What is Web Design Really?

Web designers are all over the the web business anymore. And yet if you really look at the whole world wide web experience, there is actually only a small percentage of websites that could really be considered remarkable places to interact. If there are so many web designers, how come the web doesn’t seem, overall, to be designed very well?

Perhaps because what is typically called web design is a very limited and misunderstood label for appearance as opposed to what web design aught to be about: function. Interacting with a website, because of its visual primacy, certainly benefits greatly from appearance. If it looks like scratchy wool, it won’t wear well on users. But it’s really interactivity and usability and attractiveness of a site’s entire experience that matters. Design is about flows, functions, engineering, purpose. It is beyond appearance and means something entirely different from what it generally purports to be.

Jeffrey Zeldman at A List Apart offers a succinct, thorough and accurate definition of web design:

Web design is the creation of digital environments that facilitate and encourage human activity; reflect or adapt to individual voices and content; and change gracefully over time while always retaining their identity

That’s poetry. Imagine how much better the web would be if designers viewed their tasks from this kind of definition. Wouldn’t things look and work much better for us? Isn’t what we really want from the web are experiences that “facilitate and encourage human activity”? Isn’t’ that where all of the advances are leading us (or should lead us)?

I think all of the fuss over whether to use phrases like “Web 2.0” or “Web 3.0” amounts to basically confused talk about something very simple: Web Design. Google works because of its design (it’s appearance is simple and fairly bland, but the design is complex and remarkably useful). Apple works for the same reasons. We really do need to change our minds about web design if we all are to enjoy a productive, meaningful and beautiful experience–not just on the web, but in our lives. Understanding design is understanding our world.

Perhaps we should introduce a new phrase into our parlance, one that encourages us to live our dream of a better world wide web: Web Design Really. After all, a dream is a fantastic design. And web design is a dream made real. As technology changes exponentially, design will become increasingly important. Eventually the web will open up through other portals besides desktops, laptops, iPhones: radio frequency tags (or their future equivalent) will enmesh and embed us tightly and deeply into the web. Bad designs lead to bad dreams. Bad dreams fast turn into nightmares.

So what is web design really? It’s our gateway out of dystopia.

The Mouse Behind the Television

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, has an insightful post into the free time which modern life gave to us. The fruits of the industrial and technological revolutions of the 20th Century endowed us with extra time that we didn’t quite have before.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

So just how much time are we talking about?

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads.

100 million hours every weekend! By giving us the metric of 2,000 Wikipedia projects, we can see what the opportunity cost of watching television really means. How much more informed would we be if we re-allocated even a small fraction of the time that we put into television into learning something new, creating a sleek-looking web site that could save a part of our world from darkness or ignorance or hatred?

There’s something we all really are looking for that doesn’t live inside the TV. It’s a mouse. Shirky exlains:

I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she’s going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn’t what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, “What you doing?” And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, “Looking for the mouse.”

That little mouse is a really big deal. My interpretation is that what the mouse represents is our bliss. We’ll never find our bliss in a television box, no matter how sleek and high definition it is. What Shirky calls the cognitive surplus available to us from our economic and technological innovations is the means with which we can follow our bliss. And we can use that free time, that cognitive surplus to create our own designs, our own projects and to collaborate with others who are similarly liberated from the opportunity cost of watching television.

The next time you plan on watching television, ask yourself how much you could do with that hour, or day, or week, or year of time instead? Could you make the world a more social and remarkable place to live? I think that I could. But only after I watch the next episode of Lost.

Have You Considered a Career in Farming?

There’s a great picture I found that offers up 10 reasons for you to consider a career in farming.

Here’s the text-friendly version of what’s listed on the photo:

  1. Minimal competition from your peer age group.
  2. The opportunity to implement some of the latest technology breakthroughs in biotechnology and computers into your business model.
  3. Desirable work envrionment including somewhat flexible schedule, working outdoors and no traffic jams.
  4. Agriculture businesses can provide a nice envrionment for raising children to be responsible citizens.
  5. The future of farming involves dealing in finance and marketing and executing business plans and strategies.
  6. Chance to network with other successful farmers around the world through conferences and the Internet.
  7. Seeing your accomplishments and being able to measure your success from field to feed yard to the financial bottom line.
  8. To carry on the family legacy and tradition.
  9. Being involved with an industry that will change as much in the next decade as it has in the last century.
  10. Providing products that are invaluable to society and the economy: food, fiber, and lifestyle.

Now even if you don’t really consider a career in farming, that list is a solid guide for any career. You could apply it to engineering, marketing, web design, blogging, leadership, biomedical products or any enterprise really.

But I’m posting this list here not only as a career suggestion, but also as a list to remind us of what we might be giving up in our drive toward a high-tech world. Do we really know what we’re doing or where we’re heading? I don’t know a thing about farming. But I know that I eat and most of what I eat comes from farms (I hope). And I’m not the only one who knows nothing about farming.

Maybe it’s too late for me, but I don’t think the market for food will vanish anytime soon. Do you?

Questioning The Future of Our Businesses

In a world where customers can blog, Google, StumbleUpon, Digg, Twitter, del.icio.us, Technorati, Mahalo, Furl, Magnolia, Reddit, Sphere, FaceBook or MySpace a business’ products and services, does anyone really believe that email and voicemail will keep our businesses ahead of the merciless curve spiking up through this century?

Wouldn’t it make sense for companies to get their employees up-to-date with the latest Web 2.0 tools? Roll out RSS feeds to employees to keep them posted on the company’s latest news, projects and opportunities? How much value could be generated from a policy that encourages employees to invest 20% of their time at work blogging, social book-marking or otherwise engaged in acquiring the skills needed to stay ahead of the curve? Employees surf the web anyway. Why not tie their downtime to the needs of your business? It has it’s risks, but taking risks is the business of business.

As computer technology shrinks in size and grows in power and portability, the opportunity and necessity for companies to infuse the market with remarkable products and services becomes increasingly unavoidable. The failure of our businesses is not inevitable. But failure does become increasingly inevitable for those businesses that don’t grasp the exponential changes taking place right now.

The democratization of the world is accelerating, it’s cruel, it’s dangerous, but in the end it will be liberating. If your business wants to win, giving your employees the edge is the most remarkable way to thrive in the 21st century.

What Apple Saw in 2010

In the 1980’s Apple would run commercials predicting how the world would look in the future. Here’s one:

Pretty remarkable. A bit 80’s cheesy, but still fairly close to what we’re doing these days.

But here’s an observation and a question. There was a time before personal computers and the internet when writers had great visions about the kinds of things we’d see in the future. Those writers had incredible imagination and they understood the moral implications of their high-tech visions. But now that we actually have some of the stuff around, we don’t seem to produce the same quality or number of visionary writers. What happened?