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"Web Design, Stagnation of"

Okay, I'm not going to write for an hour or two about how boring and lifeless web sites have become. I'm past that, I think, now that I understand a little more of what makes web sites work, and know what sorts of people design web sites.

I don't feel as though web designers give enough of their own personal opinions of the Web. That was one reason I joined a lot of web design mailing lists and endured 100-300 e-mails a day, for a bit. Recently, since I'm feeling extremely hostile towards other people, I quit those lists, basically feeling that I had gotten all I would from those lists, for now. As a sidenote, it was not because the people were stupid or anything -- in fact, if I ever get into heavy web site backend stuff, or Shockwave or whatever, mailing lists are definitely where I'm going to first. But for now, I've seen who's out there, who's in the trenches. An eclectic, motley little bunch, indeed.

My goal is to have a little discussion with myself about where web design has come from, and where it's going. I feel that the Web has lost the mystique and enthusiasm that it once had up until maybe a year or two ago. Why is this? Well, I think Web users, and designers specifically, have come to expect what to see out of the Web. It's hard to break out of that mold, once it happens -- things were different when the Web first broke out into mainstream, because the first designers got to start with fresh canvases. They didn't have any conventional media they had to play up to.

The big thing which has hurt the progress in web design and innovation being put into the Web is the web browsers. Let's face it -- up until now, we've been thrown dozens of upgrades and version updates from Mosaic, Netscape, and Microsoft (Lynx and Opera being more sensible about it), all telling us that the next version will include everything we could ever hope for as users and designers.

Netscape and Microsoft are now at version 4 of their browsers, with version 5 coming along very soon. But we've had version 4 forever, and nothing new has really come out since then, except patches to cover up huge security holes in the new scripting languages like ActiveX and Javascript.

I think that a lot of the energy fueling the progress of web design came from having so many new features to play with in the browsers as they released new versions. The other part of it was that those features were easy to add, being HTML tags. The features we have now are much more difficult to add, since web design has become more of an exercise in complicated graphics work and heavy scripting. We don't add <FONT FACE="Times New Roman"> any more -- we add 50 line Javascriptlets, which require pretty good programming/scripting skills if you're going to accomodate your original script to work with the flawed implementations of Javascript in Navigator and Internet Explorer. Imagine having to make your code NOT work in order to get it to work. Yeah, fun.

This means that the barrier to entry for web design is getting higher and higher. I was a teen in high school when I began web design, and I was learning HTML on a 20MHz computer. Navigator ran like absolute shit on my system, but I sat there waiting for my little page to render because I enjoyed it so much. Web design was very easy to learn if you began that long ago. Now, it's much harder.

So now we don't have any new features to play with. We're sitting here, squeezing blood out of rocks, trying to come up with every possible use for every feature currently available on the big browsers, and time's running out. We can't rely simply on fancy HTML and CSS tricks.

There has to be something more.

There will be a lot of activity when the final versions of Navigator 5 and Internet Explorer 5 are released, I'm sure of that. Those who are still not bored with designing web sites will have fun playing with the more reliable rendering engines and added features. That's what the pre-release hype has told us. Netscape, as you might know, has promised us FULL HTML 4 support, plus FULL CSS2 support, and many other standards-compliant goodies. Obviously, they are trying to draw enthusiasm for their product from the growing Linux open source movement, since first they released their code, and now they're pushing standards.

Netscape was and still is the bad boy of web standards. Sorry, but their HTML support has been lousy and their stylesheet (CSS) support is laughable. Java loads like shit on Navigator 4.08 and 4.5, taking about a minute to initiate some Java applets. And now that Netscape has claimed to changed its mind about everything, web designers actually believe them! Now, maybe Netscape HAS created a good thing, and certainly the project team in charge of adding the new engine (the Mozilla Project) is full of great people, I'm still skeptical. How can you expect Netscape to improve the quality of its product THAT much?

Microsoft, for all its evils, has a pretty good browser, except that it can bring down your whole computer when it crashes, and it still isn't all that standards-compliant. Its caching is seriously flawed. Although I use Navigator 4.08 primarily, I still regard Internet Explorer 4.01 a better browser to view properly done web sites in. I encounter far fewer problems when I write HTML in IE, than in Navigator.

But from what I hear, Internet Explorer 5 won't be adding all that much. I had been hoping they would improve the stylesheet support, so that by the time IE 6 comes out, I can begin writing fully HTML-compliant web sites with stylesheet support to add style and color and all that good stuff. I refuse to install the betas of IE 5 because of how badly IE 4 betas screwed up my last computer. But friends have told me not to expect anything amazing. I DO like IE's Javascript event handlers and built-in functions and such, though.

I don't know -- I think there should be some group out there that decides to infuse more creativity and artistic talent into the Web. Sure, there are those sites like High Five which reward cool-looking sites. But let's be honest with ourselves -- the winning sites are often full of obfuscated interfaces and puzzling content, invoking a reaction of awe and respect, through utter confusion and incomprehensibility. In other words, it's cool because you don't understand it, yet it looks pretty nice. Case in point: Fellini's "Satyricon". Did anyone really understand it? But it sure looked perty, or so all the reviews say.

I'm not saying what Lance Arthur did, when he wrote the article on A List Apart (an excellent web designers' site, I might add) about how personal site authors should just let loose on their personal sites and create something high-bandwidth, plugin friendly, and such in order to push the envelope. But I do want to see more experimentation taking place by people who understand art and interfaces (that is, artists and people with backgrounds in designing kiosks and automated service machines), so that we all have a better model to learn from. In the end, I'd like to see more experimentation taking place such that it affects what we see on the big sites like CNN and Amazon. Now, I know who a few of the people are who work on sites like these, and I can see hints of coolness on those sites, but I also know that there's a fierce tendency from the more conservative people to want the plain-Jane navigation-bar-on-the-left-side,-content-on-the-right-side style of site. There's much more to creativity than layout, most assuredly, but no one really tries anymore to do different things.

I for one think I'm just going to build a full screen 1024x768 prototype at some point, laden with large images and complicated Javascript, just to see what I can do. I still feel like my skills at web design go largely untested by what I do at work, and I would like to spread my wings a bit more and see what I am capable of. Maybe what I'm saying IS what Lance Arthur wanted us web designers to do.

Web design is losing its focus, anyway. What has already become crucial to developing web sites is the backend -- that is, providing ways to poll information from databases onto a web site, allowing customers to purchase reliably through a site, and exchanging data with the user in order to provide the right content to them. Sure, web sites have almost become more flexible versions of trademarks and brandings, since they have their own looks and such, so where the meat of the sites is is in their content. Finally companies realize that. I'm finding it easier these days to rifle through sites on the Web and find the info I'm looking for. Am I alone here? Search boxes and archives and histories seem to be much more prominently displayed on sites, allowing me to find the content I need easier.

It's interesting to monitor the trends -- web design is beginning to be less important, both in what it allows people to do and what part it plays in putting up web sites. In the underground, sites go up every day and go down the same day, throwing up splices of different content, kind of a cyberpunkish kind of thing. Some sites must reliably be there, like the news sites and company sites, while others, with illegally obtained material are ephemeral. I like seeing people throwing up web pages with descriptions on how to build dual Celeron systems, or where to obtain the latest Nintendo 64 ROMs, or where the best deals for a product are. (Buy.com made a typo and sold a 19" monitor for $200-something, and it spread over the 'Net like wildfire) It doesn't matter what the page these individuals make looks like -- the information is what's important. Isn't that what the Web is all about? I'm glad to see that the Web is still being utilized as a medium for instant communication. As Jon Katz commented on (and was criticized for being too vague), walls are coming down, and individuals have the power to post information. Now, you're thinking this is nothing new. Well, in the past, anyone could post a web site, but they sure as Hell couldn't get anyone to see it or know about it. But now just one person can get the support of sites with active readers, and with a link from one or two other sites, one guy's little story can be read by tens of thousands of people the same day. The individual has exposure now.

But I've strayed from my original topic. It's getting more and more difficult being a web designer, which is really the way I like it, but web design will always be more about what the site can do for a company (sales, marketing, etc.) rather than what aesthetic appreciation the site can garner for itself. So is what I'm doing just basically creating online commercials and advertisements now? Is it something I can continue doing? Could it still benefit from an influx of artistic talent to inspire the more technically savvy web designers (and technically savvy they are, knowing a lot more about overclocking a Celeron than of the lives of Dali and Monet) of today? These are some of the questions to be answered for the future, for web designers.

Meanwhile, appreciation of art is on the decline and the energy of the open source movement (Can you say ugliness? Linux can!) is on the upswing. Which is not to say that I'm an har-teest, or an opponent of Linux -- in fact, it's quite the opposite for both -- but these trends do make even the most naive of web designers worry about expanding their skillsets.

To me, that's a good thing. Say bye bye, you hacks.

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