concise history’, author Richard Hollis quotes a Dutch “layouter” Piet Schreuders, who addresses designers as “criminal in that they practice a highly specialized profession that the world could do without”. Hollis followed up with:
“The world may yet dispense with the profession while designers are arguing about whether they are artists or not.”
The tortured soul of the designer, longing to be an artist and frustrated at having succumbed to the corporate machine. Optimistically pissed off with their youth movements that promised blissful anarchy but instead gave it pop-tarts, social media, and mediocracy.
At the end of the day, we create to help people do things. The moment we put ourselves at the center of our work, it no longer becomes design, it becomes something else. So when the pendulum does swing back in our anarchic favor, we should try to remember why we’re creating the things we’re creating and focus on the users instead of ourselves.
NotesThis article is for a new youtube series called “Designer Vs Developer”, which you can see here on our Youtube Chrome Channel. You can also listen to a longer version of the conversation by downloading or subscribing to our podcast.
First appeared in Creative Review.