Do Canonical Web Designs Exist?

Armin Vit at Speak Up asks: Where are the canonical web designs?

“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?”

Armin then goes and mentions the obvious answer: Google.

But this is not an acceptable answer for him, because…wait for it…the logo sucks.

To talk about Google in terms of its logo has long been a pastime for people who care about logos. For years I’ve heard the same argument from people who want nothing more than to get rid of the “Mickey Mouse” logo, as it is often described.

Armin’s point is that while Google seems to be better than Yahoo, it is still plagued with a bad logo. He’s not “moved or inspired” by the design. Therefore, he reasons, it is not canonical design. Canonical design, in his mind, is one that practitioners of the medium look to as exemplary.

But, frankly, I think Armin has missed his own point. He wants to know what web designers see as canonical, but he’s dismissing the obvious answer because it doesn’t fit into his canonical mold of graphic design. In other words, he’s looking at Google from a graphic design perspective, when web designers necessarily have to look at it from an interaction design perspective.

If Armin were to ask web designers and web development teams what the canonical web designs are, he would get very clear answers.

The first answer would indeed be Google. Google has, for nearly ten years, provided the best search engine on the Web. It is the standard by which all other search engines are compared. In the exact same way that Massimo Vignelli’s New York subway map has affected the design of subway maps since, Google has affected the design of search engines. I know design teams that have copied the search results pages of Google almost exactly simply because it was the design that Google used.

I also know a tremendous number of web designers who look to the spartan Google homepage as inspiration that great tools don’t need complex interfaces.

So if a “landmark” or “canonical” design means that it affects all design afterward, then Google certainly fits the bill.

Amazon also fits into that category. Amazon’s checkout process was the standard by which all checkout processes were measured for years. Their product reviews are the standard by which design teams the world over create product reviews. Their tabbed interface set the standard…their recommendation system…etc. Amazon pioneered so many things that seem commonplace now that you would be hard-pressed to find a more influential example.

Talk to web designers, product managers, and other web professionals, and these are the sites they’ll mention. Don’t talk just to people who build brochure sites…all they talk about is graphic design. Your answers will be the same as above. But talk to web designers and developers, and they’ll start talking about when Amazon added that extra row of tabs and quickly realized their mistake. It has become legend.

eBay has set the standard for auction sites. Social network sites are changing the world as we know it. Thousands and thousands of web designers are retooling their arsenal of features, layouts, and screen flows because these sites have completely changed the game.

So if its influence you want, you’ve got it. To borrow Armin’s own words “as far as designs recognized around the profession, there are a certain few that invariably make the list, usually without question”. Google. Amazon. Facebook. eBay. Yahoo. Craigslist. YouTube.

Do they have “gravitas, praise, or memorability”? Yes, they certainly do in the minds of web designers.

Will they be praised by print designers and put into large coffee table books? No, of course not.

You can’t appreciate a web site in the same way you appreciate a logo or a poster. When a logo works, it makes you think certain things. Makes you think about the company, their influence, their reach. It’s about branding. The IBM logo suggests a solidity, the rock that is Big Blue. At this point, after you’ve thought these things, you’re done. There is nothing else to do. Maybe you’ll consider their products in the future.

When a web site works, on the other hand, you’re using it to do something. You might be looking for your next favorite book on Amazon, or searching for a critical piece of information on Google. You’re using the web site…interacting with it, having an experience that, contrary to logos, involves you. You are inputting information, asking questions, getting answers.

So, as a web designer, there is no analog to “look at this logo and see how it stands for a company”. That’s relatively easy for graphic designers because we can quickly appreciate the way a logo graphically depicts some attribute of the company: “solid, blue, Big Blue, trustworthy”. Even if we don’t like the company or if its never done anything good for us, we can make this judgment of the design of the logo.

But in web design, we can’t pass such sophisticated judgment on a design without having an actual experience with the web application itself. Without actually experiencing the value first-hand, we can’t look at a web site and say “hey, that web site is well designed because it represents the company well”. This is the primary disconnect when talking about judging great web design. You’ve got to experience it in a real way to know if it is great.

So while Armin doesn’t want this to be about graphic vs. web design, it has to be at some level because web designers necessarily approach design from a different perspective than graphic designers.

Graphic designers can judge by looking. Web designers cannot. Web designers must judge by doing (or observing others doing). The problem is that too many people judge web designs without actually using them. Instead, they look. When you use the shortcut of looking, you tend to judge what you’re looking at: the visuals. But when you use something, your relationship to that thing necessarily changes. I wonder how often Armin uses Google.

That’s why web design is different. Peer production, in particular, is extremely different. When I buy a book on Amazon, when you buy a book, we change the way the site works for someone else buying books, which is in turn changed by the reviews we write afterward. Is this not amazing design?

Comparing the best web design with the best graphic design is a fool’s errand because they are celebrated differently by the very people in the profession. Graphic designers tend to memorialize their achievements, make heroes out of the top designers. Its easy to do, since individuals were the ones who actually created the designs. Milton Glaser. Paul Rand. Easy targets for appreciation.

Who do we credit for building Google? Larry and Sergei? How about Amazon? Jeff Bezos? People in the web development community know this is silly…thousands and thousands of people have worked on those sites, tweaking the user experience over many years. There is no single person we can point our accolades to. That’s part of the reason why I can’t make a list like Armin did…specific projects by specific people.

And this brings up another point. When someone is known for doing something good, their future work is colored by it. So all the logos that Paul Rand designed after the IBM logo were put up on a pedestal. Even if they weren’t so good. In web design, there are so many people working on something that it is hard to attribute a success to an individual, and so there are few legendary designers we can point to.

In addition, in web design there is no single design element like a logo we can point to in praise. You never see a product review standing by itself like you do the IBM logo. Web design needs the context of the site to make sense. A logo does not.

The lore of web design is different than the lore of printed design. Print design produces artifacts that do not change. Web design produces applications that do.

Is Google a technical achievement? Absolutely. Does that mean it isn’t a design achievement? No. It’s an astounding design achievement to make Google work the way it does. To enter a query and get a relevant response in under a second while searching the *entire* web is a design achievement that has few equals. Some may say this is simply “engineering” and dismiss it. But engineering takes planning, and that planning is design.

But, you ask, does Google look great? Eh. But at some point we have to ask: how would the experience be different if it did look better? Would it have any affect on the people who use it? (I use it in my browser, so I rarely see the logo in question anyway) Maybe designers would talk about it more, but geez they are already talking about it a lot as it is.

What would the world be like if everything were beautiful? Is that even possible?

My practical side says that whether or not Google moves the aesthetic sensibilities is irrelevant as long as people enjoy using it. That’s the important metric: use. Judging Google on aesthetics is like judging the Great Wall of China on its color of brick. It’s possible…but you’re missing the entire value proposition.

And, it goes without saying that lots of people find Google just fine aesthetically.

So, as a designer, do I worry that Google has a lousy logo? No…and I don’t think many web designers do. Most web designers know that the value of Google is in its utility, not its appearance. Can it still be canonical? Absolutely.

As usual, the crux of this discussion comes down to what we mean when we say “good design”. Do we mean the way something looks, as so many of the people who commented on Armin’s post seem to be saying? Or do we mean the way it affects us over time? Or perhaps how useful something is?

This is not an easy answer, and whatever answer you tend to subscribe to is going to change the way you look at Armin’s problem.

As for me, I tend to follow Steve Jobs on this one when he says “design is how something works”. Granted, this is a broad definition of design, but really, it seems to fit, doesn’t it? When design does what we want it to, we say “it works well”. Google works well. Amazon works well.

And to those folks who say “what Armin is saying is that design might as well look good, too” I say “we’ve already agreed that aesthetics are subjective…we will eventually run out of air for this conversation”.

Khoi Vinh of Subtraction, in reading Armin’s tea leaves, laments that web design is growing boring. After suggesting that too many designers are moving away from actually building things (which I agree with), he says that it is having an adverse affect:

“What that leaves is an enormous and unfulfilled gap in the middle which, while it’s not entirely unoccupied, is sparsely populated. And that’s our problem. We don’t have enough designers who do both (think and design); we have a polarized industry right now, and the result, as Armin tactfully alludes to in his article, is that Web design is really boring. Sorry, but it’s true.”

Web design is anything but boring. Look at what is happening with Facebook right now. They are exploring a new paradigm of social design. Can we build recommendation systems that inform us while not pissing us off? What part of social interaction can we model next? Are there social relationships we can’t model? Shouldn’t model?

If you think logos are interesting, what about the question: “What does it mean to be a fan of a for-profit company?”

These are the design challenges that lay before the web designer and to me are much more interesting than looking for a canonical web design. They are anything but boring.

I daresay these questions are more complicated than anything a graphic designer has ever been challenged with. The reason? They involve the person who is receiving the message and how that person responds. Two-way communication is harder than one-way. The biggest reason why it is harder is that accountability emerges as the conversation progresses…

Later, in the comments, Armin clarifies what he’s looking for:

“I find it a little too stubborn to keep saying that web sites are experiences and as such, not one, can be pinpointed as great or exemplifying of the medium.”

A great experience? How do you think that Google trumped all the other search engines and achieved a majority market share in the face of staggering competition? How do you think Amazon creates such passion in its users? Netflix? eBay? Craigslist?

And exemplifying the medium? Try to think of the Web and not think of Google!

The web is not suffering from a lack of canonical design. It’s just that canonical design on the web isn’t as glamorous as some want it to be.

Published: November 14th, 2007