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“Yay for standards, but they are killing design”

“Yay for standards, but they are killing design”. Heather Champ on the monotony and inflexibility of standardization.

Reader comments

Chris ThompsonOct 22, 2004 at 5:07PM

I think that Zen Garden disproves this, if her point is that the standards prevent the flexibility that designers need.

Is it harder than deeply nested tables and 1px spacer gifs? It can be, especially trying to maintain the same look across browsers. But it's not impossible.

My site is pure XHTML with CSS layout. It looks "mostly the same" in Mozilla and IE. "Same Enough" if you will. It wasn't hard for me, though I'm a geek, not a designer.

And yes, I do know that my page currently doesn't validate because of a few little issues that I haven't had time to fix. But I know what they are and where, and am only needing the time.

MattOct 22, 2004 at 5:24PM

I dunno. There are definitely some trends and I'm as tired of the drop shadow side thing as anyone else, but looking at all the design blogs I read, they're all quite different looking and break the mold by and large.

There are millions of blogs out there with actually the same 3 or 4 templates, but those people aren't designers and I can excuse them for using the Blogger/MT/TP/WP defaults.

All that said, I do agree that 0sil8 needs to come back. Now. Stop blogging. Make more 0sil8!

BillOct 22, 2004 at 5:27PM

I think she means the standard 2-column/3-column designs used by weblogs and other CMS-based sites as opposed to xhtml/css design.

DavidOct 22, 2004 at 5:41PM

I think Feed Readers are also to blame. If you think most of your content is going to be consumed in a text-only application, you tend to focus less on the design. I also think that most bloggers don't care much about design, even if they should. When I set up my Mom's blog, her only directive was "Purple!" she didn't really care about the standards, even though they came along with the typepad standard templates.

Anil DashOct 22, 2004 at 5:51PM

Your mom has good taste, David.

More to the point, I think it's a question of goals. As always, design has to be appropriate for its audience. in Microsoft Word uses Times New Roman and that's fine. It's fine because the point of the template is to get out of the way and let the writer communicate. I think of default blog templates the same way.

I love Heather, but the web standards thing is a red herring. Sites were plenty boring and monotonous before the rise of XHTML and CSS.

The thing to consider is behavior. People using default templates are doing so because (1) it doesn't matter, since all they care about is their words and (2) it's too hard to change them. I'm lucky because I get to see people working to improve the second problem, but the first part *isn't* a problem, it's great.

There are lots of people coming on to the web and publishing who don't care about aesthetics, they just care about getting their message out. In the same way that monospaced courier fonts don't make an email less meaningful, a default template with the blue bar at the top doesn't make a blog less compelling. It might be less visually interesting, and certainly isn't appropriate if one's audience is a collection of aesthetes, but most of us aren't fortunate enough to have that be the case.

I long for the day when the web is full of boring templates filled with boring content that's only compelling to the 4 or 5 blood relatives and close friends who know and love the author of the site. My mom couldn't make a site that was so ugly I wouldn't read it. And the people I know who are creative geniuses will make compelling sites no matter what, and in fact their creativity is usually amplified by whatever constraints are placed upon them, either by standards or circumstance.

RaphyOct 22, 2004 at 5:54PM

mmmm, Red Herring.

ernieOct 22, 2004 at 5:59PM

Zen Garden inspired me to leave TABLEs in the dust. Then some pay work came up that required an intricate form be reproduced in HTML, with tons of fields and checkboxes that had to be placed a certain way and it was back to 1px spacers and nested tables.

Jeremy FlintOct 22, 2004 at 6:10PM

I think that standards have actually helped design, forcing designers to look past using tables and creating something with CSS. I have seen my own design ideas changes as a result of what I now know is possible with CSS that wasn't possible with tables.

I think the arguement of standards killing design really depends on what kind of sites you look at the most. If they are blogs, they are, by and large, going to be column-based just because that works well with the content.

I agree with Anil that the same 2- and 3-column sites were around when tables ruled the web. Content drives design, and when you have lots of content, it just looks better in columns.

sjcOct 22, 2004 at 6:13PM

Yay for Heather!

I long for the day when the web is full of boring templates filled with boring content that's only compelling to the 4 or 5 blood relatives and close friends who know and love the author of the site.

Sorry, what web are you looking at? Because you just described the Web, and especially the blogosphere, as is right now. And, while web standards may contribute to a lack of design adventureness -- there is only one way, and that is our way, ohmmmmm -- your company is public enemy no. 1 when it comes to awful template/website design. Sure, text isn't bound by its design, and good writing will be compelling no matter what, but MT/Typepad's default templates are clusterfucks of info/visual design.

redOct 22, 2004 at 6:18PM

I agree with Heather. and I think the templatization of personal websites has definitely gotten out of contol. I think [HTML-savvy] people have forgotten to explore other ways of delivering their content thanks to the romance with the "efficiency" of publishing tools. in a way, it's just a natural byproduct of implementing: 1) a comment system, and 2) archiving/bookmarking. it's a hassle just having to think about them to begin with -- not particularly "fun" tasks unless you are a web developer.

sjcOct 22, 2004 at 6:26PM

To clarify on web standards:

While I think it's noble to make sure that web browsers agree on how to implement HTML, CSS, JavaScript, et. al. -- which was the original goal of web standards -- it now seems to have mutated into a methodology for designers to use strict CSS layouts instead of TABLEs. Suddenly, web standards shifted away from getting Microsoft and Netscape to agree on W3C conventions and became this movement to separate content from design, and I'm not entirely sure how that happened.

Dinu.Oct 22, 2004 at 6:34PM

SJC, aren't you kinda missing the point about SixApart? I mean, their mandate isn't to make the web pretty, theyre out there to make the web accessible to people who want to use it. They've provided Typepad and MT as ways to speed up and automate web publishing, with ridiculously successful results. The web you seem to sneer at is a result of that (and of course the groundbreaking work at Blogger and all the others), so they're public enemy number one to you. But to the legions of people who use the software to quickly and painlessly post their thoughts and musings and whinings (etc., etc., etc.) this is nothing short of a miracle. They implement a template, then they get to put up their writings without ever having to see any scary scary html.

So if you're so against the web as we know it, then start doing something about it. Start a site that puts out pretty free templates that are different from the existing paradigm. It is so easy to bitch at 6A for making the web ugly, but they can't hear you because their ears are stuffed with the money they've made from their "clusterfucks of info/visual design".

heatherOct 22, 2004 at 6:49PM

anil is lying... he doesn't love me.

to clarify, the main target of my rant is the templatization of the web and *not* standards. i shouldn't have included it without fully explaining myself as it has only confused my point.

...then start doing something about it. Start a site that puts out pretty free templates that are different from the existing paradigm.


MikeOct 22, 2004 at 7:00PM

Standards aren't killing design; laziness is.

The promise of standards is that content and presentation are presented kosher. The irony is that in seperating the two we've developed a few looks that basically scream "Look, I'm one of those people using standards." I shouldn't be able to tell by looking at a site whether it's standards compliant.

Then again, why bother designing things that are just gonna get sucked down via rss feeds?

Hopefully Six Apart's recent hire of ESPN's Creative Director will get some lively templates out there soon. Possibly even Flash-driven.

Dave S.Oct 22, 2004 at 8:22PM

Yeesh, a sentence featuring the words 'standards' and 'web' is bound to cause no end of arguments completely unrelated to the point at hand.

For what it's worth, I'm completely with Heather on this one. There are way too many two-column blog-like template sites out there.

Then again, there are a heck of a lot of sites that require that format. Unless you're into horizontal scrollbars or Hemingway-style editing, even a slightly long-ish article is going to grow vertically long in a hurry. Text is nice and popular these days, I've been noticing... there are only so many creative interpretations of a 500-line blog post before you start pissing off your audience.

So, the nature of what's being published is dictating the design. While I'm bored by two columns, fact is they are, after all, well-designed. Expected and snooze-worthy, sure. Aesthetic junk, sometimes. High art, not a chance. But good design? They solve visual problems and facilitate the flow of information in a logical, structured, and usable way. That's good design in my books.

GeoffOct 22, 2004 at 8:25PM

I think there is plenty of excellent design around these days. It seems that everyone is complaining about blog design, but blogs aren't the only thing on the internet (although since starting my own I have been completely engulfed in them and can see how it's hard to see past them once you get involved). Also, she criticizes blogs for being boring, and then point to a non-blog site as her example of better more intersting design?

How 'bout linking to some blogs with good design so we can all go rip use them as inspiration in coming up with new designs and layouts.

I think because the nature of the blog, and what they are used for (communication) they will be stuck to a certain general design until someone can come up with a better way of doing it. In the blogosphere usability trumps design and I think that's how most people like it.

jojoOct 22, 2004 at 8:39PM

It's the age old cry from designers who complain about too much content.

A short timeline of electronic publishing, in reverse:
Present Day:
- Two/Three column weblog-like layouts all trying to be standards compliant. To quote Marathon:
"They're Everywhere!"

5 years ago:
Two/Three column online newspaper layouts abound.

8 years ago:
Gray backrounds are soooo 1995. Same goes for [table border=2]. "Look! I can put bright red text on a
crazy bright blue patterned background, and have a midi file play 'we built this city' on the page load while the
word 'Welcome' blinks at you! I'm a web designer!"

10 years ago:
Designers flock to the printed magazine Raygun. Looks great, but you can't read the articles.

18 years ago:
"Look! I have 30 fonts on my computer, and I used them all in our company newsletter! I'm a Designer!"

25 years ago:
"Please completely fill in the answer's corresponding circle using a number 2 pencil."

All this time, paperbacks, newspapers, magazines, et al continue to plod along using the evil two/three column layout.

The way I see it, there are two/three problems plagueing web design AW (after weblogs).

1. Lengthy content. While there is no *gasp* standard, the average line of text should contain less than
80 characters to be readable (and 80 is being slightly generous). Say, perhaps, your average blog post
contains 500 words of ~ 7 letters. Say the writer uses 4 paragraphs. 3500 chars / 4 = 875 chars per paragraph.
875 / 80 chars per line = ~11 lines per graph (that's a big paragraph). Where else is the content to go but in a verticle column?

Combine that with the fact that, yes, the page will have to scroll. It's very difficult to have a two/three
column format where those columns continue with the same story, (ie: 1st column ends then starts in
2nd column). Hard for readers who've scrolled to the bottom of the page.

If we read longer lines, I'd have built a mouse with a horizontal scroll wheel and retired on my own island.

2/. Development time vs maintaining content. Building something that is cool, innovative, and utilizes
custom development takes time. Most of that time (mine, at least), is spent on clients. Yes, my family would go
without shoes were I a cobbler. If I'm lucky, and not sick of seeing what I've been developing, I may
have time to implement some of that custom, cool, innovative stuff on my own works. Hopefully, I'll be
working for a client and won't have time. Then, you have the freshness issue. Are people going to blog
sites for 3-d flash animations of database schemas, or to get a bit of news? Which one of those is easier
to keep fresh?

/3. It's textual content. The one example, osil8, she cites has little if any textual content.

A book is a book is a book. If you want people to read it, it has to be easy to read.

sixfoot6Oct 23, 2004 at 3:20AM

I've got some experimental CSS/XHTML weblog design under my belt, and I do much prefer a creatively designed site to a default-templated one. I feel a little turned off when I encounter a weblog with an out-of box template design.

But I'm with jojo and Anil on this. Many people care more about text than design, and just as many people (myself sometimes included) have at times settled for something more generic in a site because we didn't have time for development.

I imagine that what Heather's really responding to is the shift in the type of authors and the priorities of authors whose sites she encounters on a daily basis. Four or five years ago, everyone's personal site was home grown, and anybody leet enough to know about Blogger was a designer type who wouldn't be caught dead with its default tempalte (half the people on this thread included) because we felt design was important. Now that there are more tools available to more people (everybody and his brother knows about 'web logs') we read more and more sites created by people who can't customize and don't care. I miss the old days, too.

My site went episodal for a while (0sil8 style) because I was unemployed and had big ideas. I'm more nostalgic for that period of time than for any other in my webby life. I learned stuff. My site felt alive.

But as Dave and jojo said, what can text really do other than wrap into a tall column or two? Horizontal scroll? Overflow:auto? Each paragraph with its own purple number and pop-up window? Where can menus and archive links go other than on the side? Where can paperback page numbers live other than the top, the bottom, or the corner of a page?

Heather, if you want to start a campaign to generate a new generation of incredibly varied free site templates that are Blogger, MT, and WordPress ready, I'm in. But with 10 million non-designers publishing, how many new templates will it take before the web seems to have more variety?

Maybe it's time for a whole new design strategy for tools .

KrisOct 23, 2004 at 11:14AM

Something of a repetition of what's already been said, but hell, I'll post it anyway:

One *can* make a good argument that democratization of the web also leads to a sameness in design. The more people who get online and do "this" as a hobby the less design will be employed. That's what happens when you make a new technology accessible. It doesn't necessarily mean that good design can't happen, just that high-quality innovative design will remain the domain of people with time and money (like most things in life.)

Perhaps the democratic revolution in design (a la Michael Graves in Target) will eventually come to the web, and I think it will (as others have said above, it requires the talent, dedication, and passion of the *true* online designers to come up with templates or easy to implement designs for the masses.)

kareemOct 23, 2004 at 12:49PM

Hopefully Six Apart's recent hire of ESPN's Creative Director will get some lively templates out there soon. Possibly even Flash-driven.

Where did you see this nugget?

GinaOct 23, 2004 at 2:58PM

The fact that the ratio of templates to original designs is shifting means that the ratio of regular people to web designers with web sites is also shifting.

Nostalgia aside, like Anil said, this is a good thing.

I wish that designers would offer up more "open source" designs, templates and HTML/CSS snippets, the way developers offer up lots of open source code. It always bugs the crap out of me (open source developer here) when usabillity folks and designers complain about the low quality design and IA on open source dev projects.

If you don't like it, well then, get in there and contribute.

GinaOct 23, 2004 at 4:15PM

Hmm, I should probably do research before I start talking about stuff I don't know about.

Open Source Web Design exists and seems fairly active.

nick sweeneyOct 24, 2004 at 2:58AM

OΓΉ sont les homepages d'antan?

One point: blogging/publishing systems tend to come with really shitty templates, because they're not built by people with design sensibilities. Or perhaps because good, individualised design can't be templated.

Another point is that in The Web Before Blogs, people worked on iterations of their sites, re-launched, took stuff offline when they relaunched, and didn't feel compelled to keep their old shit or retrofit it. Now, with the emphasis on regular updates, it's apparently a Bad Thing to spend time fucking about with design elements.

But it's up to the people who remember TWBB to remind people what can be done. That most definitely includes you, dear lovely Ms Champ Powazek. And get your husband back to work on it, as well.

Oh, and more 0sil8, please. If ever a site needed a resurrection...

CZOct 25, 2004 at 8:10PM

One point: blogging/publishing systems tend to come with really shitty templates, because they're not built by people with design sensibilities. Or perhaps because good, individualised design can't be templated.

Oh, I wouldn't say that. For the most part, they're awfully good, really. Have you seen the new Blogger templates? They're superb.

But they can seem cheap and 'shitty' after you see them a thousand times.
You get desensitized to 'em.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.