The following is a description I wrote for a web design course proposal I was creating for Carnegie Mellon University back in November, 2009. I got too busy, and never actually submitted it (I didn’t even get beyond this description). Nevertheless, I’ll stand behind the assertions it makes, and think it’s largely still relevant today.
When I first caught wind of Ethan Marcotte’s responsive web design approach, it struck a chord with me in a big way – largely because it outlined a practical approach that directly addressed many of the concerns expressed here. A special thanks to him and his work for helping push web design where it needs to be going. There’s stil lots to do, friends. Let’s keep at it.
Designers often seem to approach designing for the web as they do print. They seek to impose absolute order, carefully crafting a design through the meticulous placement of each pixel. These designers wish for every viewer to see their design just as it appears on their screen: a perfect, unchanging work of beauty.
The web, however, presents us with vastly different design problems than print, requiring both a philosophical approach and practical implementation appropriate to its mercurial nature. Unlike a printed piece of paper, finalized at press check, information conveyed through the Internet is fluid. Users access constantly changing or user-specific information through a variety of browsers, on different operating systems, with different displays, on desktop, laptop, and mobile devices, with different capabilities and varied download speeds. To be successful in this world of flux we must embrace change, and plan for the unexpected. Open-ended solutions and flexibility are prized over visual finesse, and cleverly malleable information design systems hold far greater value than a perfectly-kerned headline set in a stunning new typeface.
Operating successfully in this environment requires an understanding of the history of the web: how we went from bulletin board systems to bloated Flash sites, to flexible user-generated content. Only by starting with this trajectory can we begin to plan for where we might be heading.
But more importantly for designers, the web requires a seismic philosophical shift. Good design on the web requires letting go, losing a bit of control, and operating under difficult constraints. It means compromise, and focusing more than ever on the needs of your audience over your own visual preferences. In this way, good web design is unselfish. We will learn in this course to set aside our pride in creating perfect beautiful things, in favor of providing the most possible users with the optimum experience; getting them to the information and interactions they require as quickly as possible, with the lowest level of frustration. We will design for user experience and human need. We will ask why we design the way we do, and if it truly serves the needs of the end user. We will design to make the web not just a prettier place, but a better one.