SXSW: Does design matter?

Notes not actually delivered at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, 2005.03.14. I didn’t get a chance to give this presentation, since what emerged was a kind of Q&A session. It went exceedingly well, but for historical interest I provide these notes.


  1. First, some personal background and mea culpas
  2. I started out in graphic design (actually typography, which isn’t the same thing) the same time I started out in accessibility
  3. The whole story, which I’ve told on far too many occasions already, involves bumping into an open-captioned TV program roughly in 1978 when I was 13 years old
  4. I wondered what was going on, so I wrote a letter to the Caption Center in Boston, which captioned the show. I had a typewriter, and it cleverly camouflaged my age
  5. I asked two main questions: What kind of system did they use to caption the program, and why was the w taller than the other letters and why was the quotation mark merely two dots?
  6. Thus did my odyssey begin
  7. The first article I wrote and got paid for was about the typography of captioning in Print magazine in 1989
  8. Typography is still important to me. I just launched a project to design and sell fonts for captioning and subtitling at Screenfont.CA
  9. But I’m a lousy practitioner. My sites look like shite, though at least you can read everything

The Web is about graphic design

  1. Most Web sites are text and graphics
  2. Hence, most Web sites use graphic design
  3. The Web is the first medium that’s based on graphic design where the quality of design says nothing about the success of the site
  4. In that respect, the Web is like Japanese-run Japanese restaurants: Appearance has nothing to do with the quality of the food or the service

HTML is a common denominator

  1. HTML is the common denominator underlying every “Web site,” though HTML isn’t necessary for every single resource that’s available online
  2. Standardistas want you to use valid HTML. I’m one of them
  3. The reality, though, is that most Web sites work just fine in most browsers whether their HTML is valid code or tag soup
  4. The difference becomes one of user experience
  5. Design is not always a factor, since eBay, Yahoo, and Amazon look like worse shite than my sites do but rake in a fortune
  6. Those are the kind of sites for people who know nothing about the Web. People who have never heard of a blog and aren’t even aware that the Web and Internet Explorer are two different things are aware of these kinds of sites
  7. That kind of success leads to the syllogism that a successful Web site does not need good design
  8. But no one has ever bothered to use good design on a really successful Web site. No one has even bothered to take a really successful site and genuinely redesign it
  9. So the relationship of graphic design to Web success is the same as the relationship of standards compliance to Web success: You only find it on sites that are visited solely by people who really understand the Web. We don’t have any proof that mainstream success requires good design, or even good code, for that matter

More factors to consider

  1. There’s another repercussion of the fact that the graphic-designed Web is based on HTML: Suddenly you have more to think about than mere appearance
  2. Look at typography itself. The Association typographique internationale, or ATypI, has been in existence for some 50 years and it lived almost entirely in the medium of print. At conferences, people also talked about typography, which, by the way, is a very strange experience, sort of like actually living Fahrenheit 451, with people uttering words you’d only ever read before
  3. But when ATypI finally got a Web site, it had to conform to the expectations of the medium, which included standards compliance and accessibility
  4. The site was better at both of those things when it first launched, but it’s not that bad now, either
  5. You almost never have to deal with those kind of issues in traditional design. The closest I’ve come to the task was a job my business partner and I did for the Toronto commuter-rail network to prove to them that Helvetica wasn’t a suitable typeface for use on their signage. We used Helvetica and five candidate replacement typefaces and produced positive and negative sharp and blurry mock-up signs in each font. We were able to prove that Helvetica functioned worse than most of the other fonts
  6. But the functional aspect of graphic design almost never came up before the Web. Now, even if you design your Web site entirely in Flash for whatever godawful reason, you still have to consider the technical underpinnings and how to comply with their requirements. Those requirements are expressed through design

Graphic design and marketing

  1. If you look back at the history, graphic design is almost inseparable from marketing
  2. In photography and painting, among other fields, there is at least the tradition of personal work. Even architecture students draw their own dream buildings
  3. But there really wasn’t any of that, at all, in graphic design. You could design something purely for your own pleasure, even just at the level of a charrette, but how were you going to print it? And who were you going to print it for? The whole thing was a contradiction in terms
  4. The Web has fixed this problem in some ways. As long as you’re willing to learn HTML at some level and as long as resolutions under a hundred dots per inch are OK with you, you now have the capacity to produce all the personal work you want
  5. Your issue then becomes the same issue every other Web designer contends with: You have to work around the shitty display resolution of the Web and all the browser bugs we know about

Design is a good idea. It’s also hard

  1. All in all, then, “design” is harder to actually achieve online
  2. Hence yes, design does matter, but only for people who like a challenge; only for people who aren’t satisfied with cruising by on the bare minimum; only for perfectionists, in other words

You were here: joeclark.orgAppearancesSXSW → 2005