Let’s make a real world comparison: buildings are very much like web sites. So are we (web designers and developers) essentially just architects? When you compare web design with any other major form of art, fine art, print design, music, sculpture, architecture, it almost directly compares itself to architecture. Web design, like architecture, is an art form that has many differing interests. Web sites and buildings have users, clients, companies, products, information, technology, structure and design.
So the question is, can we learn from architecture to make web designs better? Fortunately architecture has been studied for hundreds of years so we have plenty of resources to tap into. One of the great artisans who pioneered engineering and architecture was Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman engineer, architect and artist. In his book De Architectura he describes three fundamental principles of what great architecture should accomplish:
- Firmatis: It should stand up robustly and remain in good condition — be durable.
- Utilitas: It should be useful and function well for the people using it — be functional.
- Venustatis: It should delight people and raise their spirits — be beautiful.
These three principles can be directly applied to web design as well. Every really good web site should have these same principles: durability, functionality and beauty. In the beginning web design was just one document of information, a basic text document. As the web progressed, CSS allowed web sites to separate the content so that it could be re-skinned without altering the structure of the site. Today, HTML5 semantics is allowing us to finally separate meaning from structure and style so that web sites can be durable and be ready to embrace new technologies as they come.
These principles are fundamental for web design as much as they are to architecture. We’ve all designed, developed or have used sites that do not follow these principles. Without durability a site loses its ability to grow with the times, without good function a site will never be used and without a pleasing design nobody would even stay on a site let alone revisit it. A website is complicated but I like these principles because it makes the task of designing and developing a site easier to digest. They allow you focus on what is important and not get lost in every little detail of a site.
Building for “Firmatis”
Durability is probably the most overlooked aspect of web design. Most of us never consider the life span of a website when we start to design. But durability is important even to web design because web products are starting to live longer. Some web applications and sites will probably live to be older than most of us. Now, I know what you are thinking — it’s really easy to redesign a web site — and that is true, but what if it could be even easier? If you design and develop for durability your next redesign is going to be so much easier if you don’t have to rewrite every file HTML, CSS and JS file in the structure.
Semantics and a progressive approach to web design are required for durability. Creating semantic markup – markup that describes but not specifies – is important because it allows the site to be updated quickly by any designer or developer. Most designers and developers don’t stay on a web project or even the same company for the life span of it, so by using proper semantic markup you can leave behind a good foundation for others to modify or build on without them having to know everything about the code structure.
Progressive enhancement and responsive design also play a huge part in durability. When you keep in mind that people will view the site differently in whatever browser they prefer and that it’s okay for the site’s design to render a little differently, or adjust to that browser, then your site can stand strong for a long time. If you design a site to look best in one particular browser, you not only isolate users, you also hurt its life span. When a new browser comes out that has better user adoption then the one you designed for, you will lose users, or you will have to completely redesign and rewrite for that new browser. Don’t waste time chasing browsers, flexibility in web design builds durability.
Aw, usability. Over hundreds of years of building things we have come to understand that you can have the best invention ever, but if you can’t use it, it doesn’t matter. An architect has to make sure that all the doors open the right direction, that all the light switches have to be close enough to doors so people can reach them, that all doorknobs and elevator buttons must be placed so that all user can access them. Same goes for web design — even though some will argue against usability. A successful web site must be functioning and usable: the navigation needs to be clear, buttons need to have hover states, and all elements need to be accessible to all users.
Proper function and usability are probably the hardest things to develop in a website. So much of it depends on preference and the skill level of your users. Standards and conventions solve most usability problems. Just imagine if buildings didn’t have standards and conventions, if a particular architect put power outlets in the ceiling because he/she liked the way it felt or if he/she decided to go super minimalist and not use outlets at all. Standards are proven concepts, they represent years of bad functionality corrected. As designers we need to understand that the first priority of the site is to be functional to the user, to work in a comfortable, familiar fashion so that the user can accomplish their goals.
Websites should be easy on the eyes, they should appeal to people and people should be drawn to use them. A great web design should be able to spark some kind of thought or emotion simply by the color scheme, unity or composition alone. Design is a powerful tool and when done correctly can accomplish many things that function and durability can’t. Design has the unique ability to fill something in all of us, whether is be print ads or architecture.
I drive by a bunch of buildings everyday to work but there is one newly constructed building that for some reason just looks way better than all the other building around it. I have often tried to figure out why it appeals to me so much but I have never been able to quite pin point its appeal. One day on the way home from work I just had to stop and see what the inside looked like and it was just as beautiful inside as it was outside. While inside I discovered a new restaurant that I hadn’t been to. Since then, I have frequented the restaurant. I know is sounds cheesy, but the design of the building is what allowed me to discover a great new restaurant.
Web design is no different than the design of that building. A well designed and beautiful web site will attract people for no other reason and when they stop to enjoy the design they will be able to discover what is “inside”. Honestly, that is why I keep trying to use Spotify even though most of my music searches come up empty. I know I can find songs easier on GrooveShark, but Spotify is so much prettier to me so I keep coming back.