Focal Curve

Designer Nation

Andy Clarke‘s latest editorial touches on the idea of regionally distinctive design. In a nutshell, design trends have always been tied to a particular country (over time becoming part of the national identity), but this doesn’t seem to be happening yet on the web. Can a medium without borders give rise to nation-specific visual identities? Is there such a thing as “American web design” or “British web design” and if so, how can you tell? Right now, most of the design elements which might distinguish a website as coming from a particular country (omitting obvious clues like flags and languages) are those that have carried over from a history in other media. But as the web continues to grow into its own distinct medium, shedding the traditions of print and television while building traditions of its own, web design as a whole is showing signs of a style without a country.

Historically, regional artistic movements have come about through isolated evolution: whatever works best in its particular environment will tend to survive. Without interbreeding between geographies, the successful traits tailored for one region will continue to propagate and become ever more distinctive. It’s the reason you don’t get wallabies in the Rockies or bobcats in the Outback. Art breeds by influence, and without contact with artists in other countries (or the importing/exporting of art), a movement will remain within its own borders, continuing to evolve along similar lines until it becomes deeply identified with its country of origin. Thanks to the Orthodox Church, Russia was largely cut off from Europe during the Renaissance so Russian religious art remained Byzantine in style through the 18th century. In post-WWII Japan, comic books evolved for decades with little influence from America or Europe, developing a unique visual language of their own.

As travel and communication technologies have advanced, bridges between artistic continents have become easier to cross. A trend may spring up in one area and spread rapidly, the distinctive traits being quickly passed on to other creative gene pools. Without a semblance of geographic isolation, nation-specific design trends have little chance to evolve on their own. The internet has no effective borders, nothing to prevent a German designer from being influenced by the work of a Brazilian designer who was originally inspired by a Swedish designer. The globalization of web design is a result of cross-pollenation between artistic ecosystems.

Will this ultimately lead to a single homogenized race of website mutts? Will the look of the web become the visual identity of a single worldwide designer nation? And if so, is that good or bad? Will it dissolve boundaries and level the field, or squash originality in favor of cultural conformity? We must admit web design in its current state is heavily dominated by American sensibilities. This is to be expected, as the web is quite young and so much of it has originated in the US. But there’s plenty of room for the microevolution of regionally distinctive styles. As our infant medium matures and we continue to figure out what works and what doesn’t, it seems only natural that certain trends will take root in certain places. The pollen is spreading fast on the rumps of fiber-optic bees, and who can say what the web will look like in a few more generations.

5 Comments on 'Designer Nation'

  1. I am Jack's delusional state said:

    I think the biggest example of cultural diversity on the web is the insane Japanese/Chinese websites; with their penchant for a plethora of cute animal images (especially Hello Kitty), and of course all of them are animated. They also seem to have a distinct page layout, with shit everywhere! They are like a portal to animated GIF hell. They remind me of the Simpson’s episode when they are in Japan, and a cartoon comes on with flashing lights which give everyone an epilectic fit.

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  2. Malarkey said:

    I should respond by telling you that I think that this post is one of the most elegant and intelligently thought through reply to any column which I have written. Reading replies such as yours is not only gratifying but makes writing on the web a real pleasure. Many thanks for your interest.

    Kind regards,

    Andy Clarke

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  3. Richard Rutter said:

    Great response, Craig. I think you’re right that individual design identities evolve and become distinct through a lack of contact with other influences. This might be why British web design may never be distinct from American web design, not only because we British consume much that is American but because there is a lot of contact and conversation between British and US designers. It’s also probably fair to say that US and British designers will turn to the same design portals for inspiration.

    If you take the Web Standards group of designers – let’s face it, it’s a small subset of all web designers – the group is definitely multi-national in scope and yet an individual aesthetic is building, as noted in a post I made a while back. So here you have a style evolving based not on geography, but on peer influence.

    Due to the far greater international reach of influence on thw web, compared with other media, I think that geographical web design styles will only develop in response to a national need and will not occur otherwise. Though it would be great if British Web Design for the new Swiss Graphic Design.

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  4. Craig said:

    Andy, thanks so much for your kind words and thanks for provoking the thoughts. This is a topic I’ve been thinking on since you brought it up at SXSW, and clearly there’s still much to ponder.

    Richard, I agree completely. It’s going to be nearly impossible for a style to not only develop in isolation, but to then remain unique to a country without being copied by others. However, I think it’s very possible (and almost inevitable) that localized trends and schools of design may pop up in a particular region, flourish for a time, and then spread.

    In “traditional” art, movements have always been led and exemplified by a small group of artists who collaborate and influence each other (how many French Impressionists can you name?). I think the Britpack is already building a noticable style through close contact and collaboration. Within a few more years that style will spread worldwide and, alas, lose its unique Britishness (which I still can’t quite place a finger on, but something is there) until you lot come up with something new for us to swipe. But even when designers around the world are emulating that style, it will be remembered as coming from the UK. We’ll be discussing “The Britpack style” the same way we discuss French Impressionism.

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  5. Alex McKee said:

    Sorry to bump this, I just found Malarkeys post, and seeing comments were ended there, and he linked to your follow up I’d like to leave some thoughts.

    First of all, I am a very proud Briton. However, I do not believe design and nationality can go together in the 21st century. New dynamics are emerging. As touched upon in the comment above, the Britpack has a distinct style, but this is more because they are friends who deal with the same sort of design and techniques, and are developing sites whilst reading one anothers blogs. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s a community.

    Another design set, is the 24-7media/Ingo Ramin design style. This has been massively emulated worldwide but only by DQS community members. The dynamics of world wide web design emerge from our communities. These communities, by the nature of the web, are international. This is not a bad thing, it’s a very good thing.

    The only thing to fear from the encroaching americanised design style is unoriginality. If designers fail to translate their experiences, tastes etc into their work we will not see new styles emerging. That will be the start of the homogenisation.

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