Why Mr Web Design changed direction
By David Walker (Google profile)
Cutting-edge Web design has begun its retreat. For confirmation, you need only talk to David Siegel, perhaps the world's best-known Web designer. He's given up cutting-edge design altogether. "I am not trying to win any design awards for my clients any more", he says startlingly.
More than anyone, Siegel can lay claim to being the father of Web design. With his 1996 book Creating Killer Web Sites he declared HTML's transformation from a structural language to a presentation language. He defined the art, wrote the new rules, and popularised page-layout tricks like the invisible single-pixel GIF. He created one of the finest personal sites ever made. He made the best-designed Web sites famous at his High Five site. He also set out his great expectations for the nearby future. By 1997, he wrote in Creating Killer Web Sites, "Web pages will sing, they will dance, they will be alive with movement".
But now the father of Web design has dumped his would-be glamorous spouse and taken up with Miss Sensible-Shoes down the street. His design firm, Studio Verso, isn't pushing the boundaries High-Five-style. Instead, it builds Web sites unashamedly aimed at the lowest common denominator browsers - version 3.0 of Navigator and Internet Explorer. So the sites of 1998 look uncommonly like the 1995 sites that populated Creating Killer Web Sites. The art has not advanced substantially. Most Web pages neither dance nor sing.
Web design has stalled
Siegel argues that Web browser technology isn't letting designers break new ground. "Site design evolves, but it is haphazard ... A lot of these things are stuck," he remarks, trying to sound matter-of-fact. "I wish we could get out of this trap". You can hear the dashed hopes.
Siegel blames the dueling browser-makers, particularly, for stunting the Web's evolution with conflicting versions of HTML. The browser wars have helped slow to a crawl the take-up of technologies like Dynamic HTML. About a year ago, Studio Verso gave up creating separate sites for different browsers; it took too much work.
At the same time, Siegel recognises many Web pundits too willingly accepted their own and others' hype. He recalls all those press releases "on the cool technology that turns out to be less exciting than we thought" - Dynamic HTML, Java, push and the like.
He also notes that the focus of Web design efforts has moved to applications build by IT specialists. "The IT department is in the back room working to create the next big e-commerce systems," he says. "It's very much an application-driven Web right now".
Beauty doesn't wow the visitors
But Siegel does accept one final reason why the beautiful sites he pointed to in 1995 and 1996 have not gained ground. Consumers didn't like them. Take Discovery Channel Online, which once boasted one of the Web's most elegant opening pages. The site has returned to a more conventional and less exciting scrollable table of contents. Most lovers of Web design would deplore the change. But as Siegel notes, Discovery carefully tests all elements of its site with its users - and the less beautiful site tested much better.
David Siegel doesn't even really design Web sites any more. These days he advises companies on Web strategy; shorewalker.com's interview with him arose out of a visit to Sydney to talk to clients of Internet researchers www.consult. He wants more companies to build sites focused on the needs of their different customer groups, and to cater particularly to the most profitable customers. And he's writing a new book on customer-oriented Web sites - not killer sites, but sites that just get the job done.