The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Turning the corner: Designing for Web 2.0

– September 28th, 2005 –

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. What will it mean to design in this industry in the coming years, and how will we, as designers, have to adapt in order to get the most out of it?

But before I talk about that, I’d like to talk about design. What is it? More importantly what has it become? And how will it be in the future?

So, What is it? A brief history.

For many years now, design has been viewed as being aesthetic. Design equals How Something Looks. You see this attitude to design in every part of society - clothing design to interior design, less so in product design, and yes, in web design.

Years ago, when I was a lad…. No, seriously. Years ago, when the web first went mainstream we saw designers move to it from a number of industries - architecture, print design and multimedia (cd-rom and kiosk) design. They all brought with them a way of working which was almost exclusively associated with the aesthetic. Designing nice looking stuff for the web.

Then along came the people from HCI backgrounds and the social sciences and said ‘Hang on a minute, whilst these website’s look nice, they aren’t very usable’, and so was born the whole usability thing.

At about the same time, businesses realised that their sites were becoming a bit of a mess. So, they asked some people from library sciences to come along and join the party and Information Architecture was born.

So, we had Designers making things look nice, Usability experts arguing with the Designers about links must be blue and Information Architects sitting quietly making lists.

Thankfully that is, mostly, in the past.

What has it become?

After that splintering of the design profession (I’ll come back to this), we ended up with a faceted industry. By that I mean, lot’s of highly specialised fields. At the time of the big crash, the industry could not sustain so many experts and we had to multi-task. all of a sudden if you wanted to get by the web you had to know PHP, Javascipt, IA, Flash, be a cracking designer as well as a first rate Information Architect. Oh, and you had to be pretty good at making tea too.

That was still the case up until a few months ago. And I guess this is the whole point to this post. We are on the cusp of something here. I can smell it.

How will it be in the future?

Web 2.0 is all the thing at the moment. Silly, silly name if you ask me. And no, I’m not going to explain it because I don’t really know myself. I think Web 2.0 represents a change, that’s all. Not only a change in the way the internet works, and is driven, and interacted with, but a change in the industry itself.

I believe there will be a return to design no longer being associated with just the asthetic. If you’ve read this site before, you probably know what I think about design. I think design covers so much more than the aesthetic. Design is fundamentally more. Design is usability. It is Information Architecture. It is Accessibility. This is all design.

A few years ago, when there were silly job titles around, designer’s also fell into that trap of trying to differenciate themselves from ‘those designers who just make things look nice’. We had ‘User Experience Designer’, ‘Usability Designer’, ‘VP of UI’ - you know, silly things like that. Now, I call myself a ‘Designer ‘- plain and simple - and thankfully I’m beginning to think the industry, clients included, are beginning to understand what I’m talking about.

Designers in the coming years, I feel, will have to embrace aspects of design that have long been pushed aside by the, rather bullish, aesthetic. We need to embrace problem solving, not just visual problems either. We need to embrace the history of design - the craft of design - in order to understand the rules behind the aesthtic stuff we’ve been doing all these years. When we do, we’ll find that these rules have been based on solving problems - not on how things look, but how they work.

Designing for Web 2.0 will not be about technology for designers. No? No, it will be about people. It will be about designing stuff that people use and all that goes along with it. It will be simpler, better and more rewarding for designers but only if we let go of the aesthetic and grab hold of the other stuff.

Ok. Don’t say I didn’t warn you …

Filed in: design.

Further reading