Alice Rawsthorn is an internationally renowned journalist and currently writes the design column for the International Herald Tribune, the worldwide version of the New York Times. *Her column from January 6, 2013 starts out with the best of intentions: it seeks to answer the question of what constitutes good and bad web design. Rawsthorn expresses her frustration at trying to navigate a bewildering site like that for the Tate Museum in London, and states that a good website should be both efficient and engaging. Stylish software and animated menus look lovely on the designer’s computer, she says, but takes ages to load on an older machine with a slower Internet connection. Rawsthorn’s examples of well-designed websites include the Milwaukee Police Department’s interactive live-sourced site, and a London bistro called Quo Vadis, which is made to look like an old-time newspaper.
While she brings up some excellent points about bloated website design and the need for usability, Rawsthorn’s opinions have drawn criticism from the web design community for over-simplifying the issue. A website’s design has to function as a marketing tool as well as a source of information, drawing customers in and ensuring that they return. But the world of the web is not like conventional architecture or interior design. While the basic framework of a building has remained more or less constant for millennia, the web is constantly evolving to accommodate new technologies, and web design is still a relatively new medium, a form-function mishmash that must play catch-up to a changing wave of customer demands. It’s important to recognize that the issues of good and bad web design are far more complicated than just laying blame on a bad designer; there are many stages where a website can flounder, including a bad wireframe or an outdated content management system. It’s also worth recognizing that web design has had a very chaotic history.
Computer technology has grown more complex with each generation, and has done so at a shatteringly exponential rate. But web design wasn’t nearly as streamlined in its infancy, even compared to the Wild-West days of 1980s hardware options. The World Wide Web, in its modern iteration, burst into homes in the early 1990s, riding a wave of amateur hackers, engineering experiments, and self-made experts. Programming languages were hardly standardized, but that chaos paled in comparison to the larger philosophical problem of what could be done with this brand new Information Superhighway. The web is ubiquitous now, but in the earliest years it was a baffling new toy; it’s not surprising that most people and companies didn’t really know how to wield it. Anyone who lived in the era of Netscape Explorer and free Geocities web pages will remember with a shudder how a standard web page looked; even official pages for movies or universities looked like they had been thrown together in an afternoon. Modern websites look much better, but they still have to accommodate new mobile requirements as well as older browsers like Internet Explorer 6.0. It’s a delicate balancing act, and it becomes even more precarious when you take potential content management systems and server issues into account.
With each new generation of desktop or mobile device, web design must refine itself to fit increasing consumer demands. Does this excuse a bloated site with confusing navigation or impossibly long load times? Of course not. However, the idea of “good” design is more than just what can be seen on the surface. Art museums with confusing navigation and handbag designers with eye-rolling animated menus may have misstepped, but they’re trying to figure out how to stand apart from the crowd in their niche, and they’re working with whatever resources are available. The Milwaukee PD website, which Rawsthorn adores, is technologically impressive but far fussier than it needs to be. In the end, good web design is the culmination of the mistakes of the past, the possibilities of the future, and the best fit to present-day demands.