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Design Distillation - Has Web Design Reached Maturity?

A couple of weeks ago, I made my way down to central Guildford to attend the one-day web conference, WXG. Dedicated to cutting-edge web & digital experiences, WXG hosted multiple speakers who discussed a variety of modern web topics. As a designer, I was really excited to hear Laura Kalbag, Andy Budd, Richard Rutter, Matt Taylor, Miriam Quick and Jon Hicks chat about all things design. The sessions really got me thinking about how modern design attitudes have changed in recent years and how that is affecting the agency paradigm.

How We Design for the Web

Laura Kalbag made clear from the outset of her WXG talk that modern design is not just about the aesthetic. Everything within design has a purpose, whether it be for The Web, Packaging or even Lighting. She described the many forms of design, and even challenged my definition of what design could be.

This was a nice contrast to my days in school. In art class, I was always taught to copy others artwork or to copy still life, rather than to create my own piece of artwork. There is the famous Picasso quote: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. Obviously, Picasso didn’t mean to go out and physically steal paintings, but instead to take an existing piece of art and make it your own. Laura took this concept and described her process. Initially, she referenced other people’s art and design and took it for inspiration - but this is where she now draws the line.

There comes a point in your career where you begin to gain the confidence in your own style. You stop looking at a design and saying to yourself “I’m going to emulate that”. Instead, you start to select elements that you think have potential in your own work and your design eye becomes far more selective.

Rounded Corners

Laura also talked about becoming a ‘T’ shaped person. “What’s that?” I hear you say. A ‘T’ shaped person is someone that has a broad, but slight, understanding of all the elements that encompass the web, but that person is then able to hone a certain skill to become an expert in it. This lets you become a specialist in a specific area, and allows you to lend your expertise to a project - rather than being a watered down ‘jack-of-all-trades’ type.

People who specialize in design are normally perceived as a ‘precious’ bunch; if we don’t get a design right on the first viewing, we can take it as a personal attack. “How can they not like my work?... I did everything to brief, created something awesome… How can it not be right first time?”. Sound familiar? In reality, our design strength comes from iteration. The more you work on something and refine it, the better it becomes and this seems to be something that you learn and grow from throughout your career. I have certainly become more objective and now see reason, rather than fixating on the fact that my design wasn’t initially liked.

It’s Not Just a Design Thing

It isn’t just the attitudes of designers that has changed. Andy Budd talked about the UX of User Experience Design, and how humans react to certain things. User Experience (UX) Design has become a necessary part of the modern web design process. UX is normally viewed as two distinct parts - wireframe design and documentation, but this seems to be arbitrarily separating what is one person's role. At Rawnet, we utilize the expertise of Producers to leverage what a user needs and then creates a wireframe based on their findings.

An extensive knowledge of both the client and user needs is essential before even starting to create the initial wireframes. This also helps take the strain off of the designers, with the producer passing over a well-thought out blueprint to what the client, and their users, are after. UX Design is no longer a ‘buzz-word’, but instead has become a core part to how a website is created.

Information Overload

In the last few years, the web itself has also changed. Images are dominant and information is being displayed in very visual ways. The problem with this boom in information visulisation is the lack of data stories. Most people think that by adding a picture to some statistics they will create an ‘infographic’... but in actual fact, all they have created is a static, digital poster. This isn’t a great visual representation of data, and any statistics will not correlate to the images.

This is why story is important. A good visualisation of data will create a story, encompassing a suitable format and whisking us through the data in an engaging way. Miriam Quick talked about this subject at WXG, discussing the three things to focus on when representing data in a visual form. She stated that to create a great infographic, you need well sourced data, fantastic visuals and most importantly an engaging story. Data needs to be shown and not told - with very little text. It really made me change my outlook on how I was representing data in my own designs.

Intelligent Design

It was really great to listen to the interesting array of speakers at WXG. I really enjoyed hearing the passion that everyone possessed for evolving the web. Both designers and developers are interlinking to create new ground and push the web to it’s next level. I will certainly be taking the lessons I learnt from that day and evolving my work - knowing that one day I could be part of the next revolution.