Naked Day II

CSS Naked Day is upon us again, a festive event wherein numerous websites (mostly the personal sites of web designers) temporarily strip themselves of their stylistic vestments and reveal their content otherwise unadorned. It vividly demonstrates the separation of presentation from content; when the presentation layer is removed from the equation the content left behind remains in a readable, functional, accessible state thanks to semantic markup and logical source order. Essentially, it’s one day when a few hundred websites party like it’s 1993.

So what does Naked Day really accomplish? Alas, not much. As others have remarked, only a relatively small clustering of people “get it” while the rest are left stumped as to why these sites look so ugly. The vast hordes never see these niche sites anyway. This stunt will do little to convert anyone who isn’t already a member of the choir.

But for all its frivolity and me-tooism, Naked Day is still an effective exhibition of semantics in action. But moreover, it really drives home the point that, while content is king, design is still important. Not just decoration and fluffery, but real, honest, true design.

There has been much pontification over what “Design” is and how it’s different from “Art.” For my money, Art is a free, emotional expression of self while Design is an intellectual application of artistic principles under specific constraints. Art can exist for its own sake, Design always has an agenda — to guide and sway the manner in which a person engages with a thing. The best design is subtle and invisible, but its absence is noticed immediately.

A graphical browser’s built-in style sheet is the epitome of undesigned design. It will inject margins to separate blocks of text and can stylistically differentiate headings from paragraphs from links. But that’s about all it does. These legacy styles — holdovers from days when the web was the exclusive domain of programmers and computer scientists, before graphic designers got their grubby, ink-stained fingers on the medium — are just not very well designed.

A few minutes’ surfing a few naked sites quickly shows that they all look very much alike. You’re forced to actually read to know where you are, without the benefit of a recognizable visual identity. And I’m a huge fan of liquid layouts, but a line of text quickly becomes unreadable without something constraining its maximum length. The wider a line of text stretches without some proportional adjustment of white space, the more cramped and unscannable it becomes. The content may be readable in its default presentation, but it takes considerable effort to read it.

A little more attention paid to typography and spatial arrangement makes a site better, and not just better-looking. A well-designed site can draw the eye to the most important content, direct the reader’s attention to the fundamental message. An unstyled site fails to do that. Everything runs together and looks alike. I don’t know where to look or what to remember or how to find what I’m after. Skillful design, applied unobtrusively through clean application of CSS, makes a site smoother, more usable, more memorable and more pleasant to be around.

Naked websites are ugly, but they work. That’s the real point we’re making. And we can breathe a sigh of relief when it’s all over and we toggle our CSS back into effect. Web design is dead, long live web design.