Milton Glaser’s Dylan poster. Paul Rand’s IBM logo. Paula Scher’s Public Theater posters. Massimo Vignelli’s New York subway map. Kyle Cooper’s Seven opening titles. These are only a few landmark projects of our profession. Design solutions that, in their consistent use as exemplary cases of execution, concept and process, don’t even need to be shown anymore and that, for better or worse, (almost) everyone acknowledges as being seminal works that reflect the goals that graphic design strives for: A visual solution that not only enables, but also transcends, the message to become memorable in the eyes and minds of viewers. Whether these projects are indeed as amazing, relevant and enviable as we have built them up to be is cause for a separate discussion but it’s safe to say that, as far as designs recognized around the profession, there are a certain few that invariably make the list, usually without question. Myself, I could list projects in every category from logos, to annual reports, to magazine covers, to packaging, to typefaces, to opening titles that could be considered landmark projects… But when it comes to web sites, I can’t think of a single www that could be comparable — in gravitas, praise, or memorability — as any of the few projects I just mentioned. Could this be?
Perhaps it’s the short lifespan of the web that hasn’t allowed any specific web site to become a de facto choice for design immortality; but Seven was released in 1995, becoming an instant classic, so age is not quite an issue. Or maybe it’s the perennially ephemeral nature of the web, where web sites can change every year, month or week if desired, rendering the sense of commitment less ominous than that of printed or branded matter. It could also be the giant amount of crap that one has to wade through on the internet, but not much more than the amount of bad logos, brochures or signs found day in and day out. Or maybe I’m just thinking about this the wrong way.
Certainly, web sites are a different breed of design project than any of the above, but the same principles apply: How do you render information in a manner that is understandable, memorable and pleasing to the end user? Whether this happens on a single, large piece of paper, or across 200 smaller pages, or on a glass bottle, or on web browsers around the world should only serve to focus the intent and output of the designer. Yet, when it comes to web design it’s rare that all elements — functionality, clarity of information, and subjective beauty — come together to create a result that is widely admired, recognized or lauded in the same vein as anything resembling the likes of Saul Bass’ AT&T logo, or Susan Kare’s icons for the original Mac OS.
It would be easy to say “well, google.com” and add it to the Great Design canon but, really? Sure, as a search engine it’s not encumbered by the more-is-more malady that plagues Yahoo! or MSN, but aesthetically it is anything but pleasing: A logo made up of primary colors with a bevel and drop shadow, default blue links in Arial, two buttons and a few other sprinkled text links centered on a page. Doesn’t sound like a winner, does it? In its simplicity the statement is more manifesto than design. On the other extrene, information-heavy sites are a thing of beauty in the way they parse all that data, like nytimes.com, but I’m seldom moved or inspired by the design. Even graphic designers’ web sites seem to falter at the challenge — cool, pretty, typographically acute, and then not much else. Micro sites for Nike, Virgin or any other large brand are usually fluffy eye candy, gratifying for a couple of minutes and its biggest compliment is to win one of any interactive awards — and if you’ve tried looking at those on printed magazines like HOW or Print you might as well be looking at drawings made on rice grains.
As a designer who has made half of his livelihood and most of his (limited) notoriety online, I am by no means belittling the work of web designers or the relevance and influence that the discipline has, but as a “traditional” designer, obsessed with what has been done before and how that establishes expectations on the rest of our work, I am really interested in this lack of Pinnaclism (for lack of a better sounding term) in web design. And just to rectify, this is not an argument about print versus web, and the supremacy of one over the other. Rather, an honest question about what makes a great web site and, even more challenging, what web sites could be considered landmarks for our profession?