Saturday, 23 August 2014
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News analysis - Are graphic designers ruining the web?

Journalist and academic John Naughton caused an understandable designer backlash at the weekend with his provocatively headlined Observer article ‘graphic designers are ruining the web’.

Guardian homepage

Guardian homepage

In his piece, Naughton, professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University, suggests that the growing influence designers are wielding over webpages is causing the pages to ‘put on weight’, as they stretch to accommodate bigger images, video components, animations, imaginative typefaces and other elements.

Webpages have gone from being static text-objects (like Google director of research Peter Norvig’s site, which Naughton hails as an exemplar of efficiency) to bloated collections of disparate elements.

Naughton’s basic point about the growth of webpages is true. From 2003 to 2011, the size of the average web-page grew by 93.7kb to 679kb, with pages now comprising hundreds of different items. The BBC homepage has 115 items and ITV 116; YouTube meanwhile has just 26 items and Wikipedia 15. (Incidentally Design Week, which we’re in the process of redesigning, has 88 items and the Guardian website, hosting Naughton’s article, has 177.)

Naughton says the knock-on effect of this growth in webpage size has been a demand for faster (and more expensive) broadband, and a gulf in Web access between ‘someone in Africa on the end of a flaky internet connection [and] a Virgin subscriber in Notting Hill who gets 50mb per second on a good day’.

This, according to Naughton, is the fault of graphic designers. ‘There’s nothing that infuriates designers more than having something (or someone) determine the appearance of their work. So they embarked on a long, vigorous and ultimately successful campaign to exert the same kind of detailed control over the appearance of webpages as they did on their print counterparts.’

Notwithstanding the familiar typecasting of designers as paranoid control freaks (because journalists can be just as touchy…) Naughton’s piece makes two very contentious claims. The first is the suggestion that websites are ‘heavier’ is necessarily a bad thing; the second is that this is the fault of graphic designers.

BBC homepage

BBC homepage

The first claim is fairly easily dismissed (at least in part). Naughton claims the average webpage is 7.2 times bigger now than it was in 2003. But the UK’s current average broadband speed (according to PC Advisor) is 7.6 MBs. This is 135 times faster than the 56kb modem many people would have been using in 2003.

And Naughton’s claim that this broadband growth is driven by larger websites? Well this ignores the huge demand for ecommerce, for streaming music and films over the internet. Digital and print designer Steve Price, creative director at Plan B Studio, says, ‘It’s a bit of a chicken and egg question. Consumer behaviour has also changed rapidly. It’s not just “content-based” websites that are causing the bulk of the growth; we shop, watch more TV, download more movies, music and (let’s face it) porn online than ever before. Because we can.’

Naughton’s point about the global disparity in internet speeds is a good one, but, as Cog Design director Michael Smith (a graphic designer who also works on the web) says, ‘The audience is always at the forefront of our decision-making. If we’re designing for a global audience we’d always design with a dial-up-connected internet café in mind; if it’s a site aimed at London gallery attendees we can change our approach.’

Price says, ‘Most websites are built for specific markets in particular demographics. What would work in the US, UK and Europe wouldn’t work in most of the Middle East or Africa. But as a designer your job is to understand the market and understand your audience - a point Mr Naughton clearly overlooked himself judging by the comments left on his article.’

Naughton unwittingly makes this point when he uses the example of Wikipedia - a site with a truly global audience - having a slimline 15 items on its homepage. Compare this to the Marlowe Theatre website (designed by Mind Unit following a Cog rebrand) with its much larger 62 items. But a radically different audience.

Smith says, ‘Do you remember the web of ten years ago? Webpages are immeasurably more efficiently designed now than they were then, but pages are delivering masses more content to an exponentially bigger (and less tech-savvy) audience. It’s like saying the Model-T was a more efficiently designed car than the Focus - that’s just silly.’

Homepage of Peter Norvig, Google director of research

Homepage of Peter Norvig, Google director of research

And is this ‘Web obesity’ of the fault of the designers? Well, hardly. As Smith says, ‘Sometimes (well, lots of times) designers concentrate on aesthetics to the detriment of other factors. But that’s why people call in a graphic designer, they want someone to bring in an aesthetic sensibility, they want the designer to challenge them and push them beyond their expectations. There are lots of voices around the table; they all share the responsibility.’

Price says, ‘Did cars become better engineered, safer, faster, cleaner, more economic, lighter, because consumers demanded it? Were more affordable materials for buildings made to improve and increase production in the construction industry? Do we need faster trains? Faster cars? Better mobile phones? Technology, engineering and the quest for constant improvement is part of our human nature - it’s what binds us together - it’s called evolution. If Mr Naughton wants to stay in the Dark Ages I’ll happily buy him the ticket.’

Smith concludes, ‘Designers will always be pushing to produce sites that stretch the limits of what’s possible. The best designers will continue to put a premium on efficiency - that way they can push even further.’

Readers' comments (14)

  • As designers we want our websites to look great, to be interactive and to work seamlessly. As technology progresses and develops this becomes more and more achievable. Yes the sites we develop might be a bit 'bloated' but look at it this way, if they weren't we'd still be using dial up internet connection. Designers pushing the boundaries on what looks good is forcing the providers to up their game. If anything we are doing the world a service ;o) Seriously, can we be blamed for doing the best job possible? When we created our site: www.ansteydesign.co.uk we worked hard to keep the file size down but because of javascript there is still a delay in loading. So is part of the issue the tools that are available to us? Should we be looking to HTML 5 to solve the problem?

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  • Graphic designers are notorious for having slow to load, self indulgent websites and fail to respect the limited time a potential client has.

    On the other hand, I suspect websites like the BBC site will become more of a television experience. Some people just don't want to read and you can already see an increase in video related items. To blame the designer is a bit rich.

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  • If you employ a designer with a strong grasp of design as well as development, you have a marriage the best practices at your disposal. Good designers with this knowledge are hard to come by.

    In addition, design doesn't bog down heavy sites, serving content does. If sites are slow to load, it's usually multiple scripts and large content that are the problem. The best that designers can do is make all their images into neat little sprite files and be on their way. HTML5 and CSS will eventually replace the need for image based design elements.

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  • What Mr. Naughton doesn't get is that everything needs flourishment. For instance, his article could have been boiled down to one paragraph and written at a 4th grade reading level for easy/rapid consumption. However, we then would lose all his personal opinions and writing style. We would be left with just the facts in an easy to glance at format. But its writing, so its different. Right?

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  • Lord Sugar once said, "Graphic designers only do what you tell them to do."

    If you as a client, feel that a designer isn't fulfilling your brief, you're either:

    • not exerting your will as a paying client

    • you don't really know what you want and have allowed a designer to 'just play with it'

    • you've written a bad brief

    • you don't understand the design agency process and the disciplines it's split into (creative, copywriting, marketing, artwork, coding etc)

    This applies to print and the web.

    Content is content, no matter where it's absorbed by the customer and it's up to the designer to prioritise the information.

    If there's too much information, that's not the designer's problem - it's the clients.

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  • its not designers adding all the images. its marketing people who want an image of everything, their logo bigger, videos etc. we graphic designers are simply the computer operators being told what to do most of the time!

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  • Having to use norvig.com . Would make me suicidal !

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  • It's true that websites are heavier today, maybe a bit too much, considering that a three-minute animation with a synchronized sound

    (intro) can be 4KB. So the average website in 2011 was 170 times heavier and many of them couldn't keep me that engaged.

    Our designs reflect our decisions, but we are too proud to admit doing things wrong. So we prefer using the available technologies

    in the wrong way, to do the wrong things and satisfy the wrong clients. Then we justify our decisions with the bad KB counter as if

    we passed the speed limit on the highway.

    "Stretching the limits of what's possible" is again wrong thinking. Stretching the way people will benefit from our websites isn't.

    There are many beautiful (and heavy!) websites, but how meaningful are they? Here is we all fail–no matter if graphic or web

    designers. Even the best designers today lack the feeling of how they can serve people (beyond just single clients) better. So they

    waste their talent worrying about the small things.

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  • Design isn't just about aesthetics, web design is about helping to communicate the given message to the chosen groups via layout and navigation. Peter Norrvig's website may well communicate effectively to his target market but if the BBC website looked like this, most people would leave the website pretty quickly.

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  • I would say graphic designers have a lot less involvement as to what goes on a website as opposed to say a brochure or poster. I work in a large organisation who is quite keen that all print that goes out is professionally designed but at the same time marketers and techies are putting content on webpages and laying out marketing emails. This leads to all sorts of visual horrors and don't even get me started on the sites that have had no designer involvement at all.

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