The Beautiful Internet

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If there is one thing I could say about most websites, it is that they are ugly. I mean really. Just atrocious. There are generally so many things going wrong that we have all had to completely reconfigure our expectations just to exist in this noisy, cluttered, pixelated world. It’s difficult to stretch one’s mind far enough to even imagine what the web would look like with the clarity and dynamic layouts of our favorite print magazines. It’s as if we’ve lived on gruel so long that the idea of a fine steak is no longer real to us.

But the days of the ugly internet might be coming to an end. Because of a few factors, some technical, some more cultural, you might actually be able to look at a website in two or three years and think “yes, that looks good — by normal standards.”

Demand

The web long ago became “mainstream,” but people have always sandboxed it, so to speak, not classing it among traditionally reliable news sources or judging it by the standards of traditionally well-made media. And so, for good reason, it has been neither expected nor pressured to meet the journalistic standards of a national newspaper or the layout standards of a print magazine. Instead, it has been a place where you can find everything that doesn’t go into those media institutions, and the price you paid was in the deliberation of its execution. Good design was collateral damage directly attributable to the quickness of the draw – regrettable, but well within acceptable limits, considering the benefits of instant access, commenting, and so on.

Many people, especially among those under 30, use the internet as their sole news and media source, and as early adopters, they considered the sacrifices worthwhile. The grit of a newspaper or the creative layout of a product spread in a fashion rag have been considered luxuries over and above the content itself. People happily browse the web through a tiny, inadequate window like an iPhone (pathetically, the best mobile browsing experience) showing a single paragraph at a time, or one figure, or a photo so small that none but the coarsest features can be discerned.

But that perspective is shrinking in importance as traditional media come to terms with big-boy internet distribution. Now that the New Yorker and the like are coming to tablets and the web in something other than rushed, truncated form, people are demanding that they be as good or better than their print brethren. Uptake and distribution is approaching the point where people will no longer be okay with a long single column of text, flanked by increasingly disruptive and desperate ads or voids where they once were.

There is also the huge uptick in e-book sales, and although there have been some initial efforts to match electronic editions with print, improve readability, and so on, there’s still an enormous amount of room for improvement. And the reading of e-books on LCD screens is only tolerated because the alternative is buying a second device. Or a book.

So, the consumers are ready to want this. Are the content providers ready to make it happen?

Content

Yes. This section will be short. There has been a lot of cross-pollination from the print world over the last couple years, spurred perhaps by the early e-readers, for which, it was promised in 2007, we would shortly have a grand selection of fully-realized newspapers and magazines. It seems that task was a bit more than the media companies were capable of. Tablets have proven an effective cage-rattler as well, since the growing desire for natural, print-like interaction has grown beyond the media companies’ ability to provide it.

They’re catching up now, gradually cordoning off staff and sequestering cash for the sole purpose of making their stuff look good. There’s a race on to be the first newspaper or magazine with a million subscriptions or some such, and a big part of that is effectively transferring the experience of the magazine to the web or an app. Early entrants with tablet-native interfaces, like Project and The Daily, are having mixed success, but the New Yorker seems to be thriving (admittedly, its sparse layout requires much less in the way of adaptation, which has allowed it to migrate quickly and intact) and AOL is jumping in as well. Dreams of international distribution at microscopic cost (compared to, say, a major newspaper’s global army of printers, drivers, billing agents, etc.) are making these initial millions seem like down payments on money trees.

The media companies are ready to move beyond the same layouts, fonts, and embeds they’ve used for the last ten or fifteen years. Is the technology there to let them do it?

Technology

There’s something to be said for modifying your own reading or viewing environment, but I believe that there is almost no chance right now of someone creating something for web consumption that will be seen by the consumer the same way it was seen by the creator. Fortunately, we are leaving the era when this is necessarily true, a confusing transitional era with a jumble of conflicting standards: which color space? which non-serif? which filtering method? We’re not quite to the next phase, but there are two heralds of this approaching golden age (please, please be approaching).

The first is resolution. With screen size more or less a matter of taste (there are options for practically every single diagonal measure from three to thirty inches), what matters is quality, and in particular for design: resolution. I very nearly switched to the iPhone 4 solely because of the screen. The benefits of increased resolution (and, eventually, resolution independence) are too obvious to list, but there’s one in particular I want to call attention to: text rendering.

Look at the text on your screen. Now look at a printed page. Now back to your screen. Sadly, this text doesn’t look like the text on the printed page. But if this screen had quadruple the resolution it does, it could vastly improve clarity by minimizing aliasing and mooting questionably effective sub-pixel font smoothing (a blown-up example is at the head of this article).

I had an angry moment with Firefox a little while back when I found it used some awful font rendering technique that made every sentence look like a tiny parade of hairy, misty spiders. Some readjustment later and it is much better, but out of curiosity I checked a few other people’s versions of the same page, and found they all looked different from mine. The native smoothing, browser, magnification, and ClearType settings rendered every letter different on every screen. The visual idiosyncrasies so endearing in letter press are not so welcome here. Even the best sites and content creators out there are afflicted by this, because it’s not really something they can control.

As resolution goes up, clarity goes up. The need for font smoothing is eliminated because the letters are clear and bright, with sharp edges and no grey or multicolored falloff. The need for precise, controlled layout and visual supervision also becomes greater. Which is why good editors, and good standards, are so important.

The second thing that makes this possible is agreement on those standards. HTML5 is a nice, big step in this direction, with geometric, flexible rendering of many items, every pixel accounted for and affected systematically. It’s not a magic bullet, obviously, but once we’ve weaned the great unwashed from their IE6 (or Netscape Communicator 4, in my dad’s case (until last year!)) and moved on to modern browsers on processors that can handle on-the-fly rendering of visual effects and so on (which would otherwise have to be displayed as video, Flash, etc.), the doors fly wide open.


(a particularly nice spread from one of my favorite and, alas, defunct, magazines, Seed)

What matters most is the ability of a content creator to control the end user’s experience. It’s nice to be able to adjust that experience yourself, but good design doesn’t want or need adjustment, and is in fact harmed by it. If a designer can be confident that this is how something will look when presented to the consumer, they can design it well. Today, they are unable to know that with anything near the certainty with which, say, the layout designer of Vogue does, holding as he or she does despotic sway over every element, typeface, flourish, margin, DPI, and hue. Within two or three years web designers will be able to say it with total certainty — with the normal exceptions common to print and outlier “hardware” (i.e. vision) such as large type versions, legacy devices, and so on. Even the most fastidious typesetter can’t guarantee that readers will have their glasses.

The ability to securely and reliably provide fonts, video, rich interactive elements, naturally flowing text, and other aspects of advanced layouts means that more traditionally-trained layout artists and designers, who have been stymied by poor adherence to standards in the past, will soon be able to craft to their hearts’ content. And at that point, I think, we as conscientious consumers will be able to better judge a book by its cover, knowing that the means available to web and content designers are far less restrictive than they once were, and “if a Muse cannot run when she is unfetter’d, ‘tis a sign she has but little speed,” as Dryden has it.

Taste, triumphant

Now that consumers want to buy it, creators want to make it, and technology wants to accommodate it, beautifully-designed content will begin to actually bubble its way to the top. The more nicely-designed site may win in a rivalry these days — despite the fact that services these days are so simple that practically every menu and button is superfluous — but there aren’t many sites I would say are an actual pleasure to read, as I find many printed magazines are, or a pleasure to use, as a well-turned device is. I’m sure there are plenty of examples of standout design, but standing out from this crowd is a dubious honor. Our own redesign, for instance (which went live somewhat after I drafted this article) is a good example of a striking, web-oriented design — and as much as I like it (I do), I’d be lying if I said it was beautiful the way, say, this page is beautiful:

It’s going to take time, of course, and money. The time will be to bring readers up to date with technological standards they tend to ignore. The money will be because this increase in quality won’t be due to improved processor or transfer speeds (like, say, the increase in quality of streaming movies and music), it will be due to much hard work done by designers and editors. Just as movies have gotten more expensive and labor-intensive as their production values have gone up, so will websites and services require more than lip service to good design.

Subtlety and taste haven’t been a priority on the web partially because of the novelty and mercuriality of the the medium. With a new set of standards that comprise the necessary tools for good design, companies that are willing to invest the time and effort required, and a consumer base that might just be able to see the difference, that could be changing.