As the complexity of building websites rise, and certain areas of print (read newspaper) decline, we’ve been taken by another wave of delusion concerning the web. Ever since its founding, those looking from the outside have mistaken it for “their” media, and made prophecy of its coming fusion with their own profession. In the 1990s, it was common to say “someday the web will be just like TV”. In our current era, a smaller group is hoping for a “code free world”.
Why is this relevant to sustainability? Computers run on code. You can build interfaces to allow that code to be created, but you can’t replace the code. Inefficient code leads to less sustainable computing. And the inefficiency is not just a matter of low-level engineering – it is what you decide to build in code. There are many ways to build an e-commerce website, but some will be more efficient than others.
It’s key to understand that computers aren’t really able to write their own code when considering code. A computer can, of course, generate a string of code and “eval” it. A long time ago (1960s) people imagined that software self-writing its own code would “bootstrap” itself to superhuman power. Obviously this hasn’t happened – we still send people to school for years to use computers.
The big problem with a computer writing code at a high level is its lack of experience with the world in which goals are set for software. Take a program translating a Photoshop page comp into HTML and CSS. To a point, this is practical, as shown by programs like Media Lab’s SiteGrinder program. This program takes a complex .PSD file and translates it to a web page – in effect, doing something like “printing” the page to the web. It is similar to Adobe Muse (now Edge) in spirit – we can hide the code layer – but instead of using an Adobe InDesign page visual Ui, it takes layered Photoshop documents. In many ways, this makes sense – there are plenty of web designers that can make page comps that they would have trouble coding directly. SiteGrinder does a super-powered version of the old “image slicing” programs to pull assets out of Pshop layers into HTML and CSS. And, if you are willing to learn the complex method for setting up your page comps, it does the job reasonably well.
What the problem with SiteGrinder? Like Edge, it is being used in a nasty marketing strategy to convince people that their current media is all there is to the web, and that web design will soon disappear into their profession. It also implies that the key features of the web – interactivity, and dynamic updates – are inferior issues relative to art direction. Years ago, I sat through talks in Hollywood which assumed that the web would become more and more like TV until – surprise! the TV people would take over web design and development. That didn’t work out, and companies that tried to fold the web into a television model are out of business.
In the case of these “code-free” tools, graphic designers are being told that web pages are nothing more than electric pictures, like print but on a screen. This is against the true nature of the web as an interactive medium. True, the target audience often needs websites that are just electric photo galleries, and for this purpose it’s hard to deny the potential for these tools. But if we try to make the web more useful than an electric page, they fail any test of sustainability. Obviously, a skilled interactive designer might use these tools – but then they would be interactive designers, whether or not the label on their office door said “graphic designer”. The examples listed by SiteGrinder look more like interactive design than those shown for Adobe Edge. But both look pretty derivative.
In an earlier post, I noted that LCA analysis of both e-books and online newspapers indicates that with extended use, the virtual product causes greater environmental damage than the real. E-books, if read slowly and carefully like traditional textbooks, have a bigger environmental footprint than paper, despite all the problems with creating, distributing, and disposing of paper.
So, any tool that encourages print designers to view the web as a printed page will lead to site designs that cause greater environmental damage than if the same designs were just printed.
That’s huge. Muse and SiteGrinder both show off sites that look like electric paper. This isn’t an accident, since their market is Nervous People who want the web to be a minor sub-branch of print design.
In both cases – Muse and SiteGrinder – the marketers has posted testimonials describing how hard is for “creative” personality artists to work with those smelly coders, and how wonderful it is to cut them out of the loop once and for all. They also imply that what current web designers do on the web is trivial, and can easily be replaced with software – their software (InDesign or Photoshop) in fact. What could be more comforting to a Nervous Person who is worried about clients wanting a website to hear that there is no “web design” profession – and that a new tool allows them to take over and assert themselves against all those hacks and codebeasts?
It’s a seductive song, to be sure. But it ensures that the ultimate design will be optimized for non-web media. The web is not those media, so the design will be inferior. The websites will tend to be elaborate pictures (SiteGrinder), or electric brochures (Adobe Edge). The underlying code, while not impossibly bad, is pretty bad.
But even if we fix the code, these sites will still suck more energy than regular websites. Why? They are designed against the medium. They will do things that are unnecessary, and leave out the essential.
These sites are also less sustainable in terms of updates. In the short run, updates are easy, especially for a person at a print shop charged with doing something about their web presence. They can stay in a comfortable tool and make changes. But in the long run, sustainability suffers. Unless they update their tool, it will continue to crank out old code from the era in which they bought it – and the web is changing very rapidly. 5 years from now, pages created by these tools won’t only be clumsy, but invalid, sending next-generation browsers into “quirksmode”. Since they follow the old “image slice” model, even now they don’t employ the latest, highly efficient and cross-platform techniques (especially on mobile) like CSS3 and downloadable webfonts. Everything seems stuck in 1997 and cutting up static images.
Another feature of these tools is that they both ignore mobile, responsive design, and other strategies designed to maximize universal access to websites. By starting with a Photoshop or InDesign Lite interface, they fix the width and height of the web page – ignoring the fact that the same page may need to display on an iPhone or a 65 inch flatscreen TV. In traditional web design, “jelly” or “liquid” grid models ensure that designs adjust to different monitor sizes and resolutions. Not so with these tools, whose website output is essentially the equivalent of a building without a wheelchair ramp. In not serving the “browser-challenged”, these tools not only bring the developers nearer the risk of lawsuit over accessibility, but encourage the idea that in the future, we will all have giant screens like graphic designers.
The cynical idea of the marketers that I think is at work is that Edge and SiteGrinder sites are mostly viewed by the same visual designers as create them – they are designer to designer vanity plates. It’s the blind showing off to the blind. They don’t know how bad their sites look on a tablet.
But the biggest problem remains in letting designers stay in their comfort zone. But using tools designed for static images or static printed pages, the designer will tend to create lousy websites. At the level of interaction design, these tools offer nothing other than slideshows for shuffling photo galleries. This is not a bug, but a feature, since the tools sell to those who often don’t know that Interaction Design and User Experience (Ux) are a major part of creating websites. Better to ignore it and make it all about pictures.
This is OK just as long as the site is a “portfolio” – meaning that it is really like a design book. But the moment that interactivity enters the picture, the easy process of making a web page becomes incredibly hard. It is simple to automate the burn of a visual layout. But nobody has ever figured how to make clicking buttons and dragging sliders create an interactive path. It is just too hard. Even if you did it, the complexity of the GUI interface would easily exceed the work needed to create it in code.
Finally, these tool don’t go for the obvious niche – creating an early-generation HTML prototype during an iterative design process. While the code might not be easily used or streamlined, it would provide a quick estimate of the complexity of implementing the final design. But the tools are marketed as a replacement for all this – jump from your precious design all the way to a finished site in one step…iterative development strategies be dammed.
So, my prediction is that we are not on the verge of a code-free world, and these tools aren’t taking us there any more than Acrobat “replaced” web pages. The designs enabled by these tools are in many ways a backwater, “brochureware” harking back to the earliest days of the non-interactive web before we knew it has different than print. An e-brochure may be useful for a design shop that needs a basic web presence. But nobody is ever going to create the next Facebook or Angry Birds in these tools. In fact, it should be noted that we’ve never seen a hot new website of the likes of Foursquare or YouTube created by graphic designers. It just wouldn’t occur to them, since they break beyond the limits of a picture, however elaborate. All these web 2.0 or 3.0 sites have highly interactive interfaces – a third dimension beyond 2d visual layout.
My second prediction is that the ultimate rout of these one-stop tools – as opposed to many useful online tools that automate features of web design that are easily automated in a GUI – will be sustainability. A designer plus a coder will always create a more efficient website than one of these tools. More important, a hybrid designer/coder will create designs that by their very nature are more adapted to the web, and therefore more efficient, even before going to code.
The real danger to Worried People is that growing subset of programmers who are discovering that design, which hard and challenging, are not impossible for them to learn. Brainscans show that creativity of all types – from programming to sketching – are right-brain activities. Contrary to folk wisdom, being good at design is a good predictor for being good at programming, and vice versa.
Those who say “I just don’t have a mind for code” (seen in SiteGrinder marketing pap) are just kidding themselves. What they really mean is that “I don’t want to learn another system.” Fine and dandy, but that doesn’t mean that your system is about to take over the web. Its more likely that web designers are going to keep doing web design
Judging from the rise in design quality seen on many “coder” sites, it’s clear that many hardcore developers are acquiring design skills. Its not easier for a pure coder to learn design than a “pure” visual layout artist to learn code – but the former may have more motivation. If they do learn to be hybrids, they are unstoppable. It’s not a case of John Henry versus the steam hammer – it is a case of balsa wood planes being replaced by metal ones. A team of hybrids will run rings around siloed artists cranking out pictures into the great code wasteland.
Sustainability, sustainable websites, and the “next great sustainability app” will all come from hybrids. “Code free” development tools should be used with caution, as they impact sustainability and ignore the interactive nature of the web. If you’re not sure about this, try watching the Internet, because, according to all those failed 1990s dotcoms, it is “just like TV”.