you want to know when new interviews go online,
subscribe to the WebWord.com
the Art and Science of Web Design
An interview with
Jeffrey Veen, author of The Art and
Science of Web Design
Conducted via email by John S. Rhodes
How is web design an art? How is it a science?
The phrase "Art & Science" seemed the perfect way to frame the
new book, simply because the art of Web design is so
deeply rooted in technology. More and more often, designers are being thrown into technical discussions
or even adding coding skills to their resume. The Web is still so young; we don't have the powerful tools that let design happen in an abstract
way. With print, you really don't need to be able to write Postscript. But not so with the Web. Writing code by
hand is often the
only way to truly control your design.
But the opposite happens, as well. Web design can also fall into the trap
of thinking about nothing *but* technology. And when that happens, its easy to forget about what good design is.
How have your ideas about web design changed
over the last couple of years? In this respect, how did you think the web was
going to evolve? How did it actually evolve?
I've always been a sort of realist when thinking about Web design. Five
years ago, we were thrilled to be creating a new medium -- there were no rules, and everything was exploration. Yet, in the back of my mind, I knew
that most of what we were doing was simply a new version of old stuff. I used to buy stuff over the phone by navigating a sort of voice mail system
and punching in product codes from a printed catalog. Isn't that essentially ecommerce? What could we learn from those old
systems? How about the information systems that newspapers were experimenting with 20
years ago? What about database design theories developed 30 years ago? What about typography from 600 years ago? Maybe I studied too much history
in college, but there isn't all that much new stuff to develop when you think about how much there is still to learn from the past.
What are the core web design principles we should
know about? Are these principles based on research, experience, commercial success, or something else?
The principles for Web design are pretty straightforward: know your
audience, keep it simple, be fast, know the rules before you break them. With the exception of the speed thing, I'm
not sure they're all that different from designing in any other medium. Applying common sense to Web design
would make 90 percent of the sites out there so much better. It's just so easy to get
caught up in what you can do and forget about what you should do. It's a classic technology paradox.
How will unlimited bandwidth change the way
that people design for the internet? Similarly, how will unlimited storage and
connectivity change designs?
Speed will be abused, I'm afraid. It will happen in much the same way it
has with processors and memory. Microsoft Office, for example, has grown to fill the available speed and space of modern computers, even though it
does the same basic things that it did ten years ago. Web sites will soak up whatever bandwidth a user has, and will continue to for some time. It's
a shame really, because it means the Web will ways feel sluggish no matter how often users upgrade their connections.
Still, getting a mass audience off their dial-up connections and on to
dedicated connections will be a very good thing. I've had a dedicated connection to the net at home for years now, and can't imagine what it's
like to have to sit down at a desk and think, "OK, I want to surf the Web now." Once you always have the connection, it changes the way you perceive
the networked world. I don't remember the last time I looked up a number in the phone book, or turned to a printed dictionary for a definition. I
just jump over to a Web site. It's exactly what the Web is great at.
How do you know when a design is successful?
How does your definition of success relate to usability, technology, and art?
On a very basic level, any design can be considered successful when it
meets the needs of its audience. That said, the success of an online travel site, a site supporting a new video game release, and a virtual
gallery of animation should be measured very, very differently. Should the travel site inspire or have a hip edge? Hmmm. Should the game site allow
for efficient task completion? Well...
I have a problem with the standard usability practice of heuristic
evaluation. It's the idea that I can do an expert appraisal of the effectiveness of a Web site by measuring it against a predefined set of
metrics. That may be a good place to start, but without a keen awareness of the business objectives of a product and the peculiarities of the
specific audience, there's really no point.
What web sites do you like the most and why?
There are really two groups of sites I like: effective and inspiring. For
the first, consider Amazon.com. I'm continuously amazed at how effortless the experience of shopping at Amazon is. I feel like I'm in control of the
process during every step, and the personalization features and group dynamics are really starting to get impressive. I think they are a classic
example of knowing an audience and providing powerful tools for them.
But for inspiration, I look elsewhere. I surf through
Kaliber 10k all the time. Or glassdog.com. Or
zeldman.com. There are so many people out there doing so much amazing work.
Why are dynamic web sites so important to you?
Why are they valuable? How can someone easily and effectively put together a dynamic web site?
find that dynamic sites put a tremendous amount of power in the hands of designers by freeing them of the tedium of markup.
I know so many designers who spend so much time fussing with font tags and tables when
they could be focused on the architecture of interface systems. Even the smallest sites can be using server-side scripting to make the management of
their sites ever more efficient. Writing HTML by hand is only a small step away from using a few server-side includes to, say,
standardize your navigation. Then, you're ready to add a few simple scripts to your pages
that will do things like browser sniffing and the like. Too often, dynamic pages are billed as this big scary technology that requires a degree in
Computer Science. I hate that. It's a powerful tool that designers can be using right now to make them more effective at building
Tell us about your new book: The Art and Science of
Web Design. How is it different? What are the key points? Give us a concise
This book is really based on the last couple of years of Web development I
was involved in. We were looking to solve some pretty fundamental issues on our Web sites -- how to manage designs for multiple browsers, how to keep
our pages downloading quickly, how to effectively integrate advertising, how to design sites that were generated dynamically from
databases. At the same time, our company was growing very rapidly, and we were trying
desperately to keep up by hiring new designers. What I found was that a lot of people who called themselves Web designers who had rich visual
design experience but really didn't understand the technology of the Web. Many designers were great with typography, layout, visual hierarchy and
communication but didn't know anything about how the Web was a fundamentally different medium. And while many traditional
design rules apply to the Web, many do not. So primarily I wanted to teach designers
the difference, and to do that I needed to show them where the Web came from and how it's different than anything before.
The other motivation I had in writing this book comes from the competitive
analysis I did on Web design books. So many books these days teach Web design as either a course in technology (i.e. "Learn HTML in 21 Days") or
as a set of applications you need to learn (i.e. "The Dreamweaver Bible"). Both of these are valuable skills a Web designer needs, but
they only scratch the surface. I wanted to write a book that teaches people to think
like a designer -- to understand the particular problems a Web designer needs to solve from the inside.
What books and magazines do you read? What
research reports and articles do you care about? How do you stay informed?
Things move fast in our industry. I find that most of the printed material
I read is for inspiration and falls outside of our industry. To keep up with what's going on I stick primarily to online communities and Web logs.
The Webdesign-l list is invaluable
if you're able to keep up with the tidal wave of posts and follow the strict community
guidelines. And there are sites like Slashdot,
metafilter.com and plastic.com for
Do you think that large corporations are going to
completely dominate the internet? Does this have anything to do with design, usability, and information
suppose it depends on what metric you use to justify corporate domination. If you look at traffic patterns and usage behavior,
then sure, the large corporations are dominating. If you look at revenue or valuation, then again it's the big players. But there
are plenty of other views of the Internet that aren't locked up in corporate hands. How about
innovation in visual design or client-side interactivity? Do you see that at Yahoo or Lycos or Ebay? No, you have to look to personal sites, the
underground, the avant guarde. It's the same in any media. The major record labels don't spend millions on promoting experimental music.
The last thing they care about is innovation. They just want sales. Same thing
on the Web. But every so often something pops through the mediocrity and makes things interesting again.
If you could change one thing about the internet,
what would it be?
I would try to make it as invisible as possible. For most people today,
using the Internet means sitting at a desk and hearing the modem screech and bringing up a browser and squinting at a screen. That seems about as
appealing as getting out to turn a crank to start your car. I don't want
to navigate six menus with voice commands as I drive down Highway 101 just to get
traffic information. I don't want to check my email from my refrigerator. I want to see the Internet creep into places we don't
expect it, and I want that experience to be seamless and delightful.
New book: The Art & Science of Web Design
First, I'd like to
say thanks to Jeffrey for taking the time to work with me on this interview.
Second, I encourage you to pick up a copy of The
Art and Science of Web Design. Third, Web
Reference has posted a sample chapter (Part
One and Part
-- John S.