I’m not a designer, but I play one on this blog

I’ve been mulling over three posts on web design: Speak Up’s Landmark Web Sites, Where Art Thou?, Dan Saffer’s Making Stuff vs. Making Stuff Up, and Khoi Vinh’s Something’s Missing in Web Design, which links to the first two.

First — in case you are reading this in a feed reader, it may not be obvious — I am not a designer. I rely on web design, I occasionally implement and, arguably, create web designs, and I have deeply considered and well-informed opinions about web design, but I can’t say that a designer is who I am. I’m bothering to painfully spell this out, because I think it might matter that I’m not a capital D designer.

So, the Speak Up piece is built around “an honest question about what makes a great web site and, even more challenging, what web sites could be considered landmarks for our profession?” Now, I’m not sure landmarks is the right metaphor here, but more on that in a minute. First, what the search is really for:

…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.

I’m thinking the reason there isn’t that sort of Pinnaclism is that the web is too mutable, and landmarks have a sense, if not of timelesslness, than at least of history — one that the web usually doesn’t reflect. I mean, Amazon’s famous tab structure (so good Steve Krug could have married it) isn’t there anymore.

Now, Vinh says that:

I’d go so far as to say that the majority of the Web design field, by and large, is too easily motivated by technique, that the majority of us are thinking tactically far more often than we’re thinking strategically.

I think he’s probably right about that. How else to explain the sudden obsessions with css-based rounded corners, the yellow fade technique, or tableless layouts? (Fine, fine: I’ll grant that tableless layouts really are morally superior.) One reason I think a lot of the web design field is motivated by technique? New technical tricks are just cool to web developers, and the web design/dev line gets fuzzier all the time… Not to mention that too often, web design from designers can translate into “here, look, I’ve sliced this up in Photoshop.” Technique is more interesting than that, because it’s more playful and alive than that.

Vinh connects this to Saffer’s post, talking about

divorcing “thinking” from “making” reduces design to “concepting.” And while concepting is valuable, concepts are much easier to have than finished products. Almost anyone can have a concept.

…which isn’t so much the problem, the problem is that:

It is in the detail work that design really happens — that the clever, delightful moments of a design occur. Those are as important, if not more so, than the concept itself. The details are where we earn our money and our respect, and the details can only be worked out through making stuff

This brings me back to the landmark idea again, and how it seems off to me. First, I’m just too stuck in my thinking of landmarks being tangible, immovable things, and that doesn’ fit with the web for me. I don’t think of landmark sites, I think of pivotal moments: the first time I saw the CSS Zen Garden, or when I discovered Zeldman’s A List Apart, or when the first pages I created came back as valid XHTML and CSS, or when — I’ll admit it — I fell for Blogger’s “push-button publishing for the people” in the biggest way.

Blogging is when I started working out the details through making stuff online.

Not just me, but thousands of folks learned how to mess with the templates, and later to migrate to Movable Type and set up accounts on our rented server space using our own domain names. Then we learned more and maybe shifted to WordPress and figured out enough PHP to customize even more, and worked with plugins and themes to make our sites do what we wanted them to do. People might complain about the ugliness of MySpace, or the widget-overloaded sidebars on some blogs, but those things can be seen as the democratization of design.

I’m not a designer, but I still want to get my hands dirty. I want designers — of systems, of themes, of the software I use — to have dirty hands, too. I want designers to be thinking strategically when it comes to the web and to give up the desire for pixel-perfect control that just gets in my way. (I want fonts I can read without bumping up the size, thank you very much. And don’t get me started on locking text in flash.) I want more designers to struggle in public with social design.

Landmarks aren’t what’s missing. Maybe more collaboration — outside of interactive agency offices — is what’s missing. Maybe the sense that real people and not personas living on the other end of the browser is what’s missing. I believe that design can help real people solve real problems. I don’t believe all web design reflects that possibility, and I wish more of it did.