Does The Web Design Industry Have A Conceptual Core?

I often talk about choosing a concept to lead your design; a central idea that provides the underlying logic, thought, and reasoning for most of the decisions that follow. A concept is a constraint you create to guide you.

Last week I wondered if we could define a more general concept at a higher level of our work. A concept not for a specific project, but for the entirely of projects we take on. I wondered aloud if our industry allows us to act nobly and think larger by setting a concept for the whole of our work.

About a year ago I read Graphic Design: A New History by Stephen Eskilon. In his closing remarks, Eskilon kicked things one level higher by asking what’s the raison d’être or conceptual core of the entire design industry.

Book vover for Graphic Design: A New History

The Quest for Meaning

Starting in the mid 19th century Eskilon’s book discusses various schools of design and influential designers across different eras. Underlying the organization of the different schools and designers are the ideas that drove them. The book takes on graphic design history through the lens of what each era of designers tried to achieve on a larger scale.

In the closing pages Eskilon mentions a few of these different groups of designers and points to their raison d’être, their reason for existence as designers.

  • Late 19th century designers — wanted to raise the quality of industrial goods
  • The Dadaists — wanted to subvert western society
  • Practitioners of the New Typography — wanted to create a universal language of the machine
  • Designers of the International Style — wanted to create a modern design solution for their clients
  • Postmodernists (1970s and 1980s) — wanted to reject the orthodoxy of the international style and experiment with new technology

A few question were left hanging. What’s next? What purpose unites the designers of today? What are we trying to achieve on a larger scale?

The quest for meaning in graphic design is partly a product of its artistic side. While accountants or engineers are not usually beset with finding larger meaning in their work, graphic designers often have asked abstract questions along these lines.

What is our quest for meaning? Do we have one? Do we need one? As I said last week, I think serving clients is an honorable thing to do. Two of the groups above have the client/customer relationship at their core.

If your reasons for having a career in web design revolve around it being an enjoyable way to put food on the table for you and your family, I both agree and think it’s a perfectly valid reason for choosing the profession. My goal isn’t to suggest otherwise.

Rather I’d like us to think and wonder if there’s something more. Web designers from those who lean toward the graphic to those who lean toward the code, have this artistic side Eskilon mentions. Perhaps not all of us, but I think many of us are people who, for better or worse, seek to find larger meaning in our work.

What is our Conceptual Core?

I don’t know.

Even if I could define a raison d’être for myself, no one person defines the purpose of an entire industry of designers. One person can ask questions though.

When I look around at the things we share as an industry, we’re good at digging into technical challenges and finding solutions to technical problems. While the web has seemingly been with us a long time (for some their entire lives) it’s still very, very young. Much is and still needs to be worked out.

Is this our core? To work these solutions for future generations of designers? Are we to be like the designers of the International Style seeking a modern design solution for clients.

Given how quickly technology changes I think every generation of web designer is going to be dealing with technical change and seeking modern solutions. I doubt this single purpose will guide all designers for all time.

Perhaps our core is solution oriented. Perhaps it’s to guide the transition from print to web, which is still underway. I think there’s room for something more though. Solving technical challenges seems to now fall under the category of our day-to-day work.

I’ve thought about some of the words that are often used in the industry.

Is there something in these words that suggests a larger meaning? Are we reacting against the complexity of our world and seeking to provide more of the simple? Are the flexible, modular, and responsive solutions we put forth a comment on an ever more unknowable world and how best to deal with it?

As a culture we seem to live in a binary world where balance exists only through equal and opposite polar extremes. We believe in 1 or 0, but nothing in between. From politics to operating system flame wars we choose a side and declare all others wrong. We alternate between physical and virtual worlds. Is there something there to drive us as an industry and gives us purpose?

Is it Me?

I also wonder if these questions are just me. Do I think of the industry because I’ve yet to define my own conceptual core? Am I pushing these questions to you in order to avoid answering them for myself? Have I yet to find the voice with which I wish to speak?

For the industry to hold a conceptual core it would require those who work in it to first define their own conceptual core and influence each other until a mass of us are working toward the same thing.

I can’t say I’ve done that for myself. I know something of my voice finds its way into both my design and writing. It would be impossible for it not to. Like most, I am full of opinions and continue to refine who I am and what I believe and seek to uncover if a central and deeper meaning underlies it all.

Non-Concluding Thoughts

I’m thinking out loud here, mainly in the hopes of getting you to think along with me. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps it is enough to immerse ourselves in the day-to-day of the projects before us. That day-to-day is what attracted me and probably you to the industry in the first place.

Maybe it’s not for us to define and whatever lies at our core as an industry is something that only future generations can see.

Still I think there’s something more. The artist inside me has always sought to find the larger meaning in my life, the time in which I live, and the work I do.

Do you feel the same? Is there a concept that defines your work? Do you think there is or should be one for the industry?

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  1. I liked the article and thought to see if i could get te ball rolling as its a relevant topic to me:

    For a central focus or core principle in what i do which is build sites and some actual design,

    To fascilitate the exchange of survival ideas in the usage of the available modern technology assisting in the delivering of the communication resulting in the desired impact.

    Anyway hopefully we can get the ball rolling on this discussion.


  2. I got a question. Would the core concept be evident in the final product or in the process?

    I find that in the process of designing we educate our clients on what is and what is not good design. We push for simplicity (in the design itself, the development, the re-use, etc), but I think we also try to make or clients aware of why this simplicity is necessary.

    • I would think it could be evident in both. When you look back at a school of design, say the Bauhaus, their core ideas are evident in the work itself, but they were also great teachers of the principle they put forward.

      Perhaps it’s a case of having certain ideas and beliefs and doing everything you can to spread those ideas, including the work you do.

  3. Mhh…. I am with the industry for more than 10 years now, starting 1999 with web design.

    Before I tried photography in my early days.

    If you want a substancial statement from my side?

    There is nothing to our jobs in our industry.
    We are producing websites… so what?

    What impact do you see here? Its a commercial industry… people want to make businesses and we help them with it.

    There is nothing more to it. Period.

    There is also no truth but “live” … and this IS “art” …. anything else doesnt matter and cant have any impact on anything.

    If we want to save the world, the planet and our societies, then we should actually stop what we are doing … and do nothing but trying to stop the system.

    There is nothing we add to the system in order to improve it… its a tough thing and most people deny to see this… but this is actually the reason why we live in a world like this.

    We cannot not change it. we just can shut it down. And this is nothing you will get payed for by anybody…

    “the only persons that can be free in our societies are artists and criminals. The handywork of both factions is demanding to break the rules…”

    If we talk about “design” we are NOT talking about art.

    Art is nothing you “produce”… its something that you live … and here in lies the true impact of art…

    • You could very well be right, but let me offer a few thoughts.

      Like I said in the post I think serving our clients is perfectly fine and we should always be doing that regardless of what else we do. I don’t think anything I’m saying suggests this is all about saving the world. If you look at the conceptual core of the groups I mentioned, most were just trying to solve design problems.

      The potential impact is our work reaches people. Other industries don’t have that. An accountant could do great work, but odds are that work is never seen anywhere outside the office he or she works in.

      That’s not true of our work. It could potentially reach much of the world and since we can reach more people we can impact more people.

      Here’s an admittedly contrived example. Say you strongly believe in one of the two political parties. You could only choose to work with clients with the same party affiliation. In that way you help promote your political views. That’s not something for the industry, but it could be one way you personally put your stamp on the world.

      For another example say you believe in conserving energy. You could do everything you possible to reduce the energy footprint of sites you work on. Maybe that means doing everything to make them load quicker or it means working with a host that’s found a way to use less energy. You’d have the ability to blog about what you’re doing to help others do the same.

      Assuming it’s something a large enough section of the industry also wants to do you can convince them to do the same things you do. Together you promote energy efficient hosts and practices and you now all blog about it. You would have the power to influence more people and in time likely enough to make a real difference.

      You could work on projects for yourself that communicate your beliefs and because you’re a web designer you should know how to communicate ideas well.

      What it comes down to is in reading up on design history I see previous generations of designers working together toward some common goal they felt important. I’m not sure if that can yet be said about the web design industry of today, but I see no reason why it has to remain that way. In writing this post I just want to get people to think about the idea and think about what they might want to do in addition to helping clients.

      Maybe there isn’t anything beyond helping our clients. I disagree and think we can do more while we help them.

  4. I think that the International Style was way more than just giving clients what they wanted. Many of the principles still serve as a baseline for designers today. I think eventually even its constituents saw that they went over the top and got too rigid in some of their philosophies. In the 1960s and 1970s, people like Saul Bass and Milton Glaser took that rigidity and loosened it up a little. Our conceptual core should have a commitment to the basic principles we serve: balance, space, form, function, etc.

    • Thanks Scott. I agree. That was just what I pulled from the end of the book. It (or maybe I) was trying to summarize things. There’s a lot more detailed information in the book about the the International Style and they certainly go beyond wanting to provide a modern solution to clients.

      I completely agree with what you’re saying. I think a commitment to basic principles is a good conceptual core. I wonder though it there’s something more than serving the work itself. I wonder if there’s a way to we can serve the work, our clients, and still contribute to something larger.

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