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This used to be our playground

There was a time when owning digital space seemed thrilling, and our personal sites motivated us to express ourselves. There are signs of a resurgence, but too few wish to make their digital house a home.

Screenshots from the personal websites of Rob Weychert and Lynn Fisher.

I’ve been wrestling with these thoughts since designer Rob Weychert posted his annual Robtober recommendations, a beautifully presented schedule of scary films for the Halloween season. I’m not into scary films because when I was a kid, I accidentally saw Salem’s Lot and never got over it, but I am into Rob’s site. Anyway, to draw attention to his efforts, Rob tweeted:

It doesn’t look like it, but this is a blog post! Personal sites are fun and I wish everyone had one.

Inspired by Rob, I found the courage to tweet a rant, which I’ve expanded here (allowing me to drift in all sorts of related directions). I say courage because it’s rare that I speak my mind about the web these days, and when I do it feels both cathartic and terrifying.

Energy and identity

Tending this website keeps me sane. I think of it as a digital garden, a kind of sanctuary. I recognise this in Ethan Marcotte’s eloquent suggestion that we “let a website be a worry stone.” And if my site is a kind of garden, then I see myself as both gardener and architect, in so much as I make plans and prepare the ground, then sow things that grow in all directions. Some things die, but others thrive, and that’s how my garden grows. And I tend it for me; visitors are a bonus.

Designer and artist Laurel Schwulst is interested in the poetic potential of the web. In her essay, My website is a shifting house next to a river of knowledge. What could yours be?, she reminds us of the endless possibilities before us:

What kind of room is a website? Or is a website more like a house? A boat? A cloud? A garden? A puddle? Whatever it is, there’s potential for a self-reflexive feedback loop: when you put energy into a website, in turn, the website helps form your own identity.

Isn’t that great? A personal site is all about energy and identity. What’s more, personal sites don’t need to announce themselves as big design statements, and mine — the site of a designer — is a case in point. I’m more of an archivist, so I choose to express myself in words and be quietly daring with the design that backgrounds everything (although both the previous and current versions caught the attention of many). Regardless, what I do at my domain doesn’t prevent me — after twenty years working in all sorts of situations and with all kinds of people — from asking questions and offering critique about designers and the design industry as I see it.

Let’s dial back twenty years. Like many, I was seduced by the web because of its immense creative potential. I loved that designers valued a personal digital space; the domain as a place to express themselves. This publishing freedom led to some of the most exciting ideas and statements in web design history. I chose the HTML & CSS path, but the artist in me was captivated by the Flash frontier with its open canvas experimentation; interactive digital installation that suggested the next most influential movements in visual culture would happen on our screens. The early 2000s seemed to be about two things: maturing our craft with web standards and pushing at the edges of interaction with Flash.

A time for self-expression

With standards in place, CSS designers realised that one sober template for all content often didn’t make sense, and we became increasingly experimental. Though many lacked formal design training, it was clear that web design could level up by marrying the unique patterns and possibilities of the web with the proven sensibilities of graphic design. With an array of CSS techniques and the arrival of web fonts, we turned our attention to easing the communication of individual ideas or articles or narratives by contextualising them and making each visually appropriate. Suddenly, one blog post might look completely different from the next, or a marketing site might unfurl like a video game.

Although we killed off Flash and most out-there interaction moved to apps, by the end of the decade, digital designers were pushing hard to deliver visually engaging browser-based experiences built on responsible foundations. Despite the accelerating formalisation of patterns and process, a sense of freedom and an appetite for expression persisted. We talked about exciting subjects like editorial design (often mislabelled as art direction) and storytelling. Crucially, there was talk and action. I thought of a ‘design leader’ not as a hidden figure with managerial responsibilities, but as a visible practitioner pushing at the very edges of what was possible on a screen, helping to lead the whole industry forward.

But many designers now work in teams, and teams need managers. The job is collaborative, with no place for the individual hero. Design got its seat at the table, developed a business mindset, became increasingly inclusive, and finally grew up. So much to celebrate and so much distance travelled, and yet design seems relatively passive and polite; acquiescent in a build-by-numbers assembly process. It’s hard to imagine how a big visual statement could gain traction in this environment. But then, I wonder if today’s designers even want to make big statements. Many appear satisfied with incremental, controlled contributions to the team effort, content to approach their work with the same ticket-driven pragmatism as engineers. I’m not assuming they are all satisfied, nor am I saying that what they do is wrong, but I think it’s an interesting question considering the formal processes that designers have — depending on your viewpoint — either wandered into or embraced. And, you know, how boring everything looks.

A collective lack of ambition

Admittedly, most company or client work tackles real issues for real people; it’s rarely a sandbox for us to climb into and make mad shit. The day job doesn’t usually afford spaces where we might impose grand design statements. I get that, but I wonder why so few desire to express themselves elsewhere: on their sites, in personal projects and collaborations. Do people not look at Lynn Fisher’s outstandingly creative annual responsive redesigns and think “OMFG I want to do that!”? Maybe they do want to try it, but crucially, most don’t.

It’s as though we’ve suffered a collective lack of ambition. I wrote last year about the need for imagination and recently about the importance of emotional connection in design. Ambition, imagination and emotion are mostly errant. Whether it’s collaborative or individual, and whether designers are satisfied or not, I do not see web design as a fascinating visual frontier the way I did a decade ago. I don’t, for example, expect much of what we’re making professionally to end up in the Design Museum, or leave a mark on our cultural narrative. After Flash, the next most exciting period of web culture is all about social documentation, with a dominant visual currency of memes and selfies.

To be clear, with all of this I’m thinking big, not small. Designer Michael Flarup cares deeply about making the web fun again, but I am less excited about specific UI details and whether they are flat or skeuomorphic or neomorphic or have a long shadow or whatever. We won’t achieve much by losing ourselves to minutiae, and in my opinion, it’s more about our unwillingness to exploit the materiality of the web. This is something that Matthias Ott laments in Painting With the Web. Drawing a parallel with the exploratory process of visual artist Gerhard Richter, Matthias describes web design and development as it could be. To get there, he says, we must learn to loosen up and find the work through a dialogue of constant reflection and refinement:

If we want to explore and create amazing things with those new technologies, we need to be able to have that creative dialogue with the materials in front of us. And in most cases, this means: We need to work directly in the browser. We need to paint with code.

Like Matthias, I will keep banging this drum because year after year, we look at the web and wonder: what the hell happened to it? Where is the self-expression? Where is the beauty? Where are the bold statements? Why are there so few like Lynn and Rob?

Self-documentation

Let’s now think less about visual self-expression, and look more at documenting a life. Or at least, a career. These thoughts are more concerned with expressive writing presented and arranged with a designer’s delight in the attention to visual detail.

When I ran an agency, I encouraged the team to document their contributions — whether it be their role in a big launch or maybe a small line of code that made a difference somewhere — so that they also owned those achievements. If all they did at the time was shoot a tweet, or they later left the company, what would they have to mark that contribution? It makes sense to have a stage when you need it, and it’s always advisable to own your content and present it in a way that suits you. And as I noted earlier this year, documenting your work needs to be an ongoing process, not a retrospective panic attack.

Many folks are representing themselves with wonderfully creative personal sites, but they’re often without depth; presenting an eye-catching cover, maybe a folio, perhaps some infrequent posts about their work. What interests me specifically is the commitment to growing a site; using it to document ideas and experiences; sharing a life or career by design.

We each have our obstacles and circumstances, but try not to think in terms of “there’s not enough time,” because your site, whether an archive for personal thought or more of a visual/code sandbox, is a gentle, ongoing investment. You tend your domain like you steadily improve your home, and it can take years of false starts and incremental commits. Don’t think of it as urgent work, or — heaven forbid — a “side-hustle”.

Of course, not everyone wants to share, and that’s fine. What is desperately sad is that some do want to share, but are all too aware of the problems that being open can cause. Think of the persistent abuse someone might receive for having an opinion just because they’re not a white guy. That's a whole other essay about how and why we failed.

Putting the two together

So, I should be careful not to push for everyone to share personal content, but I would like to see more designers look afresh at the bespoke design of content, whoever owns it. It might be something for a thoughtful client or a section of the company site — maybe you decide to elevate the Team page to greatness. Or, it might be elements of a personal site; the joy of showing off some cool visual ideas on your domain. If you’re a designer, it’s ever-so-slightly possible that you’ve produced — or want to produce — some interesting visual statements.

Personal sites evolve in different ways, and they’re all valuable. There’s design and expression that makes whatever statements you might have at your own domain interesting; the visual sandbox. And there’s the predominantly written or photographic documentation of a life and career; the blog. And sometimes, both of those kinds of site intertwine into a genuinely engaging experience: a partnership of good design and good writing, sometimes made exceptional with beautiful detailing or a sense for editorial design.

Rob is so good because some of his posts ooze the joy of caring deeply about music or film or a meaty design challenge. Lynn is fantastic because not only does she make thrilling homepage statements, she also goes into great detail about how she achieves those things. Sometimes, their posts are crafted with immense love and look gorgeous. So, you spend time with them; read every word. This willingness to dress an article with bespoke CSS and appropriate fonts was something designers explored in-depth around 2010 or so — that understanding of editorial design as a means of better communicating the meaning — but it’s so rare these days because it is hard, and it is time-consuming. Choosing to make a statement or enforce your message adds friction to the relatively simple action of writing and sharing words. But still, something is liberating about breaking free from the template and choosing to design a beautiful, bespoke bit of content.

On Twitter, somebody (I’ll credit you if you wish) suggested I feel the way I do because I’m a designer, meaning I see everything from a slightly warped perspective. They explained that most people don’t care about web design aesthetics — that they care only about the thing they are trying to find or do. He told me that most folk think websites are much better than they used to be.

I replied that I’m not sure “most folk” think that at all, but then I do have that “slightly warped perspective”. I’ve long applauded the likes of BBC and GDS and the efficiency of modern content delivery, but I can’t imagine that anyone wants a single clinical aesthetic for the web. There’s truth in his reply, but just because gov.uk does an excellent job of helping you pay your car tax doesn’t mean your own playground should look like it’s been built with a government design system.

Let’s wrap this up

I know that social media deprived the personal site of oxygen, but you are not your Twitter profile, nor are you your LinkedIn profile. You are not your Medium page. You are not your tiny presence on the company’s About page. If you are, then you look just like everyone else, and that’s not you at all. Right?

I can’t possibly be on the money about all of this stuff, and you’re welcome to challenge my points of view. I’m just writing honestly about what I see and how it feels to me, even if my opinions will frustrate some of you. I sincerely believe that design needs critique; that it must be challenged and called to account to thrive. That means we shouldn’t be afraid to speak up, ask questions, and be prepared to be wrong.

And so, I hope you don’t mind me throwing my hat in, but this web design thing did not go the way I thought it would and sometimes — just sometimes — it is desperately, crushingly dull.

By the way...

The idea of websites as gardens got me thinking about how gardeners join forces to organise public open days. In that spirit, we should have an annual celebration of personal sites, when we signpost each other and post something to welcome new visitors. I hope to organise something early next year, and to that end, I’ve just registered letsgetpersonal.website. Stay tuned.