More than aesthetics

Paul wrote an article for A List Apart recently about something he calls ‘the web aesthetic’. It’s very good, and if you design for the web you’ll probably find it interesting (and I’m not just saying that just because he references one of my old projects!) But there’s one point that I take issue with, his use of the term ‘print’ to refer to some kind of rigid and not-web form of design. This is common within web design writing and a trivial point within Paul’s article, but reading it yet again made me feel… we should have moved beyond this.

I mean, I get it. Web design got started during the postmodern design and desktop-publishing era, neither of which are very applicable to a fluid, interactive-yet-not-tactile medium. But Müller-Brockmann was also a ‘print’ designer, and I’m fairly sure you could grasp everything you need to know about responsive web design from reading his books and observing someone resize a web-browser window.

‘Print’ isn’t a thing that can be tied to a single idea - print is the act of considering how a mark should be made on a surface to communicate an idea on behalf of a client. ‘Print’ design is the history of graphic design, which since the birth of mechanical reproduction has largely been the history of a privileged few with power communicating to the masses. It’s the history of cheaply-produced bibles, of advertising and political propaganda, but also of the affordable dictionary and the peace sign.

Knowing some history lets us ask more interesting questions of the digital products we create - such as questioning the symbolic role of Helvetica in Google’s UI as it grows increasingly pervasive and corporate, or Apple’s adoption of faux-physical textures as it replaces more and more of our physical products with apps - without reducing every idea to a fad which we either do or don’t like.

As Massimo put it;

We’ve got to insert some level of culture, some level of history, some level of philosophy. Without that, we will have just a continuous stream of little designers, craftspersons at best

Massimo Vignelli at The First Symposium on the History of Graphic Design