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The Banality of the Radical

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Author: Chris Kaminski

History: First published here June 2002

As more Web designers begin transforming their sites from the tables-fonttags-single-pixel-gifs concoctions to stripped-down CSS chic, more observers are asking the questions: if the promise of CSS and standards was liberation from the tyranny of warring browser lords, why do all the CSS designs look the same? If this is the radical shift that will allow the Web to realize its potential, why does it appear so dull? Implicit in these questions is an increasing consensus that, in the words of Chris Casciano, 'Your CSS Bores Me'.

There are two factors at work here, both stemming from the fact that we're entering a new phase in Web design and construction.

Where dotcom excess made howd-dey-doodat eyecandy the peak of chic, dotbomb malaise has made economy and utility the order of the day. Bandwidth-hogging photoshop montages, multi-megabyte Flash files and hundred-plus-KB table layouts fairly reek of the folly of the late '90s. With the focus now on the basics - especially the bottom line - such excesses just don't impress the way they once did.

At the same time, the rise of servicably CSS-compliant browsers has made economy attainable while still satisfying marketroid branding. Lightweight, structurally sound, valid CSS + (X)HTML allows designers to do much of what they once did with nested tables, <font> tags and proprietary attributes.

As Aaron Boodman points out, the combination of increased standards support and the whims of fashion has led Web designers to a new focus on technical excellence. It's now becoming cool to pursue structure, fast downloads, accessibility, standards-compliance and other 'invisible' attributes in lieu of retina-frying visuals.

In addition to being a fashion statement, 'boring design' is also a symptom of a discipline trying to grow up.

Not too many years ago, the Web biz was small and marginal. Knowing HTML bought entrance to a relatively exclusive club. Having a site - let alone making a living building them for others - was all that was necessary to be a member. That club was perilously tiny, marginal in the extreme to the rest of the world. Evangelizing and soliciting new members was a matter of survival: it was necessary to reach the critical mass that would make the club worth belonging to.

As Blogger, Radio and others became commonplace, simply having a site has become rather mundane. More, layoffs notwithstanding, there are thousands of professional Web designers/builders/authors all around the world. 'Web designer' has lost its exclusivity and cache.

People love to belong to a group, but it can't be too large a group. Once any group reaches a certain mass, it will begin to segment and stratify. Some animals will be more equal than others, as George Orwell might put it. As the title 'Web designer' becomes more commonplace, those holding the title are beginning to try to separate 'real' Web pros from the hordes of poseurs and dilettantes. To that end, they are pushing boundaries, most especially boundaries others are not even aware of. They are honing the skillsets unique to the Web, the stuff people outside the club will never see and cannot appreciate. Being a 'cool' Web designer is no longer about impressing the rest of the world, it's about impressing other Web designers.

So no, people are not doing as many visually exciting things. Anyone can appreciate those. The audience is now smaller. Web design now is not so much about saying to the rest of the world 'I belong' but about saying to other members 'I'm 3733t.'

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. By focusing on the techniques unique to the Web, people will move the Web forward. They will help it evolve into its own animal, rather than being impoverished print or television. By exploring fully the things that make the Web the Web, they'll learn to exploit them in ways they could not even have thought of a few years ago.

The tradeoff is that, to those who are not 'in the know,' it all looks rather boring. In fact, it is - or soon will be. The cutting edge is always the first to get dull. Such navel gazing quickly loses relevance to all but the hard core few who are so 'exclusive' that no one else will know or care that they are '3733t,' marginalized by their own pursuit of technical excellence. Then one day, along will come someone who combines the flare of 2000 with the technique of 2002 and unleashes something wholly new in the process.

It will take time, though. This stuff is hard. Once the low-hanging fruit is gone (say, multi-column CSS layouts), pushing the limits becomes the povince of a few very gifted individuals and a small horde of talented imitators. It is the law of diminishing returns, and there is no David Siegel book to teach us how. We gotta make it up as we go.

More daunting still is that unlike the extreme skaters Mr. Boodman writes about, we cannot do our tricks in isolation. Ours require an audience, an audience that cares little for our tricks, and less for the time it takes to download and install the software that makes those tricks possible. The Web designer's limits are always defined by the unsavvy audience rather than by his peers.

So yes, much of the current CSS design looks pretty boring, but it's a boredom bred of necessity, and it lays the ground work for better things yet to come.

Chris Kaminski is a markup monkey working for functionNewMedia, a Bonn, Germany, digital media design agency specializing in accessible, standards-based Web design.

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