The Death and Rebirth of Traditional Web Design

We share some ideas on the death & rebirth process that can be currently felt in all areas of web design, development, and usability.

Many articles have popped up asking the question “is web design dead“? This has been a recent theme by many writers yet it seems very few of them are drawing similar conclusions.

Stating that web design is “dead” feels like quite the misnomer. After all, more people are using the web now than ever before. Web standards have improved dramatically and continue to advance year-over-year. So is the web really dying?

Not exactly – but what is dying is the archaic web that we all remember from the ’90s and early millennium. That web is currently morphing into something better, something more modern that fits current design protocols of accessibility and browser standards.

I’d like to share my ideas on this death & rebirth process that can be felt in all areas of web design, development, and usability. It would be foolhardy to assume that web design (and thus the job title “web designer”) is on its way out. Instead this job title is evolving into something new with greater responsibilities that pertain more directly to the current process of building modern websites.

The Web’s Ever-Evolving Landscape

It’s staggering to look back and witness how much the World Wide Web has changed in just 10 years’ time. Many trends have come into favor and fallen out just as quickly, being replaced by newer technologies.

The current time we find ourselves in has remnants of an old order and a new order coexisting simultaneously on the same Internet. We have blossoming technologies like TypeKit and Node.js emerging on the same Internet that hosts some truly horrendous designs.

Designers and developers working in this landscape wish to move towards full accessibility for all Internet users. This is a very large goal that would require extinguishing all legacy browser usage, updating most outdated websites, and bringing web standards together into one all-encompassing guidebook.

We aren’t quite there yet but we’re much closer now than ever before. And it seems modern ideas like open source development allow advancements to happen much quicker.

github open source network

So it seems this idea of a “death” in web design is no more than a dying archaic structure. We find ourselves at the precipice of rejecting this outdated structure while still maintaining its foundation (HTTP, HTML/CSS, etc).

Perhaps the most important theme of this new era in design is usability/user experience. Websites (and all digital interfaces) are becoming more about the user. Interaction design is almost synonymous with user experience design – which should’ve always been the case from the very beginning.

Only difference now is that web designers have greater technology and browser support to push their ideas out to a wider audience.

Responsive Design is the Future

My introduction to flexible responsive design was reading the book Responsive Web Design written by Ethan Marcotte. It’s hard to say at what point responsive design truly became ingrained into the industry, but I can say the term “responsive design” was nonexistent a decade ago in 2005.

responsive web design ethan marcotte

Responsive layouts continue to blur the line between devices whether they’re desktop monitors, laptops, tablets or tiny smartphones.

Some people might argue that mobile applications could destroy the web and cause a type of death in web design. But the web has been around much longer and serves a specific purpose that transcends mobile OS devices.

While the line is blurred between web-accessible devices, the line is still much clearer between native and web-based apps.

Technology Leads the Way

With more people getting into building websites there’s a much larger industry looking to hire professional designers and developers across the world. It seems the demand for well-crafted websites has been growing steadily for years.

Whether we’re nearing a saturation point or still growing as an industry, I can’t say with certainty either way.

But I can say that over the past few years there seems to be a never-ending market of talented web designers and developers collaborating on powerful websites that never existed years ago. Stack Overflow comes to mind and proves very useful to anyone just getting into web development (or any programming for that matter).

stack overflow homepage q&a

Naturally open source plugins and frameworks speed up the development cycle, too. Advancements in frameworks like WordPress and Bootstrap only help to make further advancements happen quicker.

The most amazing part is that all of this work is done for free. People happily build jQuery plugins and release their code on GitHub for anyone to use, edit, or fork into their own custom version.

The general consensus seems to be “don’t reinvent the wheel”. Web people have been reinventing technologies and ideas for years looking for the best way to do stuff (XHTML/HTML5, Atom/RSS, Sass/Less). Competition is rarely a bad thing, but some semblance of uniformity helps to get everyone familiarized with similar technology.

bootstrap twitter open source framework

We’ve finally reached a point where it’s incredibly simple to build on top of others’ work from the comfort of any room with Internet access. This new era of web design can be partially defined as an era of resources.

Why always start from scratch when there are dozens of foundational projects at your disposal?

The Growing Prevalence of Webapps

Responsive techniques should be used on all layouts to attracted the widest audience. But aside from “traditional” websites, I’ve also found an increasing number of web applications that use traditional responsive features.

Web apps are hosted on domains just like websites, but their purpose is more interactive.

A typical website holds information. It often has multiple pages, maybe some primary feature like an eCommerce shop or social network. But a webapp usually runs on a single page and is maintained for the purpose of a very specific function.

One example is the Dillinger markdown editor. It’s an online web application that runs like a desktop Markdown editing application.

webapp dillinger markdown editor

The purpose of a web application is to offer features that can be accessed from any computer with Internet access. This way you don’t need to download & install a Markdown editor because Dillinger is online just waiting to be used.

Can web applications completely replace desktop software? No of course not – but they’re great for small tasks and most of them are completely free.

As web applications grow in prominence I think we’ll see a lot of handy features being ported right to the web. There already are lots of great webapps available and the number continues to grow each year.

Here are some examples of webapps you can checkout to study design, user experience, and modern interface structures.

So to summarize: is web design dead? Not by a long shot! But what is dying is the old order of beliefs & methodologies for building websites.

We exist in this transitional phase where older techniques haven’t been completely phased out, yet newer techniques haven’t completely taken over. It’s an exciting time to work in the field of web design and I have a hunch things will only improve in the many years to come.


Featured image: iofoto

About the Author Jake Rocheleau

Jake is a passionate writer & digital designer frequently researching the latest trends in UI/UX design and user behaviors. You can find work samples on his portfolio and follow his tweets @jakerocheleau.