This is a translation of a Dutch column that was originally published in edition #55 of the Dutch, paper version of Web Designer Magazine. The way we see a painting depends on quite a few factors. What kind of paint did the artist use, and how did she prepare her canvas? Maybe she used cardboard instead of canvas. Apart from these technical variables there are many other things that influence the observation. People will experience the painting differently if we exhibit it on a fluorescent yellow wall, instead of a black wall. It will look different under a daylight lamp than under an old fashioned light bulb. The age of the painting, and the quality of the eyes of the spectator are of influence too. Many artists explore these factors. During the Renaissance period you had the trompe-l’oeil painters. Lighting and the exact point of view are an integral part of these paintings – Holbein’s skull is probably the best known example.
When we look at sculptures there are even more variables. How big is the spectator? From which side is he looking at the work? If the work is outside, in the open, things like day or night, rain or sunshine, summer or winter will greatly influence the appearance. Maybe the work has flaps that wave in the wind. Is the work on a roundabout, or do people have the time to take a good, close look at it?
Artists handle these factors in an artistic manner. They’re not really looking for practical solutions, like designers. They experiment with the materials at hand and combine them with the aspects of the surroundings. The work itself is the goal.
On the web we have many, many more variables that influence the way we experience things, sometimes dramatically. Apart from all the factors that influence the way we perceive art, there’s also a whole slew of technical factors. Does the visitor use a moders browser or a text-only browser. Or maybe he uses an RSS-reader? The content is the same for these three visitors, the experience is completely different. It could be that the modern browser does support rounded corners, but doesn’t show text-shadows. The site could be viewed on a huge iMac, it could also be viewed on a tiny Nokia. Then we have things like the quality of the monitor. The site will look completely different to someone with a new, calibrated display, to someone else with a ten year old Windows XP laptop and to someone with a Kindle Paper White, which has a black and white display. The speed of the connection and the speed of the processor will affect the experience too.
These technical variables make sure that nobody will see your site exactly the way that you see it. But there are more factors. People might have preferences in how they view the web. Maybe the visitor hates small fonts and thus changed the minimal font-size to 20 pixels. Or maybe he’s seated in the dark and inverted the colours on his screen. When the visitor is male, there’s a big chance he’s colourblind too!
On the web we’ve always tried to minimise all these influences. We designed our sites in Photoshop and we loved programmes like Flash because they give us the illusion of control: if people have the right version of the Flash player on their computer, they will see it exactly like we intended. Approximaltely.
With the rise of responsive web design we started looking for ways to deal with the flexibility of the web, instead of ignoring it. We’re looking for ways to make the experience as good as possible on all these different configurations. Blogs, books, and conferences are filled with responsive design patterns. And that’s fantastic! There’s no other industry that shares its knowledge so freely. The only thing that strikes me is that everything we share is all so practical. Every article is useful and solves a specific problem.
Where are the artists?
The fact that you have so little influence over how your work will be experienced looks like a walhalla for artists to me. And this is the influence I miss, the purely artistic approach to this problem. Or maybe problem is not the right word. For us, designers and developers, it is a problem for which we have to find practical solutions. For an artist it’s it’s more like an endless pile of possibilities. An artist can approach the flexibility of the web in a completely different manner. The choices she makes don’t have to be useful per se. And this might result in ideas and solutions that we would never come up with. And it’s those ideas that I want to have. That’s what I’m curious about. I think that those ideas will make the web even more fun.