Going skinny

The pressure is on for websites to deliver the goods quickly, rather than divert or show off. Michael Johnson charts the current drift towards increasing simplicity and ease of navigation in Web design, creating sites that work on mobiles too

I can’t really put my finger on when exactly, but at some point over the past two or three years, the Web stopped being new and just started being, well, there. We all worked out what it did, took it into our lives and absorbed it into the everyday to, fro, hubble and bubble of the 21st century.

Now it’s become less important for a website to say ‘hey, you, look at me’, and much more important to say ‘what can I help you find?’ We use the Web to find or read stuff, quickly. It hasn’t stopped us going to movies, watching TV or reading books. It’s just added to these things. My tweenage son downloads movies of his guitar-playing on to Facebook. My other half plays Tetris on her iPhone while we catch two-month-old dramas recorded on a TVR, fast-forwarding through old Christmas ads. Am I surprised? Not really.

But the implications of this are profound: not only for those producing those fast-forwarded ads, but for those designing online. Of course, you can show off with some whiz-bang flash or video graphics, but the effect soon wears off. A few years ago the Habitat site was an award-winning, immersive environment. Now? It’s a site where you go to look at rugs. Or buy a chair. It works fine, of course, it’s got a retail job to do, but that’s it. Unveiling a huge, bells-and-whistles animated site is now unusual – the last consultancy site of note was Wieden & Kennedy’s impressive www.wk.com last year, and hours can be spent or lost in its spider diagram/timeline navigation. But, have you got the time? Many will give it just ten minutes before frustration kicks in and they jump to one of Wieden’s (very good) blogs. I revisited Leo Burnett’s Gold Pencil-winning website this week, and once you’ve rung that bell and blown the whistle, it just seems a bit annoying.

Many now argue for the polar opposite of the immersive animated approach. Partly driven by accessibility issues (‘What does it look like with pictures and Flash turned off?’), blogging (which needs page URLs to link to something) and good old-fashioned speed, sites get simpler and simpler. If you’re wondering why so many look like weblogs, it’s because they’re often adapted from blog software. So much can be hosted on photography and video sites that US group Modernista skipped the idea of a site altogether and simply placed a tiny block of navigation in the corner of a page. This links a visitor to an information page on Wikipedia, or press ads on Flickr, TV on YouTube, and so on. If anyone was searching for a definition of what ‘Web 2.0 thinking’ looked like, surely this was it. (It’s a shame these • thoughts are wasted on clients like Hummer and Cadillac.)

Modernista’s joke was a good one, but ultimately undone by the Achilles heel of Web 2.0: these ‘public’ sites often look awful. It’s patently obvious that the next step in decent Web design is to make simple content management systems or blog-based systems vaguely attractive. Currently, it’s tough to break the mould; designing purely for HTML forces art directors back into gridded boxes and limited typeface choices. Include too many pictures and the usability police will lock you up – and don’t even think about angled type. Because so many sites have had ever-present, top-down and side ‘navigation’ for so long it’s hard to persuade clients otherwise. The ‘rules’ are starting to stick.

As former D&AD President Simon Waterfall of Poke admits, ‘People don’t want to be entertained as much as serviced. Online art direction is now subservient to purpose and in an economic crunch clients want returns, not rewards from D&AD.’ You can see this shift in how Poke’s work has changed – once its Alexander McQueen site was a slow-loading but beautiful experience. Now? It’s still elegant, but its job is to sell. Poke’s Topshop site doesn’t look like much, but it takes huge amounts of cash because it works, offering fast, rotating views of keenly priced clothes. It’s unsurprising that many established interactive groups like All of Us and Digit are just as keen on installation design, a chance to avoid the pitfalls on online and flex their muscles.

In the short term, at least, things will keep simplifying. If Web design has become semi-skimmed, it becomes skinnier still when you consider designing for mobile devices. A recent survey showed that six out 50 US retailers had sites optimised for iPhone screens, surely a stat destined to change. Many of us will admire the elegant layout of a site like Monocle magazine’s, but in the time it takes to load you could scan most of the deliberately ‘undesigned’ Drudge Report or the front page of The New York Times online.

But there are still high-fat, high-broadband delights on offer. The US 3G network Sprint recently unveiled a fabulous stat-based ‘widget’ site that offers a panoply of statistical delights ticking over in real time in front of your eyes, taking live research from around the world while showing you the ‘top words being used online’ or documenting the number of ‘transplants today’. Marvellous. If we’re trying to adjust to a low-fat world, we’re going to need the occasional indulgence like this, every now and again.

Michael Johnson is creative director of Johnson Banks and editor of the Johnson Banks Thought for the Week

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