The Virtual Designer

Written by Yaron Schoen March 21, 2011

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Our favorite Monday night TV show is, by far, "The Antique Road Show". Adva (wife) and I never miss it. In each episode, specialists from leading auction houses and independent dealers from across the country offer free appraisals of antiques and collectibles. Since my wife is about to graduate her degree in Art History, and I am a designer, we both absolutely love seeing all the fascinating art and design pieces people bring to the show. From family heirlooms to garage sale findings, from 17th century piano stools, to a laugh machine from the 60ies.

While watching the show a few weeks ago, I was thinking that it would be super neat if in 150 years my great great grandson would get one of my designs appraised. But after giving it another moment of thought, I realized that this could never really happen. I can count on one hand the number of site designs that have lived more than 10 years without a re-design (which usually completely overwrites the original.) A 150 year old design for the web just seems impossible.

It made me sad to think that my designs were not born to live more than a decade at best, that they are so temporary. This should have been obvious to me throughout my career (it probably was, subconsciously), but I never gave it much thought. Comparing it to the amazing poster/furniture/whatever-physical-object-designs I was seeing on the show, it became clear as day. How did I miss this? After shedding a few virtual tears and ranting on Twitter, another thought came to mind: How does this affect the work we do as Web designers?


Then I read Mandy Brown's article, which really had an impact on me. She talks about an idealist stance to preserve content on the web, about shielding it from the forces that be. A call to arms for solving not only the technology, but more importantly the will to preserve. Technically speaking, I truly believe this is possible when it comes to preserving the actual content of a site, which can easily be converted into different files or forms of technology. Once the will is there, it can be achieved. Heck, at the end of the day, words, images and videos can be converted into physical objects, like paper or film if all else fails. But what I am interested in, as a designer, is the design itself. Not only the content.

Web design (or should I say screen or interface design), unlike almost any other form of design, is completely based on the technology it is built upon. This technology, as we know, changes so rapidly, who knows if we will be able to create a seamless backwards compatible form of HTML for, say, 150 years? Who knows if Flash will be around in 200 years, it's dead now isn't it? Once the technology is gone, the designs built upon it will vanish into the same virtual nothingness they were born in.

Web designs cannot be transferred to physical objects either, since they rely on a kind of user interaction that will be lost once removed from its supporting technology. Interactions like hovers, notifications, dropdowns and animations, to name a few, will always be virtual and as such can never translate to physical form.

Virtual Design

So can we all agree that appraising sites will just never happen? Are we ok with that? Can we agree that this is because what we design ultimately lives and dies in a virtual world? Can we also agree that preserving such designs for many years seems impossible at this point in time, unless a solution is presented? If the answers to all this is yes, how does this affect us as designers?

I am starting to believe that this is one of the biggest differences between us and the rest of the design world (print in particular, to which web design is often compared.) Heck, I would even be more comfortable comparing us to cake design, stage design, or better yet, to window display design. These will either be eaten, taken down when the holiday has past, when the show is over or when seasons change. They are built to create a temporary experience and in that lies their beauty.

Is this one of the reasons that we still do not have a masterpiece web design that we can all agree on? Will we ever have one? If we find one, how will it be preserved and referenced? Is this why so many designers seem to rely heavily on ever changing trends? Is there room to start thinking of internet museums? If things were more permanent, would designers care less about the latest trends and try to design something timeless? Can web design even be timeless?

I have no idea. I have more questions than answers. But I am pretty sure that the fact that the designs we produce are temporary is one of the strongest thing that ties us, or sets us apart, as a branch of design. Technical differentiators such as screen sizes, interactive elements and so on are a good starting point for understanding what sets us apart from other fields of design, but I think it is time to start digging a little deeper.

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Written in New York. © 2013