Architecture v. Web Design

I used to consider web design and architecture alike. The famous Roman architect Vitruvius has set out in his treatise on architecture, de Architectura, that architecture should fulfill three things: strength, utility and beauty. In essence this is what a web design should fulfill also, with maintainability reflecting strength and usability reflecting utility. But while these three goals are shared, the essence of the two fields is actually quite different, so much so that in a way they could be considered opposites.

The essence of architecture is the creation of space. Space is the end product of architecture. It is not the stone walls, the wooden floors, or the marble columns, but the space created within them that will be used. The objective is to elevate that space–to make it interesting, inspiring, useful, livable. Web design is the opposite of that–it’s the presentation and organization of content. Space is used as a tool, but it is not the main material or the end product. The end product is the content itself.

I make this comparison to illustrate the two different approaches to design. I wrote yesterday about the content centric approach that derives the design by styling and spacing the content itself. The opposite approach to that would be to create the “design” first–the content frame, header area, navigation bar etc.–and then slot the content in when you’re done. This approach is popular with pre-made templates or designs where Lorem ipsum is used as dummy text, and happens when the designer doesn’t have the content on hand.

What happens here is that this approach to web design begins to reflect architecture, where the creation of space becomes the goal, and in this case the framing of that space. The problem with this is that the design is not optimal for the content, it’s at best a guess. Additionally, because space starts to become the objective, the frame becomes the means of satisfying the objective, and so we have superficial visuals that are created for their own sake that begin to look like those intricate baroque picture frames.

Yes, the end product may look good, but this sort of design isn’t real, in the sense that you’re not working with the thing itself, but merely creating a container to place it in. But the container is not the goal of web design, it’s what’s inside that matters, and good looks is not the most important attribute for most websites. This is why working without real content is a bad idea. It sets up a trap–a trap that flips the primary goal of the design from presenting content to presenting space, and once this trap pulls you in you’ll find that you’re no longer solving problems, but merely decorating.