Does Web Design Matter?

It’s different now than it has been in years past.

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Around 5 minutes to read

This past week, I finished making a small website for a family member’s business. I had an idea I liked for a subtle header animation. As I sat down to do it, I couldn’t justify how that animation would make the site any better at its job—attracting potential clients—than the static, non-animated version would.

It got me thinking: could I justify an animation for any website’s header? Can anyone justify an animation for a website’s header? A quick glance at the latest Awwwards Site of the Day nominees shows that lots of modern sites have animations in the header. But it is worth the effort to make?

This year marks a quarter-century that I’ve been a designer, specifically a web designer. The biggest influence on me as I was deciding to become a designer was seeing well-crafted websites for and from companies like Nike, 2Advanced, CSS Zen Garden, Neostream, Vodafone, and more. (IYKYK.) This sites contained beautiful design, motion, sound, story… all of the sensory details that made watching a movie so satisfying, except that I could interact with it too. I could control the action. Like movies, I expected that making these kinds of websites required large teams, big budgets, and months or years of work to accomplish.

Over years, I worked on my craft to be able to work on projects like this. I tried to put myself in positions—and got lucky in many instances—to work on and with the kinds of brands that wanted this work.

I worked on GE’s healthymagination campaign for 16 months from October 2009 to March 2011, much of which included working on the website. I probably spent 6 months working on just the homepage between various initial explorations and multiple versions and iterations over time.

I’ve worked on my own personal website for 18 years. I launched it as a blog built on Textpattern in 2005. It’s been a portfolio for me at times but has maintained being a place where I can write about anything I want. I’ve changed URLs from danielmall.com to danmall.me to danmall.com. The back-end of the site has moved from Textpattern to Movable Type to being hand-coded and is currently built with Eleventy.

I worked on the Reading is Fundamental website for 1 year and 7 months. I worked on StarWars.com for 6 months. I worked on the TechCrunch website for 5 months.

In my most recent years, I’ve been spending much less time making websites. I don’t just mean that I’ve been managing the teams making the websites and I’m doing less of the craft work myself. That’s happening too, but generally, I’ve seen the projects themselves get smaller.

It used to take me weeks to come up with a solid concept for a site. Now, I can sometimes do it in a few days or even a few hours. Initially, I thought that was because I’m getting better at my craft. But lately, I’ve been wondering if it’s because web design doesn’t matter as much as it used to.

I’ve long been of the school of thought that design is a job. More and more, I’m wondering whether a short 3D-animated interactive film in the hero of a site is any more effective than a static image with a headline and button next to it.

I have a few hypotheses as to why that is.

The obvious and explanation is that I’m jaded. Which could be true. A 25-year career definitely puts me into “get off my lawn” territory.

But I don't think that’s fully it. I've been doing a lot of reflection lately, and one I'm thing very proud of is that I'm still working hard and trying to do a good job. I'm not phoning it in. I have done that before. I know what that feels like for me, and this isn’t that.

Another obvious explanation is that I’ve spent the last few years focused on design systems—buy my new book! 👀—specifically with teams who are setting them up in the first place. For those kinds of teams, a lot of the work lies in the gory details of the most common interface elements. The interesting part of the work is the system aspect, not necessarily its visceral nature. One-off interactive pieces feel like problems that are years away. So it stands to reason that spending years on this kind of work could have shifted my perspective on what outputs are important.

But it’s actually had the opposite effect for me. From doing loads of system work, I crave working on other things where I get to stretch my muscles of animation, digital matte painting, unique signature pieces, creative direction, art direction, and the like. They’re welcome palate cleansers for me.

So I have another explanation. It’s that web design is different now than when I started.

(And, sure, yes Dan, we use cars now too instead of horses.)

Digital design has always been ephemeral. As a neophile, that’s what drew (and still draws) me to it. But something feels different about spending 6 weeks on an animation that someone will scroll past in half a second.

Healthymagination was a 6-year, $6 billion initiative. I spent 16 months of my life on it. Now it’s a tag on the GE website with about 25 articles on it. The Reading Is Fundamental, Star Wars, and TechCrunch websites I worked on are long gone, some replaced 2 or 3 times over since.

When I first started, I thought I’d be a Michelin-starred chef in web design. Every project would be a painstakingly crafted meal of delectables for which patrons would always be happy to pay premium.

I’ve learned that I am indeed a chef, but there’s a range of meals I’d be cooking. A select handful have been tasting menus of the highest-level ingredients. I’m lucky to have been able to participate in those, and I hope a few more come my way in the next few decades of my career. A few meals have also been fast food: done, delivered, and gone before you could blink. Most meals, though, have been simple and tasty home-cooked dinners. Nothing to write a newspaper review about, but most of my guests were full and happy.

We live in a world where a Kardashian or a YouTuber can launch a product or even an industry with a tweet or an Instagram post, a role previously dominated by The Website™. As other forms of media rise in popularity, what I’ve observed is websites being relegated to one of two purposes:

  1. The website is the business, or a major part of it. Think e-commerce behemoths like Amazon and eBay, publishers like Dotdash Meredith and Buzzfeed, or social media companies like Facebook or Twitter.
  2. The website as a glorified business card. Some people have square business cards, some spring for the gold foil and extra-thick card-stock, but they all do the same job in answering these two questions: are you legitimate and how can I contact you?

Is there a market for Michelin-starred web designers? I hope I’m wrong about this, but I think it’s shrinking.

So why animate that header or spend time building a papier-mâché miniature set to photograph for the footer that few will see?

The same thing that drives a Michelin-starred chef to spend 12 hours agonizing over a difficult preparation for a small cube of food that will be devoured in a 2-second bite.

The same reason that got me started in this field in the first place.

For fun, and for the art.

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