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A Dao of Web Design

What Zen was to the 70’s (most famously with motorcycle maintenance), the Tao Te Ching was to the 90’s. From Piglet and Pooh to Physics and back, many have sought sense in applying the Tao Te Ching to something (the Tao of Physics), or something to the Tao Te Ching (the Tao of Pooh). It can be a cheap trick, but lately it has struck me that there is more than a little to be understood about web design by looking through the prism of the Tao.

Daoism is a philosophy, like Buddhism, a way of living, of being in the world, which stems from a text of great antiquity, the Tao Te Ching, whose 81 “chapters” enigmatically sweep across human experience, but with a strong common theme, that of harmony.

For the last couple of years, for better or worse, my life has revolved more than a little around style sheets. I write software, tutorials, and guides for them; I’ve answered too many questions to count about them on newsgroups and via email; I’ve fought for their adoption with The Web Standards Project. And slowly I’ve come to understand web design entirely differently because of them, and to see a strong association between design and the Tao.

What I sense is a real tension between the web as we know it, and the web as it would be. It’s the tension between an existing medium, the printed page, and its child, the web. And it’s time to really understand the relationship between the parent and the child, and to let the child go its own way in the world.

Same old new medium?

“Well established hierarchies are not easily uprooted;
Closely held beliefs are not easily released;
So ritual enthralls generation after generation.”
Tao Te Ching; 38 Ritual

If you’ve never watched early television programs, it’s instructive viewing. Television was at that time often referred to as “radio with pictures”, and that’s a pretty accurate description. Much of television followed the format of popular radio at that time. Indeed programs like the Tonight Show, with its variants found on virtually every channel in the world (featuring a band, the talk to the camera host, and seated guests), or the news, with the suited sober news reader, remain as traces of the medium television grew out of. A palimpsest of media past.

Think too of the first music videos (a few of us might be at least that old). Essentially the band miming themselves playing a song. Riveting.

When a new medium borrows from an existing one, some of what it borrows makes sense, but much of the borrowing is thoughtless, “ritual”, and often constrains the new medium. Over time, the new medium develops its own conventions, throwing off existing conventions that don’t make sense.

If you ever get the chance to watch early television drama you’ll find a strong example of this. Because radio required a voice – over to describe what listeners couldn’t see, early television drama often featured a voice over, describing what viewers could. It’s a simple but striking example of what happens when a new medium develops out of an existing one.

The web is a new medium, although it has emerged from the medium of printing, whose skills, design language and conventions strongly influence it. Yet it is often too shaped by that from which it sprang. “Killer Web Sites” are usually those which tame the wildness of the web, constraining pages as if they were made of paper – Desktop Publishing for the Web. This conservatism is natural, “closely held beliefs are not easily released”, but it is time to move on, to embrace the web as its own medium. It’s time to throw out the rituals of the printed page, and to engage the medium of the web and its own nature.

This is not for a moment to say we should abandon the wisdom of hundreds of years of printing and thousands of years of writing. But we need to understand which of these lessons are appropriate for the web, and which mere rituals.

Controlling Web Pages

The Sage

“... accepts the ebb and flow of things,
Nurtures them, but does not own them,”
Tao Te Ching; 2 Abstraction

Spend some time on web design newgroups or mailing lists, and you’ll find some common words and ideas repeated time after time. Question after question, of course, is “how do I?”. But beneath questions like “how do I make my pages look the same on every platform” and “how can I make my fonts appear identical on the Macintosh and Windows” is an underlying question – “how do I control the user’s browser?” Indeed, the word control turns up with surprising frequency.

Underpinning all this is the belief that designers are controllers (think about the implications of the term “pixel mechanic”). Designers want to override the wishes of users, and the choices that they have made about their viewing experience (by “fixing” font size, for instance). Designers want to second guess platform differences, caused by different logical resolutions (for instance the Macintosh’s 72dpi, versus the standard Windows 96dpi). Designers are all-knowing, and will not tolerate anything less than a rendering on every browser that is pixel perfect with the rendering on their own machine.

Of course, this exaggerates the case, but not greatly. A very strong example of this is the often expressed disappointment of developers when they learn that style sheets are not “DTP for the web”. And if you are a Mac user, you will be acutely aware of just how many really major sites abuse style sheets to make their pages illegible. Chances are they are using points as a measure of font size. Underlying this choice is the “designer is controller” philosophy.

Where does this idea come from? I believe it flows from the medium of print. In print the designer is god. An enormous industry has emerged from WYSIWYG, and many of the web’s designers are grounded in the beliefs and practices, the ritual of that medium. As designers we need to rethink this role, to abandon control, and seek a new relationship with the page.







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