I was at the Natural History a few weekends ago, and to pass a little time before Cosmic Collisions, I walked the cladogram of vertebrate evolution. I don’t know that sort of full-contact, total-immersion classification will ever really take hold with American Youth, but one of the wonders of New York City is that there is a place for everything, and everything invades your space.
And this made me think about web design. Carrie Bickner and I were discussing this idea a few weeks ago and talked about Curt Cloninger’s magnificent book, Fresh Styles for Web Designers, as a sort of starting point. His goal is inspiration and instruction for people really building sites, but along the way he classes and organizes web design into several schools. It’s a lot like a textbook on Art History. Carrie also made the compelling point that you needed to show the print side of web design because web design has its own classic books (Weinman, Cloninger, Black et al.) in addition to the general graphic design classics, and these all influence how web designers work.
But those cladograms got me thinking about another way to approach the history of web design, and that is through selective pressure and fitness. This isn’t special to web design, of course. In fact, it’s fundamental to all design. Books are rectangular because cows are (more or less) that shape; Italic type was developed as a way to cram a few more letters on a line to allow for smaller books and thus save money on paper (and make them more pocketable).
A designer is under pressures from standards, browsers, plug-ins, tastes and styles, and bandwidth allowances. It might be that web design is a good vehicle for exploring the idea of art under constraint. It might be fruitful to ask what the distinction between “design” and “art under constraint” happens to be.
Back at the Natural History last weekend, I went through the Darwin exhibit with an old friend. He’s a conservation biologist studying shorebirds in Barrow, AK. As we had lunch afterwards he made the observation that a good way to keep one’s perspective about fitness is to treat it as a historical phenomenon. The existence of an organism today means that its parents were fit yesterday.
A similar approach would be interesting to apply to the web. It would lead to questions like “why does flash persist as a common feature of websites of types x, y, and z?” rather than “is flash good or bad?” Putting the historical/fitness question into play in preservation strikes me as a smart move.