Why I hate designers.

MIT Admissions is going to be getting a new web site (thank God), but after spending a half hour on Friday looking at the pages of some prospective design firms, I’m all fired up to rant incoherently about bad web design.
I had to deal with a lot of this back when I was working for the MIT Webmasters (one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, mind you). We did a lot of work with outside designers, and it wasn’t uncommon to run into problems getting a job done because the desinger had no idea what the needs were for efficient, clean web publishing. When I worked for WCS (CWIS, as it was known back in the day), we were all about clean, functional, accesible design, something I fear has been all but left behind, judging by the new MIT home page and graphic identity. But even back then we seemed in the minority.
One of the main problems with a lot of design firms, as far as I could tell, was that they had started off designing for print and then, when the web boom hit, tried to capitalize on that market, thinking it was pretty much the same deal. Unfortunately, most of these transitioned print-cum-web designers had no idea what the technical demands of the medium were. They’d send us enormous image files that almost never stuck to the web-safe palette. They’d mock up the pages in Photoshop without considering how easy (or difficult, or impossible) it might be to create that layout in HTML. They seemed to have no idea that designing for the web is not set in stone the way print design is. When you print up a thousand pamphlets, chances are that every person who receives on will be looking at the exact same thing: colors, fonts, layout, &c. But when you make a web page, everyone who visits it will probably see something different, depending on their web browser, the resolution of their monitor, their operating system, whether they have their own browser settings override the page’s, and a host of other things. So many of the designers I worked with seemed unaware of these variables, or were simply unwilling to have anything less than total control over how the user experienced their design. This mentality leads to very bad web publishing.
Good use of any medium is defined by the creator’s ability to recognize what that medium offers which others don’t, and to use these unique aspects to improve the quality of the work. A movie adapted from a novel is only worthwhile if it takes advantage of what film offers that books cannot. So many designers fail to recognize the power of the web as a tool for massive information delivery. They instead see it as an excuse to play around with visual gimmicks like Flash. That’s not design, that’s masturbation.
And it drives me nuts. It drove me nuts four years ago, and I’m appalled to see that, even now that the web has matured a little, designers still don’t seem to have a clue. In some ways, it’s worse than ever; this rekindled frustration has prompted me to start writing something about what makes good web design. If I’m going to finally get a chance to yell at designers, I should have my thesis firm and strongly backed-up. So more to come.
In my first web search to see what sort of stuff has been written on the topic (yes, I am just arrogant and un-read about this — though do I feel my years of experience working in the field have given me more than a leg to stand on), I came across Web Pages That Suck, which is a great I-don’t-give-a-fuck stick-it-to-those-stupid-designers kind of page. Marvelous. Somebody’s with me.
As a final note, though, I’d like to say that there are actually designers out there who know what they’re doing. I’d like three cheers for these fine folks, since they work every day in the sea of cluelessness and pretention that is all too often the design world today. These people are brave, guiding lights, and deserve recognition as such, for the bulk of the business these days seems to be going to their incompetent competitors.
Maybe I should start my own design firm.
And, coming soon: Amrys’s Treatise on Good versus Bad Web Design.

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5 thoughts on “Why I hate designers.

  1. The fundamental problem with the Web is that is hasn’t matured at all, it’s just turned (largely) into something more recognizable, more categorizable: broadcast television. I’m pretty sure I’ve ranted to you about this before. What are the websites we bother with? HomeStar, news aggregators that just bounce major news sources to us, sites like /. and Plastic that let people masturbate about topics drawn from, you guessed it, broadcast news sources. What they have in common is that all we do is listen to them. No different from a TV, only (largely) less professionally-done. What real peer-to-peer stuff happens on the Web, happens on the fringes, and I’d wager that the vast majority of users don’t bother with ’em.
    After all, how many people on earth have Internet access? A quarter-billion? And how many regularly-updated blogs are there? Probably two million. (The numbers to substantiate this are likely floating around out there.) Lots of people share songs, but they share songs that they’ve heard on the goddamn radio, from major labels primarily.
    The WWW is not for talking, it’s for listening to the gatekeepers. The dream of one user, one page, one voice is gone (surprise!). And the blogosphere and P2P file-sharing are only trailers for what I imagine will follow. We can begin sounding the death-knell of HTML now, I think. Though I don’t know how to finish the lines: ‘The Web is dead, long live…er, um…’

  2. Dear AmShazam,
    As far as proper web design, one publication you may be very interested in checking out which follows your line of thought quite closely is the relatively recently published 2nd edition Yale Web Style Guide. (Available online at http://www.webstyleguide.com/ )
    It can be a bit overdone at times in its requirements, but I still think its a good starting point for anyone interested in this topic.
    BTW, I really appreciate your desire to make the MIT undergrad admissions page as accessible as possible, but don’t be too depressed about it. If it is of any solace, I can tell you as a student applying to undergrad that I have seen many undergrad admissions web pages FAR more poorly designed than MIT’s (no names). ๐Ÿ™‚
    I don’t pretend to be an expert, but – at least in my experience – MIT.edu is still a fairly efficient page as internet sites go.
    Warmly Yours,
    Sahil

  3. Thanks for the link. Seems pretty good, on a cursory viewing.
    Ah, don’t be too put off by my curmudgeonly back-in-the-day lamentations. This sort of thing is inevitable when you’ve been at MIT for five and a half years. You should hear the really crusty alums talk. ๐Ÿ˜‰
    Thanks for the plug on our admissions site. I’m sure some folks in the office would be pleased (yet befuddled) by the praise. Though I do agree with you that university web pages in general vary wildly in terms of quality. Some are incredibly intelligent in terms of content, organization, and design, some are simply fine, some have good content but 1996-era web styling, and some possess an organization and hierarchy that make them utterly incomprehensible and unnavigable. I’ve noticed this in poking around for grad school programs. It’s incredible.
    Well, when we’re done, our new web site should be totally hot as well as good.
    In the meantime, keep on fighting the good fight, people. It’s a rough world for us keepers of the good-design faith.

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