Does design exist in a template-driven world?
Design-in-Flight is back in an all-new weblog format. The most recent feature article asks about the commodity of content, and what this means for design.
This is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. In an age of content management systems and blog tools, RSS and MP3, content which was once a complete package with other physical properties has now become a bunch of impersonal 1’s and 0’s.
Sure, mass aggregating is great if you view content as a consumer, looking to filter the wheat from the chaff. It’s progress, baby. But as I’m sure has been waxed nostalgic by others far more eloquent, there’s something lost when dissociating content from any context. You just don’t get attached to a post sitting in Bloglines the same way you once might have clipped a newspaper article and hung it on your fridge. You don’t flip through the liner notes of an album bought on the iTunes music store, the same way you would have if you had bought it on vinyl, cassette, or CD.
Particularly relevant to my own work is the question of content design vs. templating. The article leaves a dangling question: if content is this ethereal and interchangeable, what’s the designer’s role? An answer was briefly touched on with the mention of Apple’s Widgets: styling, but not defining.
How many of us are noticing an increase in requests to design ‘templates’ for general content, but not custom-design specific content? I sure have. A lot of requested work these days assumes this as a baseline; when dealing with a CMS or a dynamic application, you don’t get the content in advance (if it even exists yet), so it’s ultimately irrelevant to the design. The goal ends up being the creation of a flexible, one-size-fits-all construction.
Is this design though? In the sense that you’re being asked to solve a specific visual problem, yes. In the sense that you have full control over the rendering of the output, anyone designing for the web has been getting used to the idea of giving up control for years now. This is just one more step along that path.
So that reduces the designer to one who can make a bit of code look nice. And to a lot of clients, that’s about all there is to it. I’m sure we’ve all had our share of the “shut up and color” type, who don’t hire us beyond making sure their ugly site or application is not quite as ugly.
I’d like to think there’s more to what we do than simple aesthetics, though. Lately there has been a lot more focus on Design in business and other realms than traditionally warranted. Design, that is, in the sense of it being strategic planning and problem solving of systems, interfaces, and products, which is a much broader definition than visual design.
And that’s how I find my own interests shifting, too. I got into this game with no more than an image editor and the pixels to back it up, but lately my focus has been much wider. I’m reading up on databases and server-side scripting. I’m brushing up on my Unix and tweaking the web server I have running on my local machine. I’m deep in a Lou Rosenfeld book and my copy of OmniGraffle is being opened a lot more these days.
Not that I expect to rush out and start billing as a programmer or database administrator, mind you, but the exposure to these other disciplines is really helping me clarify what it is that I do, and how that fits into the complex ecosystem of talent on the web. My view of design is changing from simply making a user interface look great, to making a great user interface, and all the details that go into it. That demands a heck of a lot more than a few well-placed pixels.
So while templating is here to stay, it doesn’t at all mean that demand for design talent is going away. Consider that the type of content that lends itself to a template is generally the type of content that probably shouldn’t be custom-designed anyway; just as newspapers and magazines have general layouts and style guides, so too do dynamic web sites. Rapid turnover of content demands as little production as possible. More production is always nice, but it’s not a necessity.
And it’s highly likely that blogs and other systems that allow the average user to manage content have increased the interest in templates as well; since CSS offers the ability to use a common markup base and radically alter the look, it’s easy to implement them. You could potentially make a career out of designing generalized blog templates, whereas five years ago there was no demand. But that’s a brand new niche, it doesn’t replace traditional design.
That’s the point, I think — we’re not looking at a commoditization of design talent, we’re looking at an expanded market. Given the higher level of interest in design in general, the field is getting wider, and there are now simply more options.