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James Yu

ME 120
Investigation No. 2

The Web: A New Medium

With the arrival of the digital age comes such hallmark technologies like the CD,
DVD, and internet. The sounds are higher fidelity, the images are sharper, and
information flows freely like the Nile. The advantage digital has in all these realms is
that digital representations are perfectly replicable. No matter how many times a CD is
copied, it will sound just as clear as the original. This property has arguably been the
most influential on the World Wide Web, where information is amplified to great heights.
With the digital age comes the information revolution. Text, speech, music, and
data can all be seamlessly, effortlessly, and perfectly transmitted over the internet. This
ease of transmission gives rise to easy content creation and publishing. This is the
industrial revolution, except this time its information that is mass produced. Messages,
articles, and web pages can all be instantly placed on the web, giving access to a vast
audience. But just as with any other revolution, web design was a problem mankind had
never considered. Designers had to tackle a new medium. Many were clueless, while
others sought to understand the medium for what it is.
In the mid-1990’s, the internet reached critical mass and began growing rapidly.
At the time, the only people knowledgeable enough to carry out web design were print
designers. However, designing for print is vastly different than designing for the web.
There were three main issues: rendering quality, widget abuse, and usability.
The technology underlying web pages is such that a web page will not be
guaranteed to render the same in two different browsers. Some of these were
compatibility problems concerning HTML standards, while others were machine
dependent issues. This was not acceptable to the print people—when they publish a
book, it looks the same to everyone—why shouldn’t it be the same for the web? Web
designers during this infancy period worked very hard to force browsers across different
computers to render the same layouts. This is forcing the new medium to adhere to the
old medium, which is not a good design practice.
The designers broke the spirit of HTML by using web design elements in ways
that were not meant to be used. This is similar to breaking Morris’ honesty of materials
mantra. For example, instead of using table elements to show table formatted data, the
designers of early web pages exploited the table as the workhorse for page layout. This
eventually led to bloated and inefficient designs.
The third, and arguably the most important issue, is usability. Web designers
really wanted to impress the customers, leading to flashy and over-the-top web pages that
offered little in terms of usability. In the digital age, it’s cheap to design bigger and
flashier pages, since the actual cost of delivery is nil. But this also led to bloated and ill-
designed web pages that were rarely useful for customers.
In 1998, a group named WC3 began to standardize the way designers code for
web pages. This standard solved the problems of widget abuse and browser adherence
(to an extent). The elements of a web page began to be used as what they were meant to
be used. As years went by, these two problems began to abate, and web designers started
producing web pages in a much more fluid and elegant manner. On top of this, designers
also realized that simplicity of form is key to a good website.
The way web design progressed is not much different than any other
technological revolution, like the electric revolution. Designers were presented with a
new problem and handled it awkwardly in its infancy. Standards were needed to ensure
compatibility in the technology. Just like the standardization of railroad track gauges,
standardization proved to be important for the web.
Also, we saw designers trying to grasp a new medium with the mindset of an old
medium (print). They began ornamenting and tinkering with the medium and produced
unpleasant results, just like with the ornamentations seen on early industrial machinery.
Only as they began to embrace the unique qualities of the web did design become
beautiful.