More than clay Wednesday January 10, 2007, 5 comments

We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.”

– Lau Tzu

I was recently given the opportunity to demonstrate my graphic design skills by submitting to CSS Zen Garden. At first, I considered this a good way to demonstrate design ability – working with a known quantity, designing for a well known and relatively respected institution in the web-design sphere.

But something – a quiet voice – kept nagging at me. Something about this was wrong. It wasn’t that the whole procedure felt like working on spec, because it most certainly didn’t feel like that – I never would work on spec. It was a deeper flaw, one I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and as time passed, I became more and more bothered by it until suddenly I wrapped my head around it.

CSS Zen Garden isn’t about design. It never has been, and never will be.

Design is about message. It is about presenting information in a way that maximizes its meaning and impact. It is about content, first and foremost. Yes, design has a strong aesthetic component – it taps into communal cultural references to strengthen and focus message. But this aesthetic component – style – is too often mistaken for design.

Content cannot be separated from design. The two are intertwined, woven together to create something larger than the sum of its parts. Style plays a part, but style must be subordinate to design. Style must be subordinate to meaning and clarity

It is style that CSS Zen Garden is all about. It is about the look of the message, not the message. The entire purpose of the site is to educated web developers that style can be separated from content. That the meaning of the content is irrelevant to the meaning of design. CSS Zen Garden mistakes style is for design, and a whole generation of web designers has “grown up” worshipping at the altar of the false gods of style.

When it was introduced, the CSS Zen Garden was conceived of to help educate those who build the web about new techniques for crafting websites. It was created to evangelize standards-complaint web site creation. And as a vehicle for demonstrating to less savvy decision makers how style and content can be separated – how web site style can be updated without changing underlying HTML construction – it has been wildly successful.

But CSS Zen Garden is not about design. It demonstrates the styling abilities of those who submit stylistic interpretations of the site to its creator, but it does nothing to demonstrate design skill or knowledge. While it has been a valuable ally in the fight to make the web standards compliant, it has not promoted good design, and may have blurred the understanding between good style and good design.

HTML and CSS are our clay, web sites and applications are the pots we form. It is what is inside – the content, the message – that truly matters.


Daniel Black Wednesday January 10, 2007

My initial reaction was to respond with something like, “The Zen Garden isn’t substantively different than some hypothetical festival of coverbands, each of whom takes a song that means something to them and expresses it how they choose.” It works, to a degree; bands, actors, directors, designers, and other creative folk have taken the work of others and expressed it in their own voices, through their own eyes.

Then I wondered, “Well, what is the content of the Zen Garden?” It’s a pronouncement of a philosophy, an approach, for a future of web design that has, to a degree, become the standard. I would hesitate to call it vacuous or trite, since there’s much more to standards-compliance (in spirit, anyway) than avoiding the “blink” tag. There is the idea that you should endeavor to make the technology get out of the way of the message, whether that means that you use a sane DOCTYPE or that you’re making your site accessible. I liken it to diagramming sentences and conjugating verbs; just as the medium, as you say, isn’t completely separate from the message, the message isn’t completely separate from the medium. Run Metamorphosis through an online translation engine, and it’s probably not Metamorphosis anymore.

I wonder if Dave even thought about that as he was putting together the Zen Garden. How much more difficult would it have been to at once tackle the method of communicating content, and the method of making content? That’s a tall task in my eyes.

Is the challenge, then, to embrace the message as your own, and design from there, since nothing is really anyone’s but everyone’s, and Dave’s point is as much mine as his so long as I share it?

Dug Thursday January 11, 2007

Its funny (or sad depending on where you look at it from) how the words “design” and “designer” have become so watered down over the last few years. Its kind of like the way anyone who slops paint onto a canvas can consider themself a “painter.” There is so much more to it that the general public (unwashed masses) doesn’t understand.

Over time a word will be over used, of corrupted. I see this a lot at work (pre-press Graphic Artist, thank you very much) where any knuckle head with Publisher thinks they can build an ad.

Just becasue someone has a hammer it doesn’t mean that they are a carpenter. Ya know?

What I really want to say is thanks for this posting, A. It can very easy to get caught up with the mundane and forget the bigger picture. You post reminded my what my employment is supposed to be about.

caveblogem Friday January 12, 2007

Well said. It is a simple lesson, one that people seem to need to learn again and again, because they are easily distracted by beauty, fashion, newness, etc. It all comes back to that rhetorical interaction of content, persona, audience, and, above all, purpose.

Travis Saturday January 13, 2007

Speaking of design, I love your blog design. It’s so clean and uncluttered, yet still functional and has plenty of content. I wonder where the archives are though. Guess I could always use the “search.” Anyways, beautiful design you have here, and this was a insightful post.

Adrian Saturday January 13, 2007

Yeah Travis, this was recently pointed out to me as an issue. There is a link to the archives in the orange bar to the left, but its not terribly intuitive.

I shall endeavour to fix this.

Commenting has ended for this post, but I'd still love to hear from you.

The website of Adrian Lebar

A Rain of Frogs is written, designed and built by Adrian Lebar, a twenty(!) year veteran of web design and development. He is currently managing web and mobile development teams at Canada’s largest and most beloved classifieds site, Kijiji!

He is a father, sailor, snowboarder, skier, cyclist, writer, artist, graphic designer, classically trained musician and afraid of heights.

Adrian is not currently available for freelance and contract work. Learn more.

Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind.”
- Dr. Seuss


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