Today’s internet is bland. Everything looks the same: generic fonts, no layouts to speak of, interchangeable pages, and an absence of expressive visual language. Even micro-typography is a mess.
Web design today seems to be driven by technical and ideological constraints rather than creativity and ideas. Every page consists of containers in containers in containers; sometimes text, sometimes images. Nothing is truly designed, it’s simply assumed.
Ironically, today’s web technologies have enormous design capabilities. We have the capability to implement almost every conceivable idea and layout. We can create radical, surprising, and evocative websites. We can combine experimental typography with generative images and interactive experiences.
And yet, even websites for designers are based on containers in containers in containers. The most popular portals for creatives on the web — Dribbble and Behance — are so fundamentally boring they’re basically interchangeable. (See lead image.)
How did this happen?
There are a few reasons. Technological frameworks like Content Management Systems (CMS) and blogging platforms like WordPress are based on templates. Web pages on these frameworks are not individually crafted but generated on the fly by piecing together various media types like images, headlines, body text, and videos. Templates are not designs. Rather, they are rules for combining related data types. Beyond the template, these platforms typically offer users no way to influence a page’s visual appearance. What you see is what you poured into the template.
In other words, templates are content agnostic. And that is the problem.
One of the fundamental principles of design is a deep and meaningful connection between form and content; form should both reflect and shape content. Separating them breaks this principle and creates generic content containers. In a design sense, templates are meaningless; the form adds nothing to the content.
One of the fundamental principles of design is a deep and meaningful connection between form and content.
I suspect designers’ creative and intellectual laziness is to blame, too. In the age of mobile-first, generic, framework-driven development, nobody seems to bother with the visual and contextual integrity of a web page.
How can we tackle this challenge? What can expressive and avant-garde websites look like today?
Sometimes, if you want to design the future, you have to rediscover the past.
Retro Web Design
I designed my first website about 23 years ago at the research and development group at the University of the Arts in Bremen, Germany. Creating web pages was hot at the time. The web was young. Pages sparked my imagination.
In the mid-nineties, we were struggling with the constraints of HTML. We could only use web-safe fonts like Arial, Times, or Verdana. We had to use table layouts, monospaced fonts, or GIFs if we wanted to do anything exciting. HTML was purely content-driven initially, and we had to work against the technology in order to design a page.
At the same time, experimental typography was exploding. From Jan Tschichold’s Die Neue Typographie in the twenties to the computer-driven layouts by April Greiman in the eighties, designers challenged the status quo and tried to find a visual language that represented the ideas and revolutions of their eras. By the mid-nineties, an unusual combination of technological and cultural advancements allowed for a very radical breed of graphic design. You could see it in the work of Irma Boom, David Carson, Paula Scher, Neville Brody, and many others.
Compared to the visual explosion of the graphic design world, however, early web pages were still fairly lame. (The Web Design Museum documents this very well.)
We wanted to do graphic design in the browser, but nobody knew how — or what mistakes could be made. There were no expectations of how a web page should look. There were no standards. No CMS (almost), no CSS, no JS, no video, no animation.
Now is as good a time as any to challenge the internet’s visual conformity.
Web design’s problem is not the limits of technology but the limits of our imagination. We’ve become far too obedient to visual conformity, economic viability, and assumed expectations.
However, every crisis creates an opportunity. Now is as good a time as any to challenge the internet’s visual conformity. Alas, I am too old and too bourgeois to come up with a radical, experimental, and state-of-the-art approach to web design. But I can ask my students to do it.
In 2017, I gave a web design class at the Interface Design Programme in Potsdam, Germany. Each team was asked to come up with a redesign for an existing website. The assignment was very clear: Treat the browser as a blank canvas and create expressive, imaginative visual experiences. Use the technological potential of current web technologies as a channel for your creativity. Do not be constrained by questions of usability, legibility, and flexibility. Have an attitude. Disregard Erwartungskonformität.
I was very happy with the outcome of the class. (You can see all the results on this overview page.) Here are four projects that represent different approaches to the challenge.