There Is No Cat

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Monday, July 15, 2002

Maximalist Web Design

Speaking of minimalist HTML, here's the antithesis. British Telecom spent a million pounds Sterling to create a site called Connected Earth that I'm told is about the history of commununications, yet forgot to make sure they would be able to communicate. I say I'm told it's about that because I was unable to get through to the site. Instead, I was presented with a dialog box that told me I needed to use Internet Explorer 5 or greater (I was using IE 5.1.5 for the Mac), that I needed to have at least Flash 5 plugin loaded (I have Flash 6 loaded), and that I needed to have QuickTime loaded (a Mac without QuickTime loaded? Don't make me laugh!) No wonder BT is going down the tubes.

By contrast, when I was the webmaster for Bell Labs, we managed to put together a decent site that served as a tutorial about how telecommunications works for literally orders of magnitude less than what BT spent. (Don't blame me for the look and feel of the site today; they've changed it completely in the six months since I left. And damnit, the pages used to validate when I was webmaster, too.) BT probably spent more on lunch than we did on this site. Not that Lucent was incapable of spending BT-like sums. There was another subsite on the Bell Labs site, one that I had nothing to do with developing, that cost quite a substantial fraction of what BT spent on their site. It was intended to stay up for a week. It wasn't quite as useless, but for the money they spent on it, they could have kept me as an employee for another decade at least instead of laying me off. (Another link stolen from Zeldman.)

Posted at 10:20 PM

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Note: I’m tired of clearing the spam from my comments, so comments are no longer accepted.

Why do companies let those with no design abilities create their websites? I've seen site after site that has 80 million bells and whistles and no design concept, no usable navigation, and plenty of corporate hoopla and support for a crappy site. Meanwhile, there's probably a good 20 people at that corporation that have better personal sites (and could have done a much better job -for their regular salary- who would have looooooved the opportunity to design and build that site for them instead of doing whatever work they do).

Where I used to work, they had a "webmaster" who had no clue about web *DESIGN* ... but he could put up all the bells and whistles that the front office wanted. The front page was an eyesore (waaaaaay too busy), loaded slowly (too much on one page), and didn't even have a consistent scheme for their mouseover buttons, much less the entire site itself. To make matters worse, the front office decreed that this monster of a page (already on strained bandwidth) be forced on the company as the startup page for IE.

Genius has its limits...

Posted by BlueWolf at 11:14 PM, July 15, 2002 [Link]

The "minimalists" believe that any document published on the web should be accessible to the greatest possible audience, with as little limiting requirements as possible. In practice, this means that the effort and skills applied to the project should focus on technical issues rather than aesthetic research and development and target audience definition. These people assert that the function of any document(s) available on the web is first to be accessible, second to be easily updatable, and third to be maintainable at little cost and effort. Then, if any time, money and energy are left, additional efforts might be made to give a pleasant appearance to the product.

In the vast majority of websites who apply/subscribe to those principles, though, it is manifest that the latter step has been neglected or worse, has been carried out with very little success. Of course this is quite logical, since it obviously requires a different approach and skills, and I should say a different frame of mind and sensibility altogether, to worry about appliance of complex standards and the "validating" of incredibly rigorous tests of conformity, rather than about visual impact, audience expectations (which is not only about usability but also originality, identity and style) and overall design (again, design is more than information structure or interface coherence).

If I were to be bold enough (God forbid!) to formulate a psychological hypothesis regarding the tenants of "minimalism" and web standards, I would say that they seemingly tend to suffer from a compulsive need to follow rigid guidelines and to "conform" or "validate", no matter how much effort it takes and regardless of effective benefits. They also appear to consider that there is only one way to do things right, and that the fact that not everyone agrees (or even that most people just don't care) is a sign of the perversity of the world, an unjust fate, the immaturity of civilization or whatnot. This frame of mind, which reminds me somehow of soviet socialism, is indeed totalitarian in essence. Here we have a supposedly homogenous medium (the web), which supposedly has one single function (convey information efficiently), and which supposedly requires the enforcement of one set of centrally defined standards and practices.

At this point I feel compelled to ask a number of (shockingly) provocative questions. Such as: what would it feel like if the web was made exclusively of rigorously conforming and validating pages, almost identical in appearance and structure, loading at exactly the same speed, etc, etc. ? In my opinion : spooky. Another weird vision : what if all paper documents had to conform to a set of rules alike in spirit to that of web standards? In other words, what if graphic design had to submit entirely to the ascetic ideal of a universal minimum common denominator and the search for maximum speed, convenience and economy? I can envision it: only one paper format (say, which would have to fit in the average handbag), only big type (for visually challenged people), only black on white text (for high contrast), only cheap, recycled paper (for economy and sustainability), only one page numbering scheme and summary structure (for ease of use), and so on. You get the picture.

But apart from my provocative impulses, the issue at hand really is one of both philosophy and understanding of what the web is. Philosophy, because it is one view to believe that nonformatted text is substance, exclusively, and that information is nothing but objective data to be accessed per se, and it is another to think that form *is* content too, and that information has to be *expressed* to be communicated, and that it is necessarily changed in the process. Understanding the web, because the web is *not* only about services and business communication, but about brand presence, advertising, communities, and even multimedia creativity, self-expression and art!

Let me put it this way (and I will leave it there for today, I promise) : humans are not machines ; most of them won't care if what they see "validates" or not. That is why human languages are different from programming languages and have grammars that are flexible enough to allow for great variations in expression, and even sometimes what's called poetry. Yes, humans are like that : sometimes, when they can afford it, they are willing to spend more time and money to make a "fancy" website that will have to be redone six months later. They will experiment in look and feel. They will try to distinguish themselves through their creativity rather than their integrity (integrism?). They will say : "I'm making this only for those who have this browser and that plugin installed, but I think it's worth it and maybe they will, too." And personally, I'm glad they do.

Posted by Mediatize at 7:08 AM, October 21, 2005 [Link]

Mediatize... I see your point, but o tottaly desagree with your arguments. I do not design minimal web sites, but i like then. And your reasons to hate then are not racional. Sorry.

Posted by Eduardo at 11:11 AM, December 20, 2007 [Link]

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

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