"Under Construction" animated gif, designer unknown.
Before the early years of this century, when the arrival of higher screen resolutions and faster modem speeds made the internet an easy and engaging destination, the web wasn't considered terribly appealing to serious graphic designers. In their absence, the original aesthetic conventions of the web were necessarily developed by amateurs; those early users who had their own ideas about how the web should feel and look. Today, this comparatively prehistoric graphic vocabulary has either been forgotten, or is simply regarded with the facile mockery that comes of 20/20 hindsight.
Net artist Olia Lialina
recently published Vernacular Web 2
, an illustrated web essay, and a follow-up to her 2005, A Vernacular Web: The Indigenous and The Barbarians
. In the two texts, Lialina, Professor of New Media at Stuttgart's Merz Akademie, dissects the common graphic language of early web sites — "Under Construction" signs, shimmering bullet-points, redundant 'back' and 'forward' buttons, midi background music, and collections of animated gifs.
Her essays, enthralling and clearly written (despite English as a second language), should be required reading for anyone who routinely designs for the web.
Like many others working in net art
— a genre Lialina helped to pioneer — she uses these familiar, but quickly diminishing artifacts of the early web in her work
. Lialina isn't simply fetishizing tacky graphics; she wants to preserve them. In Vernacular Web
s, she reminds us that these objects have rich meaning, are an important part of internet history, and have, intended or not, a strange beauty. Starry Night background, tiled, designer unknown.
When Lialina writes about what she calls the "Starry Night Background," a popular web design conceit of the mid-90s, it's hard not to feel a tinge of nostalgia. I haven't seen a web page use a tiled jpeg of outer space as its background image in years, and, seeing one again helped me remember how excited I was about the internet when I first started to use it, how limitless it seemed. Still, as captivating as it may be, Lialina reminds us that it is basically impossible to put type on such dense constellations, and points out that these backgrounds aren't, in fact, really appropriate for anything. "Scientific texts, personal home pages, cinema programs, pathfinder image galleries, it's always wrong." As the web became more 'serious' and 'designed', starry backgrounds began to disappear.
But why? Graphic designers relish the constraints and pre-existing rules that govern most off-line mediums. Typically, too, they share a deep engagement with vernacular typography, from painted signs to punk flyers. So why did we so willingly annihilate the clumsy, yet oddly charming (and pervasive) graphic language that came built-in to the early web? If anyone is equipped to solve the problem of how to effectively use a starry night background, it's graphic designers.
Clearly, this is not to say that CNN.com should look like a Star Wars
fan site. There are, of course, places where usability experts and smart, boxed-in content management are the right choice. But, strangely, as the web becomes increasingly populated with a broad, pluralistic variety of ideas and viewpoints, it has started to look more boring, repetitive and generic: it's like finding yourself at a party with a collection of diverse, interesting people, but everyone is wearing the same outfit.
It's easy to see how this has happened. Earlier this year, I worked at a web design firm where the guy who drew the "wireframes," which are basically blueprints for site navigation, worked in one room, the designers worked in the room next to him, and the programmers worked on the other side of the office. This set-up, which I imagine is fairly typical, virtually assured that all of our sites would emerge with a consistent (read "boring") look and feel.
"A good web designer," Lialina wrote to me in a recent email, "needs to be an art director, developer, coder, designer, and needs to know the true history of the medium you work with." There are a few sites I can think of that uphold this admittedly far-reaching ideal. The site for the Yale School of Art
is a wiki, editable by anyone who can log in. Brilliantly, it uses a Web 2.0 technology as a means to an early-web aesthetic end. It feels chaotic and personal, but also smart and considered. There's also a rising trend of what I like to call "fuck you, here's my portfolio" sites, which span from bargain-basement html galleries
to old-school frame driven sites
to scrolling image collections
with almost no type or commentary. 'Default' pages that evoke the early web may be the most practical way to show design work online. Ironically, many graphic designers themselves have taken a back-to-basics stance not in their work for clients, but on their personal web sites. A collection of random shimmering bullet points, designers unknown.
Seeing and reading about early web graphics I had all but forgotten makes me nostalgic, but I know we'll never really go back. And, actually, I don't advocate a full retreat to what Lialina calls the "bright, rich, personal, slow and under construction" aesthetic of the early web. I'm not even sure I'd encourage the mining and re-appropriation of these vernacular graphics by web designers (although it would be great to see it done well). But I would argue that the vernacular web deserves respect, not ironic derision, from the design world — and that many of the relics of the early web should be considered an important part of design history.Teddy Blanks is a senior designer at Winterhouse Studio, and a contributor to the online film magazine, Not Coming To A Theater Near You. His band, the Gaskets, has released two albums.