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Steven Heller Angries Up The Blood

In catching up with various media after my vacation, I got around to listening to a BusinessWeek Innovation Podcast with graphic design luminary Steven Heller on The Business of Web Design.

Given the podcast’s title, I wasn’t at all ready for the conversation that occurs, wherein Mr. Heller blathers a misguided, outdated, outmoded, and mostly pathetic commentary on the state of design online.

Anyone familiar with the history of web design, could tell you that his commentary is reminiscent of what was spouted in 1996-1997 when graphic designers realized they were going to lose their battle to gussy up the web with “aesthetics” and that, god forbid, people just wanted to get shit done online.

This is not to diminish the role of great visual design online. But why do old guard graphic designers have to declaim that the current state of design on the web is so bad, and that it must be thrown out in favor of a more aesthetic one? The web is a remarkably successful medium and content platform. I’d pay more attention to the likes of Mr. Heller if he demonstrated an appreciation for the nature of the medium, and articulated a desire to mix in great graphic design with what’s already there, instead of grousing about clutter.

It’s just appalling that after 12 or so years of web design practice, we’re still having to address these inane views.

  1. Heh. That sure takes me back. Circa 1996 I was working closely with a designer who produced an endless stream of whines about the difference between the web and print. Or more accurately, the web’s failure to conform to his print-based desires. He didn’t pipe down until I threatened to beat him to death with his own Pantone book.

    One of my favorite Hacker’s Dictionary entries is “eighty-column mind”, which refers to the programmers who had a hard time making the leap from punch cards. It’s always hard to learn a new medium, a new paradigm.

    And although I didn’t listen to the podcast, I suspect there’s another phenomenon at work. If you’ve got talent and have studied your field deeply, most of what people do will inevitably be below your standards. E.g., if you’re a film critic, a lot of movies others are perfectly satisfied with seem like crap to you. Or if you’re a chef, you’ll see people eating a lot of stuff you’d never touch.

    I see two ways to deal with this. One is to work with people where they are, and to be pleased that the medium has broad uptake. The other is to stomp around and sigh a lot, decrying the death of greatness, etc. The latter isn’t particularly productive, but it does allow you to rant a lot and feel smugly superior to the peons. And it’s a safe niche; if you’re in the top 1%, there will always be plenty to find fault with.

  2. i listened to this as well and had to check my calendar to really make sure it was 2008 and not 1998.

    he made some ambitious generalizations, but at the end of it, i left thinking that he really just needs to read mcluhan.

    personally, i think web design (in general) is the best that it’s ever been, that the practice is all but fully integrated with where technology is these days, and that the whole discussion is a waste of time. the best “designs” are not about aesthetics, but in interactions and the experiences informed by those interactions. social media being the most interesting area, and although they call it web 2.0, i think it’s more social media 1.5 (MUD’s being 1.0) and social media 2.0, 3.0 etc will be the most interesting areas of evolution.

    in print, there’s no evolution left. how do you evolve paper? therefore, the medium has stalled, therefore the frontiers are in styling up the messages. on the web, the medium still evolves as do how we understand new ways of crafting new kinds of messages through interaction. geez louise, this is why i hate print design. it is what it is with little or no speculation as to what it *could* be.

    his preponderance over aesthetics simply puts him in the 1/10th of 1% of ivory tower elites, a cognoscenti cohort that frankly, no one really cares about.

    it is embarrassing that businessweek didn’t think about their choice of interviewee a little harder. (i have more misgivings about BW in general, but that is a tangent.)

    thanks for the post. liking the new aesthetic experience of your blog, peter. but the aesthetic experience was never why i read your blog in the first place. shoot me if it was.

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