What if we all woke up one morning and, no matter which web site we visited, the “search box” was always in the upper left-hand corner of the homepage? Would that be the end of web design creativity? Or would it save a few moments of time for folks like me who use the web primarily for research?
In the offline world, it may well be charming that this restaurant has you wait to be seated and that one doesn’t and this one has you order from a menu and that one serves you cafeteria-style, but are similar variations quite as charming on the web? I mean, there are basic elements to a restaurant experience, including where I first stand to be acknowledged, how I order, how I get my food, and where I pay. Similarly, I think, there are basic elements to a web experience.
Before going much further, though, I must mention the book that spirited me down this particular pathway: “The Timeless Way of Building,” by Christopher Alexander, an architect. I learned of Alexander’s work in a keynote address by Sun Microsystems Chief Scientist Bill Joy, the father of Java and Jini.
It is impossible in this short article to do justice to the depth and subtlety of Alexander’s thesis, but I’ll hit some of the book’s main points. Alexander proposes that there are basic elements of “live” buildings and communities. A “live” building brings out and enhances the life within us. Conversely, “dead” buildings suppress and degrade that life. Alexander believes that there is a “pattern language” that, if attended to, can help generate vital, life-giving physical structures and communities.
I think Alexander is trying to rescue architecture from architects and return the act of building to its roots within the human experience. While reading his book, I found myself becoming more aware of my eyes, their positions so near the brain, and the fact that we are physically structured to look outward and forward – much like a house with windows in front and secrets in back.
There is a state of mind that I call “templation.” After immersing yourself in someone else’s ideas via a conversation or book or doing hours of any sort of research, your mind’s eye peers through a new template of thought. When that template of thought is overlaid on a different, seemingly unrelated topic, you make interesting discoveries, notice provocative points of both similarity and discontinuity.
After dwelling in Alexander’s house of ideas, I found myself entering into such a state of templation. Why do certain web designs feel more alive than others? Is there a pattern language that can generate better, more vital web experiences? Do thriving web communities obey certain structural laws? Could web page design be a kind of cue that opens or closes me to the possibility of community?
Where do you begin looking for something so fundamental, if indeed it exists at all? Do you need special training or lots of wine or years in the wilderness? Are you looking for something that stands out or that almost blends in?
Right now, I don’t have answers to any of these questions. (So the title of this article is, I admit, misleading. You had every reason to expect me to deliver a set of rules. Instead, I’m just posing questions, questions that I hope will engage you as they have me.)
I do believe that we are leaving web design – just as we have left modern architecture for quite some time – to a class of specialists, and in the process we are losing what it is we want most: beauty. And, whether we’re willing to admit it or not, beauty IS what we want. (Though it is, as Horace said, “difficult.”) But not beauty as mere ornament or shining surface. What we want is beauty that is functional and accessible, beauty that gives us a sense of fittingness and belonging and familiarity.
My own theory (perhaps too grand a word) is that web design should follow patterns in life, communication, and relationships – it should have introductions, stories, celebrations, shared experiences that build enduring bonds, history, humor, ritual, play, learning, surprise, and repose.
It is reasonable to doubt that a web site – especially a corporate web site – can do any of what I suggest. But, in my opinion, something of value would be gained (or, at least, recognized) in the attempt.
At present, web design often emphasizes novelty at the cost of true communication. There is space, but no sense of place. No gate, no rose garden, no porch, no threshold, no smiling welcome at the door. No beginnings, no middles, no ends.
There is a porch on the western end of Galveston Island. A steady wind from off the Gulf blows through vines and wind chimes and unsettles a rusted license plate that is tacked to an outside wall. The wind blows through you and like the reed you are, you sound your own note.
And in the winter, the sky toward evening is a blue that is straight from a Maxfield Parrish print, and telephone poles stand like crosses. If you could bring yourself to say a word, you know that it would echo down the corridor of years, waking great uncles and grandmothers from their slumbers.
I think of this place now and present it to you as a kind of offering. It is one of the places that makes me whole. It is something you can take with you as you leave this house.