In a time when millions of daily active users have fled Twitter, the (online) design community has become increasingly fragmented—settling amongst a myriad of similarly functioning, yet disparate, platforms.
Synthesizing older Design Community Portal thinking with newer decentralized methods, perhaps there’s a way to not only bring us closer together—but also push design and connection forward.
Right—but what’s a Design Community Portal?
Before we look forward, we need to take a look at the recent past:
The year is 2001, and HAL 9000 isn’t so much a thing. Cars still can’t fly. You likely have an AOL or Earthlink-based email address, and listen to music on, and install software from, CDs. And the discipline of design—as it was applied to the digital landscape—is still in the nascent phases of raw discovery and exploration.
It was a period of time in which, as a freshly minted post-art school designer myself, the challenge and discovery web design offered was an immensely tantalizing prospect.
As I wrote in my book “In Fulfillment: The Designer’s Journey”:
The late ’90s and early 2000s were the so-called ‘Wild West’ of web design. Designers at the time were all figuring out how to apply design and visual communication to the digital landscape. What were the rules? How could we break them and still engage, entertain, and convey information? At a more macro level, how could my values, inclusive of humility, respect, and connection, align in tandem with that? I was hungry to find out.
Designers were very much seeking a sense community, given this new digital realm of visual communication and creative exploration. The promise of the global inclusiveness of the internet offered such possibility.
Enter the Design Community Portal.
In this timeframe, portals for design news became incredibly popular. In a time before Twitter—sorry, “X”—these sites featured (what would now be considered) Tweet-size, small-format content snippets of design, Apple, tech, or music news. If you took Twitter, curated it to a handful of arts / media-centric categories, and wrapped it in a custom-branded experience, you’d essentially have a design news portal from the late 90s / early 2000s.
Built upon fairly rudimentary—often homegrown—CMS’s, design community websites were hand-crafted by groups of designers and developers who’d collaborate on a given portal experience. Per site, “News Authors” were hand-selected designers from around the world to contribute a curated selection of news, write articles, or conduct peer interviews.
Most sites also had basic mechanisms for news submission from the design community at large, as well. To be clear: these posts weren’t “hot takes” intended to boost a (then-nonexistent) follower count—they largely focused around inspiration, respect to brilliant work, and spotlight to other designers in the community. Less “Look at me,” more “Look at this other designer’s work I respect.”
K10k (pictured at the very top of this piece), short for Kaliber 10,000, was founded in 1998 by Michael Schmidt and Toke Nygaard, and was the design news portal / pseudo e-zine on the web during this period. I was beyond thrilled to be one of its corps of News Authors at the time. With its pixel art-fueled presentation, ultra-focused care given to every facet and detail, and with many of the more influential designers of the time who were invited to be news authors on the site, it was the place to be, my friend.
There were dozens of other like-minded community sites, forming a connected / linked network, that also co-existed. GUI Galaxy was a portal a group of my designer friends and I crafted and developed (pictured above). And we weren’t alone: Australian INfront, Newstoday, Pixelsurgeon, and Design is Kinky (pictured below) were just a few of the other global communities where monologue to the community slowly began to further evolve into dialogue with the community.
As much as the content was meant to inspire, the individually branded design and interactivity of these sites followed suit—showing what was possible with design and typographic exploration on the web.
Online design community wasn’t merely confined to portals : Hotline and Carracho servers, and phpBB forums, also served as hubs for inspiration, dialogue, and connection. They were all created to foster design community, healthy dialogue around common interests, fueled by positive intent.
Room for evolution—then, and now
I don’t mean to paint a picture of “the times of yore” being completely idyllic. As noted, though there was a gradual shift to being more dialogue-focused than monologue-driven (Newstoday was a fantastic example of that evolution), design portals’ model largely revolved around a chosen few putting design news out to the masses, rather than anything near a real-time dialogue.
Now, in the age of social media, the connection / dialogue model is incredibly robust—and thusly more supportive of countless more voices having input on the conversation of design. With subject tagging mechanisms, post replies, and small-format content bites all rolled into one, it’s almost as if the best of the core design portal and phpBB models were built into Twitter. And for a while, it was pretty good.
As I write this, Twitter—now “X”—is under the ownership / leadership of a bigoted, egomaniacal billionaire sociopath. The digital environment in which design conversation once often flourished: now a platform for toxicity, hate, and intolerance. Designers—and their dialogue—have largely scattered from the platform, or now engage minimally.
But where have they gone?
Well, some have moved exclusively over to Threads, a Twitter-like, decentralized service that isn’t entirely decentralized just yet. Mark Zuckerberg, another tech billionaire whose primary platform foments political disinformation and is awash in privacy concerns, is behind the service. Up until a couple weeks ago, you couldn’t delete Threads from your phone unless you also deleted your Instagram account in tandem.
The promise of decentralized or federated Twitter-like platforms—e.g., putting the control of users’ data in the hands of the users themselves, as opposed to yet another monolithic corporation—is an incredibly appealing prospect. If you take the billionaire out of the equation and give more power to the community, we’re less likely to end up in another clusterf**k scenario, right?
Mastodon, around since 2016, is another such service offering federated small-format content posting, sans tech billionaire—but its multi-server (“nodes”) complexity for onboarding new users has gotten in the way of it being the service to settle within.
Quite a few designers have also migrated over to Bluesky, another federated Twitter-like service currently in beta. Already more visually polished and intuitive to join than Mastodon, Bluesky uses its proprietary AT Protocol, allowing anyone to have a window into its construction. That said, the man behind Bluesky—Jack Dorsey, Twitter co-founder and yet another tech billionaire—is the person who sold that platform to X’s current owner in the first place, ultimately relegating that environment to its current abhorrent state. Hey Siri, tell me about “horrible judgment”?
Spoutible, Post, Pebble (which has already shut down), and other similar Twitter-like services have also become home—or one of numerous homes—where designers have gone. In short: it’s as scattered an online community as it’s ever been.
So where can we go—metaphorically and literally—from here?
Full disclosure, as I bring this piece home: my engagement with Twitter has historically been largely at arm’s length and often guarded—even at its varied healthiest points as an ecosystem. The ego, the echo chamber-ism, and the frequent belittlement and exclusion toward newer designers has been consistently off-putting to me.
But amongst the sometimes-muck, there’s also been positivity: I’ve met new and amazing people. Had wonderful and evolution-fueling dialogues at times. And discovered some nice inspiration along the way. Reconciling those two side of the coin—as we chart a healthy design community path from here—is the lens I’ll be using as I frame out further thoughts.
Whenever something inspires, energizes, or connects with me, I try to look deeper at the “why” behind the dynamic to see why it was a fulfilling experience. That clarity makes the values—or practices—portable amongst any environment (personal or professional) I ultimately aim to be in.
We can leverage the same model by thinking about what’s the “best of” portals, forums, Twitter, and decentralized models at their healthiest—at a feature level, sure, but just as importantly at a conceptual level:
- inspiration via the platform’s design itself
- moderation of hate speech and harassment
- easy account creation, intuitive ongoing use
- threaded comments
- decentralized short-form content stream
- subject tagging
- dialogue over monologue
- “we” instead of “me” -thinking
- e-zine / curated in-depth content
Quite a few of these facets are inherent in the promise of the fediverse and decentralized social media platforms broadly. We can see why tech moguls like Zuckerberg have massive interest, and we can also thank X’s owner in part for its increasing popularity—by destroying his own platform and causing people to seek alternatives. But fediverse servers—having their own rules—are also largely unmoderated, can block one another, and can make finding friends / contacts / colleagues who signed up on a different server a non-trivial feat.
To that end, what if we had a central stream of moderated, short-form design content that could have bespoke (e-zine caliber) content and branded design as an “overlay”?
A centralized hub (website) could enable authentication and account management, where the moderated central content feed would originate (inclusive of subject tagging, inline comments, and replies). This stream would be portable, and a constant amongst all the hub site’s permutations.
Via something like a “brand” selector (broad concept)—whereas “brand” is an encapsulated bespoke look-and-feel with respective News Authors and custom content (think K10k, GUI Galaxy, Pixelsurgeon, etc.)—a user could then effectively overlay entire Design Community Portals as a wrapper around the moderated central feed. The brand selector would then live on each respective portal, forming a living connected network as more are added.
In a world where a whole lot of websites still look the same, I think we could use a little bit of design exploration, brand, and inspiration. We can consider leveraging a core, semantic front-end framework on top of the unbranded central hub that could be styled via uploaded images and a stylesheet, a la CSS Zen Garden. A user selecting the brand / look-and-feel they desire, then, would be completely transforming the design and experience at the presentation layer.
For example, if you applied this concept to afterlab and HSE7EN3 — two former Design Community Portals—the placement of central posting, central feed, brand selector, in tandem with brand-specific News Author posts could be something like this:
This practice in the modern era could be a chance to (re-)plant seeds of stagnancy-breaking design and exploration, in our own evolving community contributions, with our own pursuit of more in-depth topics, constructive viewpoints, and content features.
Of course, it’s a broad idea with inherent complexities attached. Who would moderate the central feed? Where would the central hub site live? How would bespoke branded e-zine content and News Author feeds work as an overlay in tandem with styling at the presentation layer? There would be copious considerations to navigate.
Design conversation will continue to exist in some capacity on just about every platform—in parallel with cat pics and food pics (or catfood pics), world events, and everything else under the sun. And that’s A-OK. It’s less about running off into our own little elitist corner of exclusivity, more about having a space where design community, and healthy conversation, can thrive in tandem. And that’s also A-OK.