Yesterday I read The Details That Matter, an article on A List Apart about professional web design. The article itself was only semi-interesting, so I skimmed it and clicked into the comments. I like the articles on A List Apart, but I love the reader comments. Their users have diverse opinions, and they don't shy from challenging the author, or from questioning conventional Web thinking in general.
(As an aside, it's a shame the website buries all comments behind a generic link, and forces readers to page through them ten at a time. Even old-world online newspapers do a better job than this.)
One comment in particular made me stop and think:
And again web design is portrayed as the logical grandchild of graphic design. Why is that so? What makes everybody think it is like this? ... Where is the article that describes web design’s connections to engineering, industrial design, computer science, interface design, architecture and so forth?
Hm! I was disappointed no one responded to these questions, because there's plenty to chew on here. The quick answer is that web design and graphic design both are two-dimensional. Each focuses on laying out text and images in eye-grabbing, informative ways.
What web design owes
What about the parent-child relationship -- must web design be a descendant of graphic design, rather than its peer? Well, maybe it rankles pure web designers, but I see them applying many general graphic design concepts online. Online, fundamentals of grid layout, typography, color theory, and visual hierarchy are borrowed from graphic design.
I don't see the influence in the other direction. What have interactive websites done for designs in other fields? I'm not speaking to the process of design, where the complexity and rapid pace of Internet business has improved how web designers work:
Process is one thing, but what about the actual designs? Is the Webdings font taking hold in Hollywood? Are the hot new graphic designers all learning their trade on MySpace? I doubt it, except for very niche events.
Tools vs. theory
Of course, this linear descendance doesn't mean that print graphic designers will always design great websites. A good designer must know the tools that apply in her sphere. (More than half the graphic designers in the USA are women.) Just like a print designer needs to know CMYK, Pantone, and production process, a web designer must speak the language of CSS, semantic HTML and optimized web graphics.
The key difference between print and the web, obviously, is that print is static, while the Web is dynamic. So the best Web designers always are optimizing transitions, considering pageflow and download times, and choosing among interactive techologies like Flash or AJAX.
Finally, often a print design is optimized for one type of output, like a flyer or book, but a web design may need to function on different computer platforms, or even on mobile phones and devices. A graphic designer might deliver several different design treatments for a company's stationary, fliers, signage, etc ... but the best web designers can make a single website work well on all kinds of screens, and even with screen readers for the visually impaired.
The comment raises the influence of architecture, engineering, and industrial design. These have little more than metaphorical relevance to web design. "Information architecture," for example, is very close to library science, but very far from the folks designing bridges.
Why is this question important?
One characteristic of neophytes is they don't know what they don't know. Experts, on the other hand, can identify their influences, their strengths, and possible areas of weakness. By knowing their place in the wider information sphere, they need not reinvent concepts, and they can clearly communicate with their teams. Therefore, when you know what web design owes to graphic design, you have sharper mental tools to approach and perfect a design.