Designing ‘pages’, ‘articles’ and worrying about what sits ‘below the fold’: most of the language we use to describe content on the web is derived from print. Would new terminology help free us to exploit the web’s full potential? asks Google Design Advocate Mustafa Kurtuldu in the third episode of his YouTube and podcast series aimed at improving understanding between designers and developers
As a Design Advocate at Google, Kurtuldu is trying to iron out some of the issues that can cause friction between designers and developers with Designer vs Developer, a six-part YouTube series and podcasts. Released every two weeks, each episode deals with a different issue, from effective collaboration to whether too much testing and data ruins the creative process. All the episodes will be posted here on the CR site.
In episode 3, Kurtuldu speaks to Ade Oshineye, Developer Advocate on the Google Developers Relations Team, about the influence of the archaic language of print on web design.
Here, Kurtuldu discusses the wider issues around terminology and how it can limit our imagination:
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. This quote is often attributed to Henry Ford. Even though there is no evidence to prove he actually said this, the quote has become a mantra in some design circles to mean: don’t ask the users what they think, and if they articulate what they want, simply ignore them. For me, this assumes that designers have some innate knowledge of everything and that the average person is ‘stupid’.
For a more positive take on the same idea, my suggestion would be to dig a little deeper and listen to what people are after. When a person discovers something new that is unrelated to anything they’ve seen before, they try to apply ideas that superficially seem similar and match the extent of their current knowledge. This process helps us build a mental model of the thing they really want. For example:
I want to go faster, yet I have no concept of a car, all I know are horses. So I ask for faster horses.
Really, what the users are trying to say is that they want to go faster. I’ll call this thinking analogue. However, once users have experienced different modes of transportation, the idea of traveling faster makes more sense on its own and is easier to express clearly. In other words, the more frames of reference we have for something, the better we understand and can express it. The language used here is critical because if we end up using the wrong language, we could end up working on the wrong thing, ie, figuring out how to make horses go faster rather than creating something that allows us to travel faster.
This brings me neatly to the web and its influence on the world of graphic design. From our points of reference to the tools we use, graphic design has championed a way to create websites. Take for example when we talk about pages. Nothing on the web is a page, but we don’t have a concept of what these things are. We can call them documents, but that word doesn’t help project a meaningful mental image. Perhaps this is why we design sites as static pages or have done so for the longest time.
In more recent years we have been creating things on the web in a more modular fashion. Brad Frost has been doing great things conceptually with what he calls Atomic Design, building on the idea of systems that evolve rather than static pages that are locked the moment they’re printed. I like the idea of atoms as they reinforce the concept that websites are alive.
Another example of a term borrowed from the print world would be the dreaded ‘above the fold’. This expression came from broadsheet newspapers who charged more for ads that appeared at the top of the page. Large newspapers are folded, so the articles or ads that appear at the head of the page naturally receive greater exposure because they are ‘above the fold’.
For the web this meant that we tried to stuff as much visual clutter to the top: logos, navigation bar, intro statement, article title, hamburger menu, search bar and the kitchen sink. This has become the expected presentation on the web, a world where every site looks like a WordPress template. I’ve been guilty of doing this myself. In my defence, at the time I didn’t fully understand what the web was – a never ending connection of particles, or the way people use it – as a never-ending journey of clicking, tapping or jumping from one place to the next. I imagine a great website being a bit like a film where the viewer could jump in and leave at any point and still understand the story. But due to the incorrect use of language, we’ve superimposed ideas from other mediums that after a while break badly.
Take the whole responsive web; previously we designed in a fixed-width environment until Ethan Marcotte reminded us that the nature of the native web was fluid, not fixed. In the past, we believed