Craft, art and web design

I'm interrupting my little blogging sojourn to add some brief notes to the interesting exchange on Branch and Twitter last week on whether responsive web design has robbed web design of 'soul' and 'creativity'.

To recap: a lively discussion got started in response to a tweet by Noah Stokes that clearly touched a nerve: 'I feel like responsive design has sucked the soul out of website design. Everything is boxes and grids. Where has the creativity gone?' Noah initiated a Branch thread to allow a more considered debate than Twitter permits, which is well worth reading for a range of interesting observations on the defining characteristics of responsive web design: what kind of design decisions it does and doesn't permit, and on the deeper underlying question what kind of practice web design is.

These kinds of discussions - this isn't the first - tend to arise when words such as 'soul', 'creativity', 'art' and 'expression' are used to refer to web design, responsive or otherwise. I think use of those terms can encourage misunderstanding of the nature of the activity one is engaged in when designing and developing a website. In brief, web design, properly understood, is a craft, not an art.

Craft

A craft is practised with the purpose of producing something useful. Taken in its broadest sense, craft encompasses fields such as architecture, engineering, product and graphic design. The focus is the development of a tool with a utilitarian function. For sure, the skilled practice of a craft requires imagination, and the end product can - and often should - be aesthetically pleasing. But ultimately the project is undertaken as a means to an end.

Art

Art, by contrast, is pursued as an end in itself. It is a reflective activity concerned with meaning. A work of art - considered from a utilitarian perspective - is quite literally useless, serving no functional purpose. But the value of good art as a source of inspiration and consolation is limitless.

It seems to me that the following cluster of words, among many others, might be properly applied to craft: order, efficiency, effectiveness, discipline, purpose, function, useful, satisfying, pleasing.

And these kinds of words might be applicable to art: meaning, beauty, horror, consolation, soul, creation, imagination, transcendence.

Clearly there are skills common to both craft and art. As I've already noted the work of a good craftsperson is governed by a disciplined sense of the beauty of order. And good art is facilitated by a well-honed, hard-won technique (at least that has been considered a traditional virtue of art). But their respective purposes are fundamentally different.

Responsive web design *is* web design

Consideration of this fundamental distinction between craft and art allows us to see, I think, where last week's discussion about the rights and wrongs of responsive web design risks confusion.

When designing a responsive web site, indeed when engaged in any kind of design, one shouldn't be asking whether it has 'soul': that is a term properly applied to the field of art, not craft. Rather, the criterion of the design's worth should be whether or not it serves the purpose for which the project was undertaken: is the content and functionality clearly set out and pleasing to use? Those are the appropriate criteria for success. (Note that is not an excuse for ugliness: a careless design does not provide a pleasant user experience, even if adequate in a strictly functional sense.)

As I've argued before it seems to me that responsive web design is wholly in keeping with the essential nature of web design, a branch of design that involves developing for fluid rather than fixed mediums. It doesn't matter whether one feels that responsive design limits one's opportunities for self-expression: it is a necessary tool for developing the kind of shape-shifting interface that a website is.

So I think it is a mistake to practise web design, or any other craft, with the expectation that it will serve as a wholly satisfying vehicle for artistic expression. A successful design has aesthetic appeal, for sure, but it is the rather severe aesthetic of orderliness and effectiveness. For opportunities for open-ended subjective expression it's necessary to look to the arts, not design.

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