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A Dao of Web Design at 15

What in many ways is a lifetime ago, 15 years as it happens, I wrote (or more accurately A List Apart published) A Dao of Web Design. The anniversary would have come and gone had not Val Head email me to remind me (after the original person who had the vision to publish the article, Jeffrey Zeldman had reminded her)

Val asked me

Did you ever think its message would have such longevity while you were writing it? There’s not a lot on the web that still holds up after 15 years!

The truth is, I’d already written A Dao of Web Design several times. Just with different metaphor. Perhaps the one I remember best was “Web Pages aren’t printed on Paper“, which also talks about the idea of the Web as a medium, which like other media, such as TV, emerged from older media, which it took many of its patterns from, but which it ultimately had to outgrow. This quote from that earlier article, echoed in the latter, probably captures this best

Let’s call this facility for readers to be able to adapt web based content for themselves adaptability. My heretical viewpoint is that adaptability isn’t a problem, it is a particular strength of the web. And as web designers, we should be looking to make our web based information as adaptive as possible. We should move away from the holy grail of pixel perfection, and both design and implement pages in such a way as to enable adaptability as much as possible.

You see, hard as it may be to believe now, at the time, one of the main goals of most Web design was “pixel perfect” design. Making the photoshop comp appear exactly the same in the browser. And at the time, the idea that this was not what we should be doing was uncommon, even slightly heretical, among everyday Web designers (and their clients and so forth).

15 years later so much has changed, but I hear echoes of that original position (the Web is broken because it’s not more like print) overtime I hear the Web compared with native applications (the Web is broken because it’s not more like native apps).

Perhaps those advocating this position, that progressive enhancement is old fashioned and quaint, that the Web is dead or dying because native apps are better, are right. Perhaps the idea of an application is the apotheosis of the very idea of human computer integration, and the Web, in falling short, well, in being different, is an evolutionary dead end.

But I continue to believe, just as the Web is not print, though it emerged in many ways from the medium of print, it is not just another application platform. It has its own genius, which we could call as I did all those years ago, adaptability. Not that well done Web design and development simply responds, or adapts, to the user’s device, and context, but to the Web itself. Unlike an app, a carefully constrained set of features, with its own silo of data, all walled up and so difficult to share with others, even to hand off to other applications on the same device, harder than it was a decade ago, despite out move toward more open document formats, the Web, at its heart is about interoperability, across devices, across platforms, ideally across sites (though the walling off of Web content we all create from places other than where we created it, Facebook, or Instagram or wherever is to my mind a far greater threat to what the Web might be than native apps that are so often simply slick single site specific browsers).

It’s thing that is different from applications I feel we’ve barely begun to explore. What the Web is becoming will of course feel a lot like the medium of applications, in the same way it did, and continues to often feel a lot like the medium of print.

But it should be different too. It’s an opportunity to break with the 40 year old tradition of applications, and rethink our relationship with machines, and the network.

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