Designing the Web of the Future

Stephen Wilson, Professor, Conceptual Design & Information Arts   

Art Department, San Francisco State Universtiy, 1600 Holloway, SF, CA 94132, USA
415-338-2291 (tel)  web site:
This paper will be available at

Presented as keynote speech to Third International Hong Kong Web Symposium


Web design is not merely a matter of visual and media design. Designing web sites that are engaging, effective, and innovative requires an "expanded design" approach that reaches beyond the traditional notions of design  Several forces require this broader perspective including:  the revolutionay nature of tecnology developments, the international nature of the Web, the changing nature of who is doing design and who is the audience, and new insights about the relatiionship of art, design, and media culture.  Those who want to continue to be innovators in shaping the future web must focus on several different elements:  1. Media Appeal and Effectiveness; 2.Interactivity and Iinformation Design; 3.The Cultural Context of the information they want to offer and 4. Research and Emerging Technologies.

keywords:  Design, Art, Media, World Wide Web, Research, Cultural Influences  


How does one make a Web site that is engaging, informative, innovative? How does one keep up with the whirlwind of Web changes? Some look to design..

Most common notions of design focus on concepts of visual appeal. Something that is designed well is pleasing to look at. It manipulates line, shape, color, text, image, and layout. It's pretty. A slightly more sophisticated concept also focuses on communication effectiveness. Something that is well designed gets its message across successfully or fulfills it function well. Recent developments in technology and culture show that these ideas are only one small part of design.

Contemporary design requires a much broader perspective. Developments such as the World Wide Web, international communication, the revolutionary introduction of new media and art, the pace of technological research, and the advent of new critical perspectives require new approaches to understanding design. Below I discuss the rationale for this broader point of view which I call "Expanded Design" and provide a framework that will help those who want to create new media and Web sites.

Rationale for Expanded Notions of Design

*Danger of an IsolatedView

The conventional approach to design attempts to define design problems narrowly. It asks questions such as who is the client? What do they want? Who is the audience? How can visual elements be used to achieve the communication purposes within the time and budget allocated?

Over the last decades a radically expanded view of design has emerged. Philosopher/designers such as Buckminster Fuller have pointed out that problems rarely can be solved with such a parochial focus. He stressed the idea of systems theory - understanding the world as a set of interconnected complex interrelationships. He claimed that designers had the responsibility and challenge of discovering and working issues that reach beyond the narrowly defined question. At his most expansive moments, he claimed designers had an interdisciplinary responsibility for "world design" - each small problem should be seen in broader context of how it could improve life for the world's population.

Here is an example: Product designers used to create products with no awareness of ecological implications - blithely incorporating materials that used precious resources and paying no attention to recycling issues. The "Design for a Small Planet" movement showed how designers could incorporate these considerations into their designs. To do so they had to look beyond the narrowly defined design problem of how can a beautiful, well functioning product be created that will be a hit in the marketplace. The designer can use awareness of broader systems perspectives to introduce questions the client may have never even thought about.  

* Changing historical and cultural contexts

Many design texts attempt to offer rules for good design. Although these guidelines are useful checks for aspiring designers, they should be offered with more humility. Historically "good" design is a dynamic changing feature of culture. For example Victorian design was superseded by Bauhaus modernism, which was superseded by psychedelics of the 60's and so on. Just imagine how a Victorian design professor might grade a student proposing Bauhaus minimalism. The advent of new media and technological change have made it even more difficult to specify rules.

Cultural diversity and international communication has also complicated this search for rules. Urban populations are amazingly diverse in their origins. They come with different visual and media traditions that shape they ways they experience design. For example, colors have different meanings in different cultures and varying traditions of writing complicate the way text is perceived. No longer can a designer assume that something they will create will stay in their local community. The World Wide Web especially has an instant international audience for anything posted. Expanded design attempts to take this historical and cultural relativity into consideration. It asks the designer to focus from the start on the diversity of the audiences

* The mystery and importance of innovation in art and design

Where do innovations come from? How does one come up with fresh ideas? Ironically, almost by definition an innovation is a violation of design rules. It creates an unprecedented experience for an audience. Too strict attention to the design canons of any one place or time in history can strangle and paralyze design.

Expanded design tries to honor this reality. It asks those who create media to pay attention to current conventions but also to be willing to take risks. It promotes experimentation. A lot of analysts want to keep art and design as separate enterprises. I see them as more closely linked - especially in the area of innovation. The techniques of expanded design described below can provide some strategies to help your development of innovations - for example, attending to diverse cultural traditions and monitoring research and media innovations.

*New technology and media

The world is rapidly changing. New forms of media exist that weren't even dreamed of 10 years ago. New communication possibilities such as wireless or teleconferencing are becoming common place. Designers cannot afford to ignore this context of change and development. Moreover, they are interconnected. Traditional notions of design attempt to concentrate on one media.

Consideration of the diversity of media available becomes part of design decisions. With the advent of time based media and interactive media, designers must learn to work with elements that were not part of the design repertoire a few years ago. Part of the design process includes figuring out what is the place of each media.

Some readers may think "Great, I'll learn the new media and I'll be set". No, I guarantee there will be new media down the road. As I explain below, development of ways to keep up are as important as development of skills of dealing with today's hot media.

* Who is the designer and who is the audience?

Not so many years ago most design was done by professional designers. The growth of desktop publishing systems, however, has made design capabilities accessible to radically expanded populations. For example, how many teachers 10 years ago would have thought they would be paying attention to layout, font choice, graphic images, etc. in the handouts given to students. Similarly, how many students would be exposed to materials with this visual sophistication.

The trend continues. Desktop 3-D environments, sound and video design may become as wide spread as desktop publishing is now. New populations will be asked to become video producers. Expanded design attempts to integrate this reality. Media design has now become an activity for a growing array of professions. And audiences are encountering media in many more settings than was true previously. Professional designers decry this development and see it as the beginning of the decline of civilization.

Certainly, there are a lot of visual atrocities created. I see it, however, also as a great potential. New individuals with a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives are now involved in shaping the media landscape. If they are mindful of the challenges and approach it with a commitment to be careful and creative, however, I think this expansion of the designer population will flower with new innovations and media richness.

* The arrogance of design

Contemporary philosophers and cultural critics are suspicious of design. They see design as part of the modernist movement. Modernism believed that there was a single path of cultural progress and that systematic activity and analysis could promote progress. They saw modern art and design as better and more sophisticated than previous forms - not just different.

Postmodern cultural critics such as Baudrillard, Foucault, and the like take a different view. They attempt to deconstruct the meta-narratives that underlie cultural forms. Then note that modern art and design are norms created by certain elites and there is much more diversity in the world. They question the validity of progress. In these views designers are kidding themselves that they can lay out plans that will result in universally perceived agreement. Everyone at every era is just recombining the signs and symbols and media of their environment. Designers coming from this perspective would be more likely to integrate diverse sources and to introspect about how their own views and those of their potential audiences have been shaped and to how design functions in contemporary institutional structures.

Expanded Design

This expanded notion of design can be quite daunting. The design task is no longer simple. One could easily throw up one's arms in dispair. Sure expanded design is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity. One gets to use many aspects of one's experience and is invited to be creative and expansive. Here I offer some guidelines and strategies for implementing expanded design. I focus here on the Web, but the principles could be extended to any context. I consider four areas:

  1. Media Appeal and Effectiveness
  2. Interactivity and information Design
  3. Cultural Context
  4. Research and technological development

* Media appeal and effectiveness

These are the classic considerations of design. How do you create a visual display to communicate your ideas that is appealing and effective? How can you organize the elements of line, shape, color, image, and text to facilitate communication? How do you introduce freshness, innovation, provocation, and intrigue that cause a viewer to take notice?

If you are going to work with extended media of sound, animation, and video, you must add the considerations typical of those media. How can you orchestrate the unfolding of events in time in a way that creates dramatic appeal and transmission of your messages? How can you coordinate the use of text, image, motion, and sound so that they each contribute optimally to the user's experience?

* Interactivity and Information Design

Computer media present design challenges that are unprecedented in other media. Interactive events require you as the designer to pay attention to the psychology of your viewers. How do they perceive events as they move through? How do you engage the intellect and emotions of your viewers so that they are drawn into participation? What interface techniques do you use to clarify choice opportunities and to confirm choices that are made. How do you create hypermedia, non-linear environments that facilitate productive work and thought?

Web events typically are special kind of interactive environment. They offer some kind of information space that the user must navigate. Web designers must function as information designers. For example, what can you do to make clear to a visitor the structure of your site? What are the main divisions and subdivisions and how are they connected? How do you let the visitor know at any time where they are, where they have already been, and where they might go to - for example navigational maps? How can you customize the information design for various kinds of visitors - for example, offering different pages for novice and experienced visitors?

* Cultural Context

You must pay attention to the cultural context of the information area you are working in and to the context of the Web. You need to ask yourself and the others who are designing the media event questions about what you know and don't know about the material, the audience, the context, the Web and other possible approaches. Your Web design will become stronger in direct proportion to the amount you know about the subject of the Web site. Web designers often forget that many of the important questions to ask extend beyond the narrow task of preparing the Web materials.

To illustrate, assume a teacher trying to create a Web based lesson on some novel in English literature - for example, Moby Dick. Here is a sample of questions a designer might ask:   What do you hope to result from students encounters with your materials? Why is it important for students to learn this material? What are your goals? What are the goals of your colleagues and supervisors? What rationales are presented in curriculum guidelines? What do you know about the literature? What varying critical perspectives are there for interpreting it? What sources are there (e.g. books, classes, colleagues, web sites) for you to learn more?

How do students see this era of literature? What other experience do they have with this literature? What do you know of the psychology and sociology of your students that might relate to the literature? How does their peer group see this literature? How do their parents see this literature? What else are they reading? What other media experiences are they encountering that might be related to the themes of the literature?

What alternatives to the Web exist for presenting this material? What books, CD ROMs, movies, etc.? What Web sites already exist for teaching related materials? How would your Web materials be different? What are students attitudes about the Web? What related materials might you present on your Web site about themes or subjects likely to come up in studying the book?

*Research and Emerging Technology

When designers focused only on print and paper, they did not need to be very concerned with technology. With the advent of computers, however, the target technology environment became a major consideration. What would your audience be using to view your work? What was its limitations. For example, some text that looks lush and beautiful printed on a page looks mushy and ill conceived on a computer screen.

But it is more than just limitations. What are the unique possibilities of the medium? And even more than today, what are going to be the possibilities tomorrow? Because computer media such as the Web are actively changing, it becomes essential for designers to become explorers, actively scanning the horizon of future developments. Today's hot media quickly becomes tomorrow's dead fish. To succeed, one must become a research-oriented professional - reading trade journals, going to symposia, surfing the Web, and generally defining new media research as a focus of your work.

Today's realities: A designer must be acutely sensitive to the realities of today's Web context. What kind of Internet connections are your users likely to have? How long will it take for pages to load? (For example, loading up your initial pages with multiple huge graphics is a sure recipe for alienating an audience.) What do your Web pages look like on various browsers - for example, Netscape and Internet Explorer? How can you optimize your designs to look good in most contexts? If you are going to use innovative capabilities such as ActiveX, quicktimeVR, or VRML, how much of your audience is likely to have software and hardware that can successfully display what you have created? Awareness of these constraints does not mean that you never experiment with state of the art media capabilities. Rather it means that you should not introduce gratuitous difficulties for your audience and when you do use frontier technologies, you should provide alternative access to the information for those without cutting edge capabilities.

Tomorrow's realities: There are exciting new capabilities emerging now and research labs are working feverishly on the capabilities beyond next year. This research is both technological and socio-cultural. Some analysts believe that as revolutionary as the Web has been, even more radical changes are coming. If you are going to work with these computer based media, your professional survival depends on learning how to stay ahead of these waves of change. Luckily the Web itself provides access to these ideas and development.

It is easy to dismiss these ideas as dreams of propeller head scientists with no applicability to everyday professionals. Remember, however, the World Wide Web itself was seen as an impossible, hair-brained idea only six years ago. Try to imagine what you would have thought of someone proposing to you an inexpensive system that used regular microcomputers to give you almost instant access to information generated by millions of authors around the world.

Here I can only briefly point to developments I believe may be important down the road. As Web designers of the future you may well be asked to address these capabilities.:


The Web is one of the most exciting developments of the last decades. But don't fall into the trap of thinking it is the final culmination of microcomputer developments. There is much to come. You should do all you can to master its current capabilities ,but you should also learn how to keep up with and indeed participate in its further development. I consider it a realization of the Chinese blessing/curse -"May you live in interesting times".

Web Resources and Links

Design Theory Sites

Practical Web Design Sites

Stephen Wilson Sites