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Revisiting the Web's Identity Crisis

Thursday, February 3, 2000
by Mark Hurst

My January 21 entry, "The Web's Identity Crisis," discussed the recent redesign, which turned the Word home page into a near-clone of Yahoo. An accompanying letter from the art director described the pressures on Web designers to conform to the Yahoo standard of simplicity.

The art director's letter caused bits to fly in the Web design community, so many that the art director wrote a follow-up note. Watching the e-mail discussions, one commentator concluded that many Web designers are disappointed, having seen the Web "as a wild untapped frontier where they could build their own individualistic log cabins, then watched as the whole area was colonized by cities and businesses."

I like the metaphor of the log cabin and the city because it's so accurate. Many Web designers want to express a personality, a "soul" in their work, yet they are increasingly being forced to create more corporate design, or else leave to find "real" design work elsewhere.

But when has it been different? I can't think of a time in history when artists (other than the rare celebrity) were free to create whatever they wanted, and still make millions of dollars doing it. Serving artistic integrity is rarely the same as serving a corporation's interests.

But minus the money, why the complaints? On the Web, designers can design all they want. If they're willing to forego the hefty salary or the IPO millions, Web designers are free to create whatever wonderful, compelling online experience they want -- and thanks to the Web, they'll have free global distribution. In other words, I wonder if money plays a large part in the designers' outcry. If designers want the best of both worlds -- total creative freedom AND a few million from an IPO -- the quickly maturing Web industry will probably disappoint them.

My brother Kevin wrote in with this thought:

Whenever I get onto the Web, except for those rare occasions when it's for entertainment, my primary goal is to minimize the time it takes to find the info, buy the product, or print the graphic. Having said that, I also mourn the passing of the golden era. While there will always be a niche for the creative, custom design, most website designs eventually will become as exciting as a modern office park or skyscraper. That's the American way. Our society has always valued efficiency more than aesthetic edification. This has been a clearly defined aspect of the American character since de Tocqueville wrote about it in the 1830s. The contrast between the plainness of American popular culture, which with a certain elegance of its own is still essentially simple-minded, and the intricate traditions of the European cultures, which represent centuries of fine-tuning the art of living, has been well-established for centuries. A recent movie based on this theme is "Big Night."

My point is that the Web, along with most of modern business and culture, is simply an outgrowth of these American ideals. The Internet Revolution is not much more than that of the telephone -- a new form of communications, which of course spawns some new social structures, but mostly supports the existing ones. And like the television, for all of its promised freedom of content, the Internet can do little more than reflect society at large.

Kevin is right. Though designers are free to be creative outside the corporate realm, for profit-oriented sites the "golden era" is indeed over. Like it or not, the customers are now in charge, and on most sites they want simple and fast experiences.

If customers don't want the thing that you want to create -- here's the kicker -- find new customers! With free global distribution, the Web provides a large and diverse enough customer base to support all sorts of experiences. True, the majority of users will prefer the Yahoos and Amazons of the world -- but a small minority of users will prefer experiences that are more creative/immersive/whatever. Assuming several hundred million worldwide users, even a site that is preferable to one tenth of one percent of users can still succeed.

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