Web Design - A Commercial Art
Web design is a fascinating industry to be involved in, first and foremost because of the relationship between the Industry and the Art.
A quick browse through any online publication which takes design as its focus can land you on any number of ideas, falling somewhere on the spectrum which ranges from the purely functional, to the purely artistic – as a web design agency, you’re always going to be pulled between these two impulses.
It also means that any agency worth its weight in ROI is going need to have an ear to the ground and a finger on the pulse of design culture. Whilst web design forms but one facet of the vast sea of ‘design’ related disciplines, it is like all other artistic mediums influenced by similar art forms that exist around it. Sometimes by looking at the most extreme examples of what the design world has to offer, we can see glimpses of what might break into the mainstream further down the road. The twins (UX&UI) are growing closer and closer as apps and websites become more and more integrated, as technological advances provide the gears turning under the more and more visually appealing fronts we see in the programs we use every day.
Now let's take a brief look back at the history of web design, some of the biggest turning points, and some of the forerunners of modern web design trends...
Ever since Flash broke onto the scene in 1996, allowing designers to add shapes, animations, layouts, and other visual tools to shape webpages as never before, web design has continued to evolve as new technologies create artistic space for designers to work their magic.
Flash also serves as a case study to highlight the limitations technology imposes on creativity – following the honeymoon period, where web developers enjoyed charging a premium for a site with integrated graphics and animations, internet users soon grew tired of waiting up to a minute for a page to load, just because it had an animated logo or something similar cosmetic enhancement. As the average bandwidth grew, designers could return to more ambitious creative scopes. Yet to this day, practical limitations like loading times and cross-platform compatibility still act as boundaries for the ambitious designer.
The most important development in web design over the past decade is generally awarded to CSS, which allowed for what are now industry standards to become such; high-res photography, sharp typography, illustration, animation and intuitive layout dominate the web design space currently, yet none would be possible without the standardising of CSS and its steady stream of tweaks and upgrades. The cumulative effect has meant that web design now equals if not surpasses print media in how content can be presented.
If you’ll allow us a broad comparison, the artistic as well as functional limitations of webdesign are imposed by the technology they’re built on – just like another modern area of tech; videogames. Videogames struggle to be taken seriously as an art form, part of this perhaps being down to the fact that they are restricted by the tech powering the thing; books and film may have changed somewhat with the times, with E-Readers and 3D etc., but the fundamentals remain the same.
Webdesign can be see the same way- the format is limited by its function, be it an e-commerce, business-promotional or social site. Websites built for their own sake are rare, almost always undertaken as pet projects of designers seeking to break out of a mould, challenge a preconception, or simply work through an idea.
This type of innovation shouldn’t be ignored however: Gabocorp 1997, a website built by a webdesign agency which went so above and beyond anything that existed at the time, was done to prove a point as much as it was to promote their business. And now a full 20 years on, that build featured many current day industry standards, from animated load-in pages to responsive assets, buttons, and 3D-styled graphics.
These are some of the best examples to showcase how web design is starting to get a sense of its own history, as it passed through adolescence and into the industry we know today, which crafts the front pages of the internet. Every member of Angle’s staff considers themselves lucky to work in an industry that combines so much – tech, design and business relations – into a job that’s constantly presenting new challenges.
This is why we here at Angle make a point of keeping up with a whole range of developments across a spectrum of design and tech sources for inspiration, in the hope that we might be early adopters of The Next Big Thing. However, pioneering is all very well and good, but if you can’t get the basics right, you’ll get nowhere. The skill of the trade is finding a happy medium; making clients excited by your designs means striking a balance between both the new and the familiar. Visitors to your webpage should be taken in by your visuals, but not confused by your layout; discover something new, but still find what they came looking for.
‘Commercial Art’ is therefore a great label for what we do – finding beauty in functionality is key to any great consumer product; giants like Apple have been aware of this for a long time. A website plays by many of the same rules as any product; the aesthetic has to tell you something, sell you an experience, a feeling, and convey a sense of mission, regardless of how simple or base that might be. A good design gives you information that your brain registers without you even realising it – it can put you in the right frame of mind, just in the way that it presents the information which you haven’t even read yet. This is why there’s no such thing as a ‘boring’ or ‘boiler-plate’ design brief when it comes to bespoke design – the whole point of a build in this context is to create something for a specific purpose, that wouldn’t work for anything else. Web designers have had new labels thrown at them periodically. We're referred to as web engineers, designers, artists architects - you name it.
This speaks to a higher truth however, and that is in these relatively early days for the digital medium, the categorisations of the pre-digital age struggle to formulate an understanding of something so diverse an interdisciplinary. You won't hear us complaining though - we'll just keep on keeping on, looking to innovate where we can, and moving on from where we can't.