Yes, web design has a future.

Filed September 27th, 2010 under Web Technologies

Cameron Chapman’s recent article in Smashing Magazine titled Does The Future Of The Internet Have Room For Web Designers practically begs me to respond. Chapman knows how to craft a brilliantly provocative article. But that doesn’t mean she’s right – and she’s not.

The crux of Chapman’s argument is that the importance of presentation layers is waning. She argues that design is irrelevant for most users, that devices are beginning to integrate connective functionality, and that content aggregators like Facebook are dominating (and limiting) the extent of average user interaction online. She concludes that the real value moving forward will not be in the presentation layer but in the content itself.

For the record, Chapman believes what she says. The above is a screenshot from the site for one of her books, Internet Famous. This should give us pause. Look, I’m not suggesting that this approach hasn’t been successful for her – who knows, maybe it’s been a great success – but her design gives us an intuitive sense of the quality of the product.

Maybe that intuition is wrong! (I’m not trying to be overly critical here – really) As they say, don’t judge a book by its cover – but how can we entirely avoid drawing conclusions? This is the first way in which presentation layers really do matter. Your content can be great, but if its designed in this way, your potential customers are obviously going to formulate their opinions before they crack open the first page.

In short, design impacts purchasing decisions and preferences. That matters – and in a big way.

Presentation Layers

I’ll back up a bit here.

When I refer to presentation layers I’m talking about the form of the content. Information itself is formless. So we can distinguish between content and its presentation layer. The internet has really radicalized this distinction, because it’s now possible to mux content and form in rapid, sometimes spontaneous ways. Of course, it’s always been possible to do this – but the internet makes it easier, and way, way faster.

When users interact with information now, they can do so on their own terms. They can use RSS feeds, iPads, and mobile devices of all sorts of shapes – heck, even internet-enabled fridges. So there’s a growing sense of trepidation in our community that users don’t care either way about how content looks – but whether or not it’s useful or meaningful to them.

But I don’t think that tells the whole story.

RSS Feeds and iPhones and iPads, oh my!

Most of these new layers are actually where really innovative design is happening. In fact, the most popular devices on these new layers – the iOS products – are entirely premised on quality design and artistry. And that extends beyond the engineering of the products themselves. From Objective-C applications, to HTML5 apps and mobile sites, the entire iOS experience is centered around the notion that design powerfully impacts the ease and enjoyment of user interaction – and more importantly, people are willing to pay for it.

Of course, there are counter examples. RSS feeds in particular really attempt to break away the form of the content. And the idea of Facebook’s walled garden seems to scare some people in the design industry the same way that RSS feeds do. But both of these mediums are still fundamentally gateways to the outside. They haven’t hampered interactivity or the need for design – they’ve amplified it, by powerfully accelerating the pace of discovery.

But what about templates and themes?

Chapman’s article points to the strength of theme and template markets as another reason to expect the erosion of the design industry. But again, I think this is exactly the wrong conclusion to make.

Look, the reality is that custom design work isn’t always necessary. If you’re a small business, with no e-commerce activity, and little interest in online marketing then there’s simply very little reason to fork over thousands of dollars for a custom design. The ROI is questionable at best, so it just doesn’t make sense.

But this has always been the case. It’s never made sense for brick-and-mortar businesses without strong cash flows and/or an immediate sense of how being online can help their business to invest the time, and energy into online branding. It’s just that now the cost of entry is so low, that the ROI for a basic, template-based site actually does start to make a little bit of sense. Particularly if there’s an expectation for basic information about business online.

A market opportunity

The point here is that the primary market for themes and templates wasn’t the market for custom web design in the first place. It’s not cannibalizing our work, or our industry. In fact, the increased demand for themes and templates has created new revenue possibilities that didn’t exist five years ago. This is a good thing.

The Future of Information Design

The future of web design is really the future of information design. This sounds a little funny only because we’ve come to form very strong associations between web design and desktop internet browser design. For a long time, the two were synonymous. But that’s not true any more. So maybe it’ll be helpful if we start to think about these ideas in bigger ways.

The future of information design is in providing cohesive cross-layer branding, with a strong focus on usability and depth of interaction. New devices, and new ways of accessing content aren’t a death knell for our industry. They are signs of a prosperous future. With so many new layers, our work is becoming more intricate, more technical, and more specialized than ever.

And every one of these changes is a market opportunity. It’s an opportunity for old designers to make new use of their expertise, and for new designers to find their strengths. Oh, and an opportunity not just to stay in business, but to do remarkable things.

Joshua Kelly
Director of Human/Machine Synthesis

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