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.