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’.
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.
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.’
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.’