Big Thoughts from The Strategic Web Designer

Everyone knows what the web is, right? I’m actually not so sure. In a highly unscientific survey, I asked around and received a variety of descriptions. Here is a representative sample of them:

It’s a window to the world … through which you can meet people from anywhere and find virtually any piece of information that exists.

It’s a constantly available and accessible answer to almost any fact-based question you have.

It’s a digital network of content.

The Strategic
Web Designer

strategic web designer book

This article is excerpted from the first chapter of Christopher Butler’s new book, The Strategic Web Designer.

These definitions, gathered from people within my network (which certainly leans digital), should theoretically be accurate. But as I read through them, it is evident that something is missing. The first one describes the web as a tool that enables us to find answers to questions. On the other hand, the second describes the web as the answer itself. The third removes the distinction altogether. In light of the first two, perhaps the third suggests that web content can be either a question or an answer, depending upon you.

These three descriptions of the web are indicative of the struggle we have with being able to distinguish between what the web is and what the web enables us to do. While some people tend toward one description more than the other, most depend so heavily upon metaphor that their collective purpose—the meaning they are intended to provide—is lost. It’s as if I were to ask for a description of air. I might hear anything from the chemical makeup of our atmosphere to how we’d die without it, but its ubiquity is sure to make a pithy account hard to come by.

So, then, what is the web? Does it have an identity separate from its content, its uses or even the tools we use to access it? Is the web actually something, or is it just an idea?

As a next step, I thought that studying the origin of the web might help to clarify these questions. Here, from his original 1989 proposal for the World Wide Web, is Tim Berners-Lee’s description of his intent for the web—what it would be and how it would work:

The WWW [World Wide Web] project merges the techniques of information retrieval and hypertext to make an easy but powerful global information system.

The project is based on the philosophy that much academic information should be freely available to anyone. It aims to allow information sharing within internationally dispersed teams, and the dissemination of information by support groups. Originally aimed at the High Energy Physics community, it has spread to other areas and attracted much interest in user support, resource discovery and collaborative work areas. …

The web contains documents in many formats. Those documents which are hypertext (real or virtual) contain links to other documents, or places within documents. All documents, whether real, virtual or indexes, look similar to the reader and are contained within the same addressing scheme.

To follow a link, a reader clicks with a mouse (or types in a number if he or she has no mouse). To search and index, a reader gives keywords (or other search criteria). These are the only operations necessary to access the entire world of data.

Reading what the creator of the web had to say about his creation certainly helps to sharpen my sense of what the web actually is: a collection of connected digital files made freely accessible by the internet and navigable by standard hardware. And yet, Berners-Lee’s proposal still does not provide an entirely complete description of the web. It certainly doesn’t sound much like the web I know. After all, it was written over twenty years ago. Stopping there would make as much sense as assuming the birth account of an infant is still the most accurate description of the adult she has grown to become. That is, unless the web is the same today as it was in 1989. Of course, it isn’t. Not even close.

Coincidentally, one of my younger brothers was also born in 1989. Today, with clear memories of changing his diapers, teaching him simple new things and hearing him learn his first words, I marvel at the man he has become. He is now the almost inconceivably complex result of his genes, the environment in which he was raised, the many people he has known and every piece of information he has ever encountered—not to mention a million other things my simplistic description leaves out. Though not a person, the web is, in some ways, similarly personalized; its present makeup is also the result of a multitude of complexities and personalities.

The point is that at the time of this writing, my brother is still an undergraduate student—his career undetermined, his future largely unknown. He is still just beginning his life. The web is, no doubt, on a winding road to maturity as well. With the same two decades behind it, the web enters a third—just as my brother does—as a very young adult, still assembling an identity largely under the influence of myriad external forces.

Pushing the child-raising metaphor just a bit further, the web, unlike any other child in human history, has been mostly raised in community, given to us by its “father” to shape and nurture together. This makes us just as responsible for the web as is its creator. For better or worse, we bear the full weight of the web’s identity, which also means that the web will be no better, nor worse, than we are. Indeed, looking at the web reveals much of the human experience. Within it can be found the beauty of love, compassion, charity, gratitude, the wonder of creation, inspiration, joy and truth, as well as the darkness of hatred, spite, envy, greed, lust, shame, jadedness, sorrow, grief and lies. No effort to purge it of its dark side will be any more possible than doing so within ourselves, nor will the dark side ever fully eclipse the light. They may, at times, be out of balance, but one will never subsume the other. The web, I believe, will always reflect back upon us our own complex and often contradictory character.

On the whole, the web represents our willingness to explore who we are. Our curiosity and imagination have left behind a frank display of a culture far beyond that which we are capable of individually experiencing.

If anyone asks me what the web is, I will answer with what I acknowledge is a definition that perhaps favors the grandeur of experience over the means by which that experience is possible—in other words, more like the first two examples I shared at the beginning of this chapter than the third. But I do so intentionally, as my feeling is that the technology powering the web is far less important (and certainly far less interesting) than the role the web has in representing humanity. In only two decades, in part due to how quickly it has done so, the web has become the largest and most important cultural artifact in human history.

And yet, to bring things back down to Earth, it is still a work in progress.

Long ago, in 2007—and believe me, five years is a long time on the web—I read a column by Harry McCracken, the editor-in-chief of PC World, that I have not been able to forget since. In marveling at the pace of technological change, and its increasing scope of reach across the world, he wrote:

More than any communications medium before it, the web is a permanent work in progress that’s always new.

I’ve probably repeated that line hundreds of times since then—to colleagues and clients alike—in order to impress upon them this truth that we will never be finished. I’ve made it my mantra. And really, this is the central, most profound distinction between the web and almost any other medium in existence, especially from a designer’s perspective. While a printed piece moves in one direction, from inception through design and production to the point at which I can hold it in my hands and keep it, web content moves forward and backward in an endlessly undulating pattern, from idea to implementation, there and back again.

Work that is never finished, that changes everything. Our design thinking, the processes we follow, the way we estimate costs and plan schedules, the promises we make, the way we measure success—every facet of the practice of design looks very different when considered in light of the web. But the fundamentals of design, those truths by which we judge design to be good or bad, do not change. This means that designers, though they may naturally specialize in one form of practice over another, need not feel permanently unqualified for interactive work simply because their primary experience has been in print. In fact, if the web is a permanent work in progress, as I agree with McCracken it is, then no one can be permanently unqualified to contribute to that progress. So, I also like to think of our contributions—our web work—in the same way.

Imagine being a child again, sitting on the living room floor, surrounded by blocks. In your mind is a grand vision for a tower unlike any other known to the world, one that only imagination could realize and wooden blocks can only approximate (though thankfully, you don’t yet know this). You start piling blocks, without any plan other than the picture in your mind and the desire to create. In truth, you’re not exactly building this tower, you’re discovering it, shaping it intuitively as you respond to the rubble around you. And there’s no deadline. You’ve got all the time in the world … That is, until Mom calls you for dinner.

If you’re like me, the artist in you still entertains romantic David Macaulay-esque construction fantasies like this one at the outset of most projects you undertake. You begin them with the wonder of child only to be quickly thrust into the practical realities of adult work plans, personnel, budgets, schedules, resources, deadlines and management. Within minutes of getting started, wonder is often replaced with worry. The dreamer in me might find this a bit sad, but I’ve learned two important things that bring me solace:

  1. Web projects are successful when practicality and creativity meet in appropriate measure.
  2. If my whimsy has to take a step back for the sake of the project (which it often does), I’ll always have my living room floor …

Read more in The Strategic Web Designer, and you can see Christopher Butler in person at the HOW Interactive Design Conferences this fall. 

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