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Web '98: Prognostication, November 29, 1998 :: Ben Turner's Soapbox

 

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archived soapbox: November 29, 1998
"Web '98: Prognostication" [permalink]
    keywords: web, internet
    soapbox #: 164
    written: November 29, 1998
    words: 2346

"Web '98: Prognostication", an Essay

If you're a web designer, where do you go?

The HTML newsgroups on Usenet are full of the techies, the people who work more with the detailed aspects of HTML and Perl and programming for the Web. As such, they're less inclined to be creative with their web site designs, and they're more critical of new technologies, because they want the Web to remain accessible. Fancy front-ends are silly and hindering.

The HTML web sites give the usual riff about selecting web-safe colors and making sure markup (mistakenly called "code") works in several browsers and in their several different builds. Sites like Web Monkey and builder.com produce fairly shallow guides which don't really teach one how to do anything. Microsoft's SiteBuilder Network is actually one of the best places to go, because it provides examples of what you can do with the latest tech, and it gives you pretty good specs on what's allowed and what's not, at least in Internet Explorer.

Recently, I've subjected myself to the various HTML mailing lists from Hesketh and Web Monkey and the Web Standards Project. These lists are much more inviting because the designers are more creative and more colorful -- their skills vary, but some are experts in backend software, some in Flash, others in Photoshop. These are people I could actually learn from -- HTML in itself is fairly inert and after working with it for a few years, what's deprecated and what's newly added becomes second nature. So at least after giving up on the first two methods of communicating amongst web designers (Usenet and the Web), this alternative is at least palatable.

Although that's not saying much. Mailing lists are a pain in the ass in themselves because from life to death, mailing lists struggle to stop from being flamegrounds with no objective or useful content. It's inevitable -- the policing of it just pisses people off. And the people on the mailing lists are not exactly the big boys who create the cool stuff...they're the copycats. Like me. ;)

So where are the real web designers at? Do they actually hang out with each other? Who are the people who design CNN.com and c|net and Victoria's Secret (yes, it's online now) and hotwired.com? These are the people who have the largest audiences and who receive the most cash for their overpriced web services. So where are they?

The mailing lists, as well as the company I work with now, have been teaching me a lot about corporate web design. As I told my boss (who is very cool), I grew up on the Web just making web pages for fun, not for profit. Personal site authoring is more about creativity and expression and not about clickthroughs and stringent paths you must take. Applying that to corporate design, which is what I'm doing a lot of now, is not easy. While it is important to retain one's style and identity when developing a corporate site, you must also consider how serious people are about making money, and how much people rely on the superstitions that tiny little things done to a web site will equal thousands upon thousands of dollars of extra profit.

I'm young. I'm a very young person on the Web given what I do, which is design sites for companies. Instead of growing up with a business degree or through print ad agencies, I just tinkered with graphics and HTML until I got things that looked nice (how do I best make this look like an MTV commercial?). My attitude's quite a bit different from the older generations who are producing most web sites now. It brings a lot of headaches, especially from people who don't think I can do my job. ;)

I'm the snotty, immature, inexperienced brat kid that other designers like to ignore. When I voice my opinion to other web designers, they dissect and profile me based on the shit that's on my site. Fun, fun, fun.

But, after getting to know the habits and behaviors of these so-called corporate web designers, I'm not really that impressed. I'm not sure they understand what potential they're sitting on for creativity within the confines of intelligent framework and navigation.

For these people, it's all about money. I understand how important it is to businesses to make money, and I'm not knocking intelligent business practices. But I've seen very little attempt to retain the creativity, enthusiasm, and innocent enjoyment that web designers should be getting out of working with this medium.

Would you guys at least try to act like you enjoy this stuff? It's not enough that you're paid way too much for creating sub-par work... You also have to disavow any responsibility for putting the humanity back into bland, boring, "I'm a navigation cell and I'm on the left side and he's a text cell and he's on the right side!" sites?

As a classic example, some designers trash GaboCorp, one of the first sites done in Flash scripting, created by a 19 year old kid, as being completely inadequate for real-world use in web sites. Some designers are completely oblivious to the fact that as the Web grows more advanced, image quality and sound quality will increase, and web sites will become a lot more like kiosk displays or at least more scripted and presentational. What we have now are crude tools, but things are changing.

It's the kids who create the new, cool stuff...not the people who didn't grow up the Internet, and who only use the 'Net to make money and to check their e-mail.

How can I get away with saying that? Well, just look at the people who own the sites I read the most and admire the most? There's Puce, of puce.com, a woman who I cannot stop complimenting for her boldness in putting revealing, honest, and even sexual thoughts online. She's 20, I think. There's Dhabih Eng, who is an awesome illustrator with keen color sense, and who has done artwork for Half-Life and for some gaming mags. He's 19, or 20. There's Gabo Mendoza, of the afore-mentioned GaboCorp (he has his own personal site, didja know?), who is pretty much a household name among web designers now. He's 19 or 20. Those are the three that I tend to talk about the most. I believe they've all had significant impacts on my experiences online. They have an honesty about them, a sincerity, which other people lack.

So all the big web design companies that design the big sites...and then people like Lance Arthur and Derek Powazek, two people I respect a lot (and who have long lists of credentials)...they just don't contribute much to the mailing lists and such... You hear very little out of them, and I have no problem with that. They probably don't see these mailing lists or whatever as being useful to them. Completely understood, if that's the case.

The people who do the good stuff are usually the people you hear least from. ;)

And what about personal sites? Well, I've repeatedly roasted other personal sites, even though deep down I feel like I should thank them for continuing (okay okay, most sites completely BITE and deserve no credit for anything), but I must admit that at least personal sites are less encumbered by corporate-style designs and linear thinking. Personal sites are done by people who USE the 'Net instead of abuse it. They do things like change their designs every other week, or throw up random content every other day, or just go wild with their own sites. They use ICQ to chat, they play Starcraft online, that sort of thing. They do things like contribute their reviews of books and albums to amazon.com and cdnow.com... And I mention that because I think it's interesting that actual people can now have their own thoughts posted on big sites like borders.com. I wonder if people have contests regarding who writes the most reviews, or if the book/music sites watch the reviewers and see who the best reviewers are so they can laud or hire them. I think the review contributions are a seriously cool part of the Web, and I hope it really takes off in some creative form or another. I think I've only written one review, and that was for borders.com... I would like to write more, I think, since (like at amazon.com) I use other peoples' reviews religiously to determine whether an album is worth shelling out the cash for or not...

Anyway, this is not to say I am retracting my disgust towards personal sites, but I don't want people to think I just hate them without me ever personally talking to them. I bet the woman behind 9flights.com, Jason Kottke of 0sil8.com (one of the best typeface addicts I've found), and Ben Brown of FlabJab and benbrown.com hate me after the ambiguous things I said about them in a previous 'Box... Truth is, I haven't really talked with any of them so who am I to judge?

Riddle me this one, folks... Where do you think web designers eventually want to be? Personally, I think most designers aspire to eventually work on the big name sites like nbc.com or microsoft.com or pepsi.com or something. Big company = lots of exposure for a sole web designer. Wouldn't it be cool to add your own personal flavor to a site that's viewed by millions of people? Wouldn't it be cool to control what people see? I think that's how designers view things. Or at least, I hope that's not just me. ;)

But does this not lead to false hope for web designers? The big name sites are also big-time bores, for the most part, and you're probably not allowed to insert your own ideas into the content or design very often. What web designers probably want most is the freedom to design a page without having to listen to anyone else's designs, or incorporate others' work. That will never happen for a big site, so placing the goal up there seems to be fruitless. Where are we web designers going?

Personal site authors want hits, which lead to exposure, which usually leads to work, which then leads to...well, not that much money. Web designers don't earn a LOT, and even the big-name folks don't make millions. So what we're working towards is no personal expression and above-average salaries. There are no patrons for web designers -- artistic and creative content is not rewarded well in this medium, monetarily. One doesn't even get the exposure that one would making films, or making TV shows.

Obviously, web design has to lead into something else, because the most lucrative and creative forms of expression are not going to be found cropping images for a web page... I'm not sure if many are thinking that far ahead yet, but to me, that seems the way it has to go. Maybe things will change -- maybe the 'Net will prosper as the rest of the world gets hooked up and everyone becomes even more engrossed and reliant on the 'Net than even now.

But until that point gets here, what I spot as a trend is that the web designer community is becoming more and more like other media communities -- so mired in their own outdated and stuffed suited notions that they don't take advantage of what's at their fingertips. It's becoming less and less enjoyable conversing with other people who use the Web, and about the only interesting people are the people who completely suck at web design, but who are only recreational authors with cool content on their web sites.

Web designers really think that they're doing something different and original, when in fact they're becoming more and more like the dreaded, old fogey ad agencies every day. The Web's idling fast. Maybe it's the fact that the major browsers are slow on the version updates and on adding features that normal people can use without learning whole scripting languages first. It's really a shame, because I'm finding it harder and harder to find people to identify with who do the same job I do.

You get the person who does web design for a living, and he'll tell you about the boring details of how good a job he thought he did... You get the newbie who makes no money off working on the Web, so it's hard to talk about web design with him. Where're the people in between? Where are the people who know that making Javascript rollovers does not make a site creative, yet adding persistent ways to personalize sites is?

I myself? I think I've been given crash courses in corporate culture, and I feel like I've dealt with it responsibly enough that I can incorporate it into my personal style of design. Hopefully, the end result will be something good, something unique, something fresh.

I would like to become famous and wealthy through combining successful ideas into one single, solid philosophy, a conglomeration of all the best evolutions, a system open to growth and adaptation. I would like to succeed where so many of these other punks I have to deal with every day have failed. ;) It's going to take a younger, fresher attitude to accomplish that.

On that note, I'll bid thee adieu, and hope that you have understood what I've just written and find it relevant and useful. I hope that what I'm saying is received well, and taken to heart, because I believe that the Web is losing out on what it's best at...it's not pulling out the big guns it has.


 
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