This article was written in 2013. It might or it might not be outdated. And it could be that the layout breaks. If that’s the case please let me know.

My presentation about art on the web

On the amazing Beyond Tellerrand conference, there was a little known second stage, where people gave twenty minute talks. I was one of those people. In this talk I tried, unsuccessfully, to answer the question if we miss the influence of artists on the web, and if we actually need that influence.

You can view my slides online, but as always, it won’t be clear what I was talking about. And be warned, there are some pretty big images in there! So here’s a summary.


What we, as designers and developers do on a daily basis, is all very, very useful. In order to escape that, I sometimes create nonsense, like pictures of salads (and worse, posters of pictures of salads), a website that publishes nothing every day, a responsive version of the CSS Zen Garden and a responsive version of an illustration by Mike Kus. I write about this, and more wonderful nonsense on this blog (be sure to press the letter l on that site, if you have a physical keyboard).

Of course, this is nonsense, and not art. But with some of these projects I do some research about some of the problems we have as web designers and developers, but in a less practical, a less economic way. This sometimes leads to solutions I would never find in a professional environment, where everything, always has to make sense. So, my hypothesis is that artists could look at our problems, and come up with great ideas that we could never have. I could be terribly wrong here.

Artists on the web

There are quite a few artists on the web. People like Constant Dullaart with his monumental The Death Of The URL. Or somebody like Jan Robert Leegte who plays with the physicality of digital things. And of course we have the brilliant Drunk Men Work Here with fantastic works that play with the material of the web. And this comes very close to what I’m looking for.

How do we see things

In this column I wrote a while ago I explained that artists have always thought about the way that people will eventually see their work. Is it small, is it far away, can you touch it? Does it have a large or a small frame? Is the wall white, grey or purple? Are we standing behind, or next to the statue? There are many, many factors that influence the way we experience the final product, and artists think about these things. They use all the restrictions and possibilities of their materials, and all the possible influences of the environment, and create their work with it. I think it would be interesting if artists would start doing that with the web.

What is web art?

Bret Victor explains that an incredible picture, made with Photoshop, is not real computer art: it’s a classic picture, made with a computer. An amazing animation created with After Effects is in the same way not native computer art: it’s a film, created with a computer. Both examples are old art forms, created with a new tool. It becomes real native computer art once you can interact with it. Or, as he says it: Without behaviour, it’s not native.

I played a bit with that quote and changed it to without adaption, it’s not the web. What I mean by this is that the web is fluid, flexible, and that things on the web should be fluid and flexible too. The only two professions I know that have experience with fluid and flexible things are designers who print logo’s on balloons, and tattoo artists. Both nice professions, but I’m not sure they have the solutions to our design issues. The web is more than just flexible in size. It can be flexible in features. For instance, when you view the responsive version of Mike’s illustration in IE8, you’ll get a textual representation of the work. If you open it in Opera Mini, there’s some colour too. Only browsers that support certain features will see the circles. But apart from screen size and features, the web is also flexible in the way you interact with it, the connection speed is flexible, the quality of the hardware is flexible, the environment we’re in is flexible. This is new. It never existed before. But at the same time, it’s not that new. The web is 20 years old. A Dao of Web Design is 11 years old. The article Responsive Web Design is 3 years old.

Why artists

Now, my talk was supposed to be about artists. And I haven’t really mentioned them at all. That is, because I really don’t know. I just think that artists might come up with brilliant stuff we’d never think of. After all, we are designers and we only come up with useful stuff. If we investigate a possible solution, we will stop investigating once we find out it’s not useful. An artists might go on where we quit and find some unexpected, fantastic stuff there. This could be.

But at the same time it could be the opposite. We’ve seen that a lot. We could consider these insanely big websites, with parallax effects and flashy animations to be inspired by artists. If that’s all that happens when artists start experimenting with the web, if our designs become worse, my hypothesis is wrong. But, it could also be that we learn from them. For instance, take a look at all 222 works on Drunk Men Work Here. I’m sure you’ll be inspired by at least one of them.