Can web design stand the test of time?

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September 08, 2016
Can web design stand the test of time?.
2016 marks my twentieth year as a web designer. While it’s crazy to think that so much time has gone by, it’s downright cringe-worthy to think of the sites I designed back then. Seriously, some of them look like they belonged in the dark corner of shame at GeoCities. Humor aside, it’s understandable if a website built 20 years ago doesn’t quite live up to today’s expectations for form and function. After all, both technology and taste have changed a whole lot over that amount of time. And, as designers, we evolve with those changes. Our existing skills are honed as we continue to learn new ones. New tools arrive to replace the old and outdated. But it’s worth wondering if the sites we’ve created more recently will hold up better than their ancient predecessors. Is that even possible?

Is web design cyclical?

It seems that, at some point, just about every print design trend from the last half of the 20th century has made a comeback. The illustrated print ads of the 1950s, the psychedelic 60s, groovy 70s, futuristic 80s and grungy 90s have all been brought back into vogue. [pullquote]If anything, web design has always been more about pushing forward than looking back[/pullquote] But what about web design? Well, I’m not always up on the latest fads but I haven’t seen table-based layouts or large images sliced into a hundred pieces much recently. Once in a while you see something from the past, but it’s usually as the butt of a joke. That sense of nostalgia just isn’t the same. If anything, web design has always been more about pushing forward than looking back. But with all of the improvements made in recent years – maybe this could change to a degree.

Looking back to more recent times

As opposed to what I did in the 1990s and early 2000s, looking five or six years into the past brings me a different type of cringe. The designs themselves don’t get me—it’s more about functionality and how I chose to implement it. 2010 began the “WordPress Era” of my career, where I began using it regularly for site building. In those early days of creating with WordPress, my knowledge of how to get things done in development wasn’t quite as sharp. Plus, the software didn’t have as many helpful administrative and developmental features. So naturally, both the software and I have improved over time. Now, I’ve got a real comfort level and a process for it all (which, of course, means that it will all completely change any minute). [pullquote]Probably the biggest thing missing from this time period is responsive design[/pullquote] Design-wise, I can certainly see that my work is a bit different now than it was then. Some of the more advanced CSS3 techniques weren’t widely used yet. Probably the biggest thing missing from this time period is responsive design. That was all coming into light but not as universal as it is now. While the designs are different, they still look respectable (to me, anyway). Six years is certainly a lot less time for a design to get dated than twenty. But I’ll be interested in looking back on this crop of sites after a few more years and see how they hold up.

Stepping into the future

So how will the website you launched today hold up over time? I’d argue that, while the design trends will undoubtedly change, what we do today will hold up fairly well years from now. That’s because we have reached a time when readability, accessibility and adherence to standards are so widely recognized and implemented by designers and developers. It’s easy to see now that the designs of 15-20 years ago were, for the most part, missing those principles that we now hold dear. Not necessarily because designers didn’t care about them, but a lot of those concerns simply weren’t known at the time. The web was a new medium and best practices weren’t around in any widespread manner. In that way, if we create something today that implements those best practices, we’re apt to have fewer cringe-worthy moments when looking back at our portfolios. That’s not to say that we won’t have a laugh at a color choice or a bad stock photo we used. Those things will always change with the times. It just won’t be that put-a-paper-bag-over-your-head terrible site I mentioned earlier.

Now, to answer the question…

Designers will continue to push their craft forward – always finding new and creative ways to tell a story. While that’s important, it seems like the really big changes will be in what tools we’re designing with and the platforms we use to build websites. [pullquote]Change will present new challenges and creative opportunities for designers[/pullquote] WordPress, for example, is planning to use a lot more JavaScript in its UI. Version 4.3 of the popular Jetpack plugin is going to use React.js for its administrative interface. This type of change will present new challenges and creative opportunities for designers. Maybe that means our designs might not look dated as much as the way we implement them will. So, I believe I have arrived at an answer: Yes, a web designer’s portfolio can stand the test of time. Just not in the nostalgic, cyclical way of print design. Technology simply won’t let us rehash the past very much. Instead, we can look at a well-done website from 2016 and say that it looked and worked as it should given the technological constraints of the time. That’s something we should all be proud of—no matter how many years go by.

Eric Karkovack

Eric Karkovack is a web designer with over 20 years of experience. You can visit his business site here. In 2013 he released his first eBook: Your Guide to Becoming a Freelance Web Designer. He also has an opinion on just about every subject. You can follow his rants on Twitter @karks88.

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