is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
For a year-end round-up on the state of Web design that ran last week over at Publish.com, I provided, among other quotes, this little bit of crankyism: “There’s so little illustration, photography and adventurous typography going on [in Web design], that I genuinely worry that we’ll never match the heights of graphic design achieved in the last century.”
Now, I know that there are lots of terrific designers out there doing genuinely daring work today; I grant that freely. But it’s reasonable to say that the vast majority of that work can be tagged with the familiar descriptors ‘personal’ and ‘experimental.’ There’s absolutely nothing wrong with design created for those ends; I applaud and admire those who are making genuine efforts to push the medium forward with excursions into the non-commercial, because they’re doing important advance work upon which the rest of us will eventually feed.
However, with respect to what I was talking about — the commercial application of our craft — there remains, to my mind, a somewhat conspicuous gap in its practice: almost without exception, the Web is a medium in which all of us design and almost none of us art direct. I think of the former as a mode of work that’s closely wedded to execution, whether that means pushing pixels in Photoshop, bringing ideas to life in code or even ‘directing’ teams of designers in the development of a design solution.
Thrilling Stories of Design Ambition
Art direction, on the other hand, is somewhat more difficult to explain in that it entails a generally more expansive definition of design. Certainly, when one art directs, one deals with execution and the practical matters that must be overcome to bring an idea to life. But art direction is also more deeply entwined in the development of an idea, and in expressing that idea through a larger narrative — both in the sense of a more ambitious, less practically-minded creative process as well as in the final product, which makes liberal use of storytelling in the invisible spaces between typography, color, shapes and illustrations.
These are clumsy arguments, to be sure. But after giving that quote to Publish.com, I happened to come across a perfect example of how different art direction is from design when I wandered past a used bookstore one morning and spotted a hardback copy of “Alexey Brodovitch,” a portfolio of the pioneering art director’s work at Harper’s Bazaar magazine. This book is a catalog from a 1998 Paris exhibition of Brodovitch’s work, but it almost completely eschews long-winded prose in favor of luxurious, true-to-size reproductions of some of his most ground-breaking page spreads.
Designers & Co.
In each of these, there’s a sweeping creative ambition at work that bends every bit of content into its own compact, engrossing narrative: typography plays wildly and sparsely across wide expanses of negative space, interacting brazenly with gorgeous illustrations and photography. And it’s that juxtaposition of a designer’s spatial intuition alongside richly visual raw materials that is one of the hallmarks of art direction: a willingness to reach beyond the pasteboard, physical or virtual, and a willingness to tap into the creative repositories of other artisans. Brodovitch would have been a legend on his own merits, but he also played a pivotal role in bringing the visions of major photographers to bear: Richard Avedon, Man Ray and Henri Cartier-Bresson, among many others. It’s a much more encompassing, much further-reaching vision of what design can be than just reflective user interfaces, cascading style sheets, remote scripting and even strides in productivity.
After poring over these pages, many of which I’ve never before been able to see at a size much larger than a thumbnail, I started to realize how impoverished Web design can really be. It’s not just the richness of the printed page that makes HTML-rendered design pale by comparison; it’s the richness of storytelling, too.
At this stage in the development of Web design, we have become, I think, engrossed thoroughly by the practical difficulty (and the legitimate challenges) of achieving aesthetically rewarding user interfaces. As a result, our focus has become trained almost exclusively on designing platforms, on investing our innovation efforts within the infrastructure of our design solutions — in navigation conventions, mnemonic devices, user inputs, system feedback, etc. And we’ve given up, at least for now, on the opportunity to innovate within the presentation, the shaping of visual constructions specific to a given piece of content. We might design an aesthetically impressive delivery mechanism for the news, say, but we haven’t yet developed aesthetically rewarding presentations of the news (or, admittedly, of fake news). Partly because of the limitations of our technology and partly because of a lack of ambition, we’ve resigned ourselves to building beautiful Web sites, but not in building beautiful expressions within them.
All of which sounds like grousing, I realize, but I’m optimistic. First, because I think our current case of “platform distraction” represents an important building block towards a Web that is more conducive to the kinds of rich visual executions I’m talking about — in the larger arc of design’s journey into the digital age, it’s still very early yet. Also, I have a great faith in the human attraction to storytelling — we look for stories in everything we do, and with every new medium we progressively increase our demands for greater, more immersive storytelling techniques. The evolution of that kind of demand will soon create a need not just for creative visionaries who can design online spaces, but also for those who can art direct a compelling narrative through them. That’s what I want to see, and that’s what I want to do.+