cultivating design

I have been thinking about web design a lot lately since I'm working on a project where I'm designing web modules for the Focus Initiative at ISU. I've been working on trying to streamline the content there but it's difficult because I'm not creating the content. On all of the pages I've designed, my blog, my teaching sites, my personal site, etc. I'm the one creating the content AND the design. So I can change the content, the style, etc. to work with the design. I can create multiple pages so there's not a lot of text all on one page or I can cut some text or both. Now, that I'm just the design person, my approach to the design and content has to change. It's difficult to strike a balance when there's an enormous amount of content being generated. And they want to use it all.

It's a great learning experience for me, designing for a "client" instead of myself.

One of the things I realized as I'm doing mock ups is that my views of a "good" website have progressed along with my skills. My first website was ridiculous. It was all the things I hate about people's MySpace pages. Too much background, too much sound, too many animated gifs, too much of EVERYTHING. I jammed it all into the page and it scrolled forever. Even as my blog designs have grown and changed, I've discovered that my "tastes" have changed. And see, here is where I think Bourdieu was on to something when he talked about how tastes are cultivated and not some kind of inherent, natural thing. I've cultivated an interest in web design which means I've cultivated knowledge ABOUT design, not just programming knowledge but rhetorical knowledge as well, and how rhetoric and design and content work together or against one another for various purposes. In learning about these areas, I've cultivated a specific taste in web design. And I think what makes a "good" web page often hinges on these cultivated tastes. For example, I think clean design is important, clear navigation, and streamlined content. However I also like creative style elements that push those boundaries of navigation, expectation and design.

So, while my new blog redesign appears incredibly simple. The code was more complicated than I expected. The process of creating it took patience, skill and time. It may appear to be just a regular template to most readers. And in some ways, that's kind of the point. Good web design appears less complicated than it is.

I think this relates to writing. We cultivate tastes for reading based on a number of things, but as our taste changes, we privilege one thing over another. And we often don't realize we do it. So when someone says they despise The Sun Also Rises , one of my favorite books, I wonder what kinds of elements of writing they privilege. The same is true in web design. We can privilege style over content, for example or design over style but rarely is what is said on websites as important as how it's said. Because if you lose your reader in tons of design elements, they won't pay attention to the content. This is where subtlety comes in. The design has to be subtle, almost unnoticeable. Of course, these can differ depending on the rhetorical situation, the purposes and audiences of the site and I think the best designs do well at speaking to multiple audiences.

It's often hard to convey ideas if they're in the middle of chaotic design and style choices. You don't want readers distracted, I guess, is my point. And I think good design and good writing, though obviously constructed and cultivated ideas can share common elements.