The end of web design?

About a month ago, Jeffery Zeldman, redesigned his website to be all about content. A little later, he wrote an article about it, after receiving comments that he had obviously not tested his site on the desktop. I really like the new design. It’s a pleasure to read, that’s for sure.

But the basic point Zeldman is making seems to be lost on some people. Web design, on most sites, is a failure (mine included, by the way). All those distractions in the form of graphics, ads, sidebars and popups. This has resulted in two things:

  1. Users have learned to blank out the bits around the core content
  2. Users are increasingly turning to 3rd party tools to read content (eg Readability)

Both beg the question: why bother with them in first place then? I believe Zeldman has answered that question with a quite resounding: “Well, let’s just not”.

The printed web

Whilst this analogy is often not appropriate I think you can compare publishing on the web to publishing a newspaper. The newspaper industry has effectively standardised on a black and white, column based, design.  Whilst there are certainly technical and cost issues involved in this decision, it has also remained that way because the format is easy to read.  The freedom that the Internet allows publishers (and the negligible cost involved in publishing on the web) has led to a large diversity of designs. Whilst diversity is great, those sites that are successfull tend to be so because of compelling content, rather than compelling design.

Then there is the hidden cost of web design.  Good web design is expensive because of the man hours involved in creating it. There are no shortcuts.  Poor web design however is fatal because of the lost readers who can’t read the content for all the design. Your content has to be truly compelling to overcome poor design.

Enter the mobile web

I’ve been a smartphone holdout for many years. However in April I became the proud owner of a Samsung Galaxy S2. This is a fantastic piece of kit, especially for playing Angry Birds, but I digress…

What I have noticed is that most sites still don’t work on a smartphone. Those that do are often hosted on third party platforms such as WordPress.com, Blogger or Tumblr and are often basic in their mobile version.  In the current age of smartphones it seems like these platforms have understood better than most that publishing on the web is about content, not design.  And I think many authors are realising this too as the number of different devices that access their content increases. There are no guarantees as to the capabilities of a device. The only guarantee is that the end user wants to get at the content, not the design.

What then, with web design?

Web design will continue to be a core aspect of publishing on the web, but it will focus less on over all site design and more on helping users to get at your content in an easy manner. I even wonder whether it will embrace aspects of print design? Perhaps a site will have a well designed, or branded, homepage (but not a splash screen!) with links to content who’s design is more conservative, but respects best practices.  I think the idea will work well, given that with the ubiquity of third party platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter to name a few, your content is increasingly not published on your site.

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