Evolve to design
1 July 2004
Design, like many things, relies more on history than you might expect. The well worn path created by the footfalls of those before you represents the evolution of years of experience. For every web site that has worked, many more have followed. For every web site that has failed, a few short, shuffling steps peter off into the woods.
Every time you visit Zeldman's site, or Bowman's site, or Cederholm's site, history is seeping further into your brain – the influences from their lives affect the way they design; the way they design influences your life. Presumably, you're reading their writing because they design well – their influences and practices are good design. All this is design evolution.
Are there, then, some designs which can evolve no further? All the weblogs you read have two columns: content and interesting side bits, and this seems to work pretty well – you're there to read, so a design should give plenty of space to the writing, but once you've finished reading you might find you're interested in what the writer's interested in, so you'd like to explore – hence the interesting side bits.
As a rather immature medium, the Internet hasn't had much time to evolve. Printed materials have been popular since Gutenburg found an easy way to make them in 1440, but monks had been going crazy with parchment centuries before that. As a primarily visual medium, it is natural that the Internet has borrowed much of its design from printed materials, but it is slowly making its own way. I think that the weblog is probably the highest evolved species of web site currently on the Internet. Fervent proliferation and intensive use has subjected the design to a good deal of testing and it seems to have suffered punishment thusfar with no glaring faults.
Good designers have an understanding of when to follow the path and when to be different. Paperback books all come in pretty much the same shape: a vaguely vertical rectangle that fits in both hands. If you were designing the latest tome from Stephen King's factory, what shape would it be? A vaguely vertical rectangle that fits in both hands? People have tried it, and it works.
I'm not saying that all weblogs should look exactly the same, but a designer has to have strong reasons to go against the two column convention; and has all the reason to go with it. People read a novel for the content, not because the cover folds out in a really cool way. (We're talking novels, not coffee table books) To write off a weblog because you're bored with the "blog look" merely means that you don't understand what design is meant to achieve.
Go crazy with the font, choose whacky colours, filter the hell out of curious photos – make the site your own – but the underlying structure is something that you probably can't beat. As with any design, it's not how you break something, but how you work within it that shows your true skill.
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