Something’s Missing in Web Design

Two mildly controversial and seemingly unrelated blog posts were written last week that you shouldn’t miss. First, on Tuesday, Armin Vit asked “Where are all the ‘landmark’ Web sites?” over at Speak Up. His contention is that we have yet to see examples of Web design in the fashion of “Milton Glaser’s Dylan poster; Paul Rand’s IBM logo; Paula Scher’s Public Theater posters; Massimo Vignelli’s New York subway map; [and] Kyle Cooper’s ‘Sevenopening titles.” In short, Armin claims that the practice of design online has yet to produce its own canon of seminal and iconic works that can stand their own in the history books of the profession.

Then, over at our very own A Brief Message on Thursday, interaction designer extraordinaire Dan Saffer argues that making stuff is better than making stuff up. “It is in the detail work that design really happens — that the clever, delightful moments of a design occur,” he asserts. “Those are as important, if not more so, than the concept itself.” It’s a provocative argument that seeks to let a little air out of the notion that designers have more to offer as thinkers and planners than as craftspeople.

Naturally, I have an interest in pointing folks to Dan’s excellent article because of my involvement as publisher at A Brief Message (keep clicking on those ads, folks). But I refer to it here not just out of self-interest, but also because I think that, though uncoordinated, both of these posts actually tackle the same issue from different vantage points. Or, rather, I should say that Dan’s post, in a roundabout way, provides an answer to Armin’s post.


The Air Up There

Dan works at Adaptive Path, one of the most well-respected interaction design studios in the world, and he has successfully and deservedly cultivated a reputation as one of his discipline’s brightest thinkers. If you saw his “Learning Interaction Design from Las Vegas” talk at last year’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival, you’ll agree with me.

It’s conjecture on my part then, but I’d guess that because of his position he breathes a rarefied vocational air. That is, he works in an environment where what’s expected of the best designers, by and large, is that they will ‘graduate’ to less tactical duties, away from the grind of doing design and towards a mode where they mostly think and talk about design. From that vantage point, it’s understandable that he should lament what might seem to be a mandatory relinquishment of craft; watching people get so good at what they do that they are expected to no longer do it takes a lot of fun out practicing any trade.

I don’t think he’s wrong here, at least insofar as it applies to designers who become managers; it’s very difficult, in this age, to continue to practice design while managing it, as well. In fact, in my own guidance to designers of a certain experience level I’ve often advised that one should avoid doing design work and focus on strategy and staff development if one is to really get ahead — words I’m reconsidering after Dan’s article.

Thinking about it now, I would say that Dan is absolutely right that the very best designers should in fact continue to be hands-on practitioners, if such a balance can be struck in their workplaces. Because if we take it as a given that our most promising designers currently don’t do that, then I think we begin to see why, at least in part, we have the situation that Armin laments — we begin to understand why we have yet to achieve those truly important milestones in online design.

At the Edges

From where I sit, this is what I see: the very best designers are leaving behind the work of actually doing design. Meanwhile, for younger and/or less managerially-minded designers, what I see is exactly the opposite: a preponderance of instructional writing and discussion, a preoccupation with tactical execution, a focus on tricks, tips and hacks. We have more than we could possibly want of sites that tell us how to do design; there’s always something new to learn, for sure, and that’s valuable, but a tally of available venues for discussing the why’s of design in this new medium adds up to a disappointingly paltry number.

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. And then, as Dan argues, we have a narrower but highly influential swath of designers who are dealing in the world of design ideas almost exclusively, who are billing at hourly rates so high that we couldn’t possibly be spending our days doing design when we could be spending them making clients feel better about design through sweet talk and PowerPoint.

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; 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.

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  1. The problem of the best in a field being unable to practice is not unique to design.

    Software is just the same. The strongest programmers in an organization are often promoted to become managers. And then, predictably, they have no time to write code.

  2. I just read both the articles that you linked to, all the comments on the ABM article and most of the comments on Armin’s article. There seems to be lots of pessimism going around the web design community these days.

    Regarding the ABM article, I think that the separation between thinkers and makers isn’t so black and white. Micheal Bierut might not kern all the text in every project he oversees, but I’m sure he approves whoever does. It’s akin to Damien Hirst not actually building the diamond-encrusted skull, but he’s still considered the artist.

    Regarding Armin’s article, I think it’s somewhat unfair to expect something as powerful as a Paul Rand masterpiece in a medium that’s 12 years old. Maybe we should compare the current best of web design with the best titles from the first years of film. I don’t have a large knowledge of film history, but I’d bet that there was no Saul Bass of the 1910s. The best of that medium didn’t appear until it was decades old.

    I think one of the main issues here is that websites are defined by what they do and how well they do it. It would be really hard to design a logo that doesn’t work (as opposed to one that’s unsuccessful), but that’s the main concern for most (if not all) websites. And I think that’s where much of the effort of the web design/development community has gone in this first decade.

    Finally, regarding your article, I really hope you don’t find web design boring. If you do, how do you go to work every day?

  3. I think you’re on to something. I agreed with Armin’s post, I just couldn’t quite really nail down why it is. After reading your take, I think a lot of the focus on technique comes down to two things about the Web. It’s a young medium, so technique-wise, there’s still a lot of “open territory” — it’s rare that somebody comes up with a new print design technique that legitimately changes the game, but it still happens all the time on the web. Also, the technology is changing very quickly, so that territory never really settles down. If you’re adapting your techniques to a new or even slightly different set of technology with every project, that’s that much less room left to focus on moving the ball forward, design-wise.

  4. khoi
    great post.

    re: canonical web works – the “visual web” as we know it is, say, 13 years old? i wonder 13 years after the printing press took off people were wondering the same thing, but lest they knew that 400 years later a dude named rand would strut his stuff. i think the web as we know it is still on a path of “becoming” and because its underlying technology is radically more complex than the technology of paper and ink, we may have to wait 400 years times the orders of magnitude of complexity of this technology to find our next visual web “rand”.

    re: saffer – i honestly STRUGGLE to grasp the agita that is being written about “design thinking”. i tried to respond at ABM but probably failed. something tells me that the current discourse is an anomaly, not to be permanent, and is a direct result of the complexities i described above. the scale is much bigger, the factors and variables leading to success are greater, and reductionism of tasks is a natural consequence of creating efficiencies to deal with these increased complexities. however, in this case, the specializations are not along craft lines, but on the separation of head and hand. which saffer, to his credit, articulates. but i feel strongly that the issue is really not about design but about much greater market forces that designers really need to try to understand.

    again, great post.

  5. Another twist on Armin’s question about landmark web sites, I’d ask “where is the feeder system to produce the designers to create them?”

    For print, film and architecture, great young minds go to great universities to learn from great older minds. They then build on those principles and take them to new heights.

    With web design, great young minds don’t necessarily learn from great web design minds. They mostly learn from great print design minds and must later learn on their own how to translate their learnings to an increasingly different and constantly shifting industry on the interactive space.

    Not ideal.

    How do we groom the next generation of interactive minds who in turn will create the “web design landmarks” of the future?

    .chris{}

  6. How much of this lament for landmark web design is due to an old language of design struggling to catch up to the times?

    Take music. We’ll continue to hear the lament like, Where are The Beatles of today? We’re stuck looking for those singular artists we can all instantly canonize, but that’s not only not how history works (greatness is something agreed upon mostly long after the fact), but a misunderstanding of what’s unique and amazing about our moment in music history (or design history).

    I’d maintain that in music and design there are more great artists producing more great work than ever before. At the same time more people have greater access to enjoy all of it. This is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t lend itself to mass consensus about individual greatness. The old channels of consumption and consensus were much narrower than they are today.

    Posters, logos, maps and cinema also don’t live and breathe in the way websites do. They aren’t collaborative efforts that solve a problem, get used, added to and changed over time the way websites do. Websites are harder to think of as singular pieces of work. Many of them are defined by the restless communities of people that gather around them. This kind of thing doesn’t frame up well on a wall or in the glossy pages of a book for posterity and admiration as great art. It’s not something we normally think of as landmark design, but it is the outcome of great design.

    All that said, I couldn’t agree more with the simple sentiment that most of web design today is really boring. This reminds me of a quote by Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips:

    “I think we were all thinking, man, I wish something new would happen. I wish someone would take a chance. And whenever I say that, I always go, ‘Why don’t we? Why don’t we be the ones to do something, to take a chance or whatever?”

  7. The phenomenon of the most skilled workers not practicing their skills, goes as far back as the late 18th Century. In Britain, during the Industrial Revolution, the most skilled workers were promoted to supervisors, for quality assurance. Although, this had the opposite affect.

    I think we could deduce that many in the industry do not in fact get their hands dirty with the process of actually designing and developing. This occurs to me because of the many zealots there are, like standardistas. A designer can only be academic, not pragmatic, in their approach, when they are not actually designing.

  8. The obsession with technique amongst web designers is something that really, really gets to me. I find it incredibly irritating that some of the world’s most influential “web designers” aren’t really designers at all, but rather CSS gurus or semantic markup studs. That’s not to say these people shouldn’t be influential — they should. And that’s also not to say the fact that they’re are misrepresented as designers is their fault — usually, it’s not. But, I sometimes worry that this technique-expert-cum-designer philosophy is confusing the younger generation of web workers about what design really is. I can’t tell you how many times I see people doing a “design critique” that is full of comments about how good the markup or CSS is, without ever addressing the basic tenants of design: What message does it communicate, and how does it do it? What problems does it aim to solve, and how effective is it? What are the goals of the site or client, and how well does the project meet those goals?

    But I think Wilson is right: as long as this medium is new and the techniques are still evolving, there will be a focus — perhaps too great a focus — on them.

  9. Hear, hear, Jeff. That is an issue that has plagued the web almost from the beginning, and probably a topic that could spin off into another full conversation. But the point is well taken in this context.

  10. As an artist (formally trained ceramic sculptor) and long-time computer consultant, I am struck at the similarities across disciplines.

    “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. ”

    Substitute “craft” for “Web design field” and you wouldn’t be wrong. As other have pointed out, one could apply any number disciplines… medicine, law, farming…

  11. Most of the best UK based design engineers I have known have moved into management as the only available path to higher salaries and career advancement.

    It appears that Industry doesn’t value ‘craft skills’ very highly. There is an assumption that cash flow is generated through business deals and efficient management. This dictates higher wages for these skill sets.

    You can carry on as a craftsman, but don’t expect to become wealthy as a result. Then again you might be one of the lucky ones… and may be just doing what you love should be enough?

  12. As someone who’s volleyed back and forth between hands-on design and management roles over the past few years, I can empathize with Dan’s complaint. But we can find useful examples outside the design field of professions where hands-on skills remain valued even at the upper echelons of a particular field. The obvious example is doctors. Great physicians don’t have to become hospital administrators to get well compensated. Some management consulting firms (like McKinsey) have created a clear path for senior consultants to advance to the highest levels of the company without taking on management responsibilities. A few software companies have also created career paths for individual contributors. There’s no reason why the Web design field shouldn’t be able to support a similar kind of career path. I believe Yahoo! recently introduced the role of Design Principal for just this reason. But this kind of approach takes organizational support and, for large companies, a culture shift away from the traditional top-down management mindset. But as more and more companies start to at least pay lip service to the idea of the flat organization, there may be opportunities for at least some designers to start reshaping their career paths.

  13. The trick with webdeisgn I think is that you can never seperate the technology from the visual design, or the copywriting or the concept. I think these all make what a good web design is. In the same way product design has to take into concideration trying new things with materials and pushing the envelope structurally. I don’t think web design is a medium that stands still long enough for you to stick an award on it or hold it up as great design, I think you do focus on the thinking of the individual involved as opposed to the specific work.

    I concider there to be an abundance of landmark websites, as I concider the concept as part of the design. I don’t believe you should nail down web design as a visual medium at all, it is something totally different.

    There are far too many articles recently trying to shoe-horn web design into the parameters that judge print design. That is a waste of time I believe.

  14. First off, thanks for the kind words. Not sure if I warrant them or not, but I’ll accept them nonetheless!

    Secondly, this is an unusual take on what I was thinking about. I was more concerned when I wrote that piece about outside forces acting on design and even shaping design education, not the internal pressures of the design profession itself.

    Assuredly, I live in a rare atmosphere at Adaptive Path, but it is funny you should note this on my second day of very detailed, nitty-gritty wireframing. We still get our hands dirty here; almost all of our “thought pieces” come out of actual project work. The work suggests the idea and visa versa. It’s a virtuous cycle. I wouldn’t have much to write or think about without the work suggesting it.

    One way we keep everyone designing at AP is to hold twice-weekly Open Design Sessions where anyone in the company can come for an hour and work on design problems from actual in-flight projects. This way, even those who don’t do much project work anymore can still keep their design chops sharp.

  15. Part of the reason people do become obsessed over technique is that most of the time, we’re creating a living document that is constantly changing and feeding into other architectures and systems. Criticizing semantic markup and CSS is important because we have to hand our designs off to other people, or continuously maintain them over years, while the requirements for the site shift under our feet.

    We’re not all fortunate enough to work at high-profile design agencies that fosters a total creative atmosphere. Often, we’re just concerned with being able to create something that can get out the door on time and do its job effectively. I agree, the conversation about technique is not the same as the one about visual design, but they always go hand in hand.

  16. I agree with the comments that the web is really only so few years old to have a “landmark” design like the ones in the print world.

    The web may never have a landmark design like the movie posters/credit sequences Saul Bass created, or the logos Paul Rand created.. and for a good reason; the internet. When the landmarks in the print world were designed, there was no internet, people did not communicate as fast or were not as opinionated(well maybe) back in these days, they had time to analyze.

    With the easy access to information we have today, things change so quickly and information is so overloaded into peoples brains, there really is not time to dedicate a web design as a “landmark” design. Besides, we are really comparing interfaces to posters and logos… is that fair? Hell, as Zeldman and crew looked into this past year, we dont even really have our own industry defined yet.

    B

  17. Thanks to ‘dave’ above.

    The web is not new. Get over it. That’s lke saying printing technology has stood still for the past 15 years, too.
    All professionals, web designers included, should to stay current on their semantics. It’s their job.

    A large problem with web design is CONTENT! You can’t predict what it will look like at the end. Sometimes, there’s too much whitespace; other times, not enough. You can style a paragraph, but you can’t really determine how long it will be, or what font the user will see. You can stlyle the heck ouf of tags and elements and tighten it all down in a content management system, yet you still have varied output.

    Add to that the issues of functionality, and you have an INTERACTIVE problem, not a graphic one. Graphic designs are like photos: they are a discrete thing outside of time. Web sites, on the other hand, are rendered freshly in a browser each time and change as the technology that accesses them change. A poster is a poster, is a poster… But a web site will change across the accessing device. It has to be a printable page, a postcard on a cell phone, a application on a desktop, and a tool for your handheld. You cannot simply take the visual look of a web design. You have to consider it’s usability feel, too. Otherwise it’s like comparing apples and microclimates.

    A great logo is a great logo, no matter where it appears. IBM still looks good on their site. If I was comparing evenly-space horizontal lines, this blog “feels” to me a lot like the IBM logo.

    RE: Web doesn’t have landmarks

    I call bullshit. Ask someone to close their eyes and describe Google’s homepage.
    ICONIC. LANDMARK. Designed only by necessity of function. If it looks ugly, look at yourselves. It’s the ultimate in selfishness. Type, click: instant gratification. It’s designed around the end user.
    I don’t care for the font and the colors, but I love what they do.

    Also, did all of you miss the (current) default installation of WordPress? ICONIC. The Kubrik Theme on the internet is as perfectly analagous to a gig poster as you can get! When you run accross it in the wild, it’s like seeing a New Beetle. You’re familiar with it, it’s decent, you don’t hate it and it doesn’t get in the way of the content.

    Apple’s website is a good example of leading edge JavaScripting & CSS. AND their rounded corners stay consistent across their entire current product line-up. Not to mention OS X being to blame for the cute gloss of Web 2.0.

    Iconic landmark web sites are out there. To repeat, they cannot be judged by look alone.

  18. I agree, web design is getting boring. Too many sites out there having that god-forsaken web2.0 look with the shiny buttons, the gradients, etc. and yet no concept. Elliot Jay Stocks (http://elliotjaystocks.com/blog/) pointed this out in his presentation titled “Destroying the Web 2.0 Look” @ this year’s FOWD (http://www.futureofwebdesign.com/), and I’m pretty sure a majority of the people attending the conference agreed… except for maybe the programmers / developers. Sure, some of the sites look nice, but where’s the concept?!

    On another note, great presentation on grids at the FOWD workshop today. Good advice that secondary grids for improvised content can be counterproductive. Woo… no more vomit-inducing grid structures.

  19. As the comments above have shown there is such a diverse community that is us, web designers. To that I am inclined to say that the GRID which is so coveted has taken over this community and the corporate environment. We have gone from THINKING in an organic fashion giving a visual communication of the IDEA and MESSAGE at hand, and delivering it with great functionality and aesthetics.

    Design is about solving a problem and ” thinking out of the grid ”

    These designers you mentioned did not think of technique and grids and frameworks before they created these works we so love and are inspired by. They followed their idea and presented it visually without asking if it was ok and if the paper was right that it was printed on. It was just great design and art. Period!

  20. I don’t think web design is boring, I see the problem being that the web isn’t archived well. Also that web design is still relativly new. I mean these people taht he is talking about in his article, and the designs they did were done well beyond the days of the internet. You have to give it more time. Time is what makes things GREAT.

    So still the problem still lies in the lack of archived websites. So even when a GREAT website is designed, they way the world of the internet works is, sites don’t have that long of a lifespan, so it is hard to leave a lasting impression when their is no real way to let those great sites live through the test of time.

    The work that was used in the example was either work that was printed, either that or it is logos that are still in use to this day. Not to mention they have been archived both online, and in books. We learn about these designs in school, and they are in the history books of design.

    The web is still writing it’s history, and the early years of web design are ones we all hope to forget.

  21. @Shane:
    Sites are being archived. Books like “Web Design Index” are showcasing such sites in print along with several other magazines. And don’t forget about Taschen publishing a variety of books based on genre-specific websites.

    @Armin Vit:
    ‘Great’ websites come and go and some may even stay around longer than others. I think its because the web offers a variety of business models. Flash sites may be built to promote a product for a short period of time and then fizzle out… other sites may offer a community and endure ‘the test of time’. IMO, print & web = apples & oranges.

  22. Sure, web design is new. But layout design is not new. Web design is informed by traditional layout design. Typography and iconography are not new. Thus, in web design, we have some old stuff… and we have some new stuff.

    Another aspect of this “landmark” discussion is that web design is highly modular. Web design is more a game of specific techniques, rather than overall uniqueness of layout or composition. I think it is the slow and gradual progression of web design that obscures some of the changes in style and approach.

    Web design, in my mind, is less about originality and more about purpose. Our primary concern is usability.

    Again, I think the notion of a landmark website or layout implies some clear distinctions that just aren’t present in our highly cross-referenced, cross-influenced community of designers.

  23. Wow, so many sad and depressing comments here. Where is the hope people? How can you even compare iconic print designs to the ever changing web? What’s the point anyways?

    I’m a one man show. That guy in the middle that does it all (as hard as he can). I’m the designer, developer, project manager, information architect, user experience evangelist, usability and accessibility person all wrapped into one freelancer. I completely agree that there aren’t many people who will try to run a business and wear so many hats. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one that’s going through this kind of hardship. It’s a very lonely and depressing feeling, like nobody understands you, and nobody wants to help you.

    The people I work for aren’t huge corporations, they’re startups and mom n’ pop stores. They’re people living in the suburbs or in smaller cities that would have a crappy site made by their “nephew” who has a ripped copy of DreamWeaver. But I get a hold of them, and educate them, and show them how deep the rabbit hole actually goes. The fact of the matter is, I used to be that nephew! But I went back to school for design, and continued to grow in every way I could.

    There is a lot more thought and strategy that goes into web sites than what goes into print designs. The quality is on the surface of print design, but with the web it extends beyond that, into the hearts of people who use the sites. Print is static, how could you compare that to something that can grow and morph to provide more quality?

    Web sites can be boring, but creating them is anything BUT boring. To anyone that thinks they’re job is boring: why not stop being curmudgeons and do something exciting with your life?

    Specialization is for insects.

  24. Nailed it!

    I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit lately. There’s a whole lot of focus on the technical aspects of design. Lots of ‘How do they do that’? and not enough ‘Why do that do that’.

    The decisions/concepts behind design are the grounds for great work. I’d love to hear more on the topic.

    Great post!

  25. This happened to me. Someone thought I was good enough at design and jumped me up to a management position where all I do is “create the environment for others to do good design,” as you said to me at FOWD. I think Michael Bierut calls it “problem definition escalation.”

  26. Every year I am disappointed that conferences such as SXSW focus 99.9% on the technical side of Web design. What the Web was missing for most of it’s birth, and what the conferences lack are graphic design principles.

  27. A lot of interesting things to think about were said both in the article and in the comments.

    I do think that landmarks exist in webdesign.
    Its just that webdesign lives in a different timeline than graphic design. Therefore, don’t try to find a 10-15 years old landmark, but rather a 1-2 years old one.

    Another point said was a tendency to focus more on theory while neglecting the practice.
    IMO this is a natural adaptation. We need to educate so much our clients, that soon we’re preoccupied on how to teach better, rather than how to implement better. This means that our field is moving technically too fast for people not involved in it to manage to catch up. There are too many webdesigners out there that could actually do a decent job, it seems that with a non technical clientele a lot of differentiation between us is done by how good we can explain, present what we’re doing.

    Web design boring?
    Certainly not. Getting worn out on too much things to handle at once. Most probably yes.

  28. The topic is long since worn out, but I can’t help but add one last salvo:

    http://www.fray.com

    Maybe not today, but in its day, fray was one of my weekly, possibly daily haunts. I loved it even though they didn’t publish my obviously beautifully written 997-word memoir, and still have wonderful memories of some of the things Derek and the other Superfriends did.

  29. Hi Khoi,

    After reading your post, which I consider very interesting, and after checking your links, I only have a question. How can I know if a website development company has good “web design criteria”? I mean, what should I check in a company website to decide if it’s good or not for my company? For example, check this url

    and tell me if you would invest money with them or not.

  30. “…technique…”

    I think the whole design industry is too focused on technique. I think there are very few design outfits out there that are completely switched on to the fact that design is ‘ideas’, and technique is only there for the idea to be realised.

    “…tactical execution, a focus on tricks, tips and hacks…”

    This will die out eventually. The ‘browser wars’ will no longer be an issue in a few years, and I think universal coding languages that compliment each other will win out in the end. Correct code and language on the web will become universal as all browsers adopt ‘the standard’ – they will have to in order to survive in a more demanding web environment. This will pave the way for more creative and artistic minds to have more of an influence.

    I think perhaps web3.0 may be the on-line ‘post-modern’ era – where ideas from the past will be mixed with new ideas and realised in new exciting ways, and where the ‘technical’ no longer holds any mystery or weight. The canvas for on-line expression will be in place for the creative minded to ‘go play’. Well. that’s what I reckon anyway.

  31. Your article reminded me of an article I read the other day. The “great designers move up to become managers”-routine could be considered the Peter Principle at work, that is, people are very often promoted to “one role to high”, one where they no longer shine since it’s not their “natural role”.

    You’ll find a great post about that here. It was written from the perspective of a programmer, but as others have pointed out, I think this is a universal thing.

    And, of course: great article. But that’s to be expected from you. =]

  32. Great post. Other’s have mentioned many of the key problems with comparing web design to historically great graphic designers. It’s a very young medium, you can’t expect greatness immediately, and academia has to catch up before it can teach it well.

    However, I disagree that we haven’t seen some excellent websites. Immediately after I read that statement a few spring to mind right away. The technologies behind the web are changing so quickly that sometimes amazing things are rendered obsolete as quickly as they were done, but for my mind, here’s a few websites that have stood the test of time, and will still stand up in 10 years:

    The Donnie Darko website.
    Yugop’s Monocrafts site.
    Leo Burnett’s website.

    They’re not still online in their existing state, but they were/are damn good sites with excellent execution of design and full understanding of the medium.