Web Design + Smooth Space

Heather Strycharz

I recently came across this old article at A List Apart: ‘Mapping Memory: Web Designer as Information Cartographer’ and found it interesting not only as a web designer but in its applications to this class. The article begins with a statement that still holds true: “Theory often takes a back seat to practice in the field of web design”. Web design is more often seen as a technical trade than an art form. Most of what I do as a web designer is to create websites solely for the purpose of e-commerce (selling products via online stores). Though some designers have gone on to study what makes good design (what effectively sells more products) there doesn’t seem to be enough energy put into how we can use web design to create art and/or as a means of applying theory.

I liked Rester’s approach to an unwieldy website as a physical space he had to explore. In order to make sense of how to organize information into pages we often make static flow charts to represent the menus and interactive flow the user would use to get to the desired information. Rester writes of these charts: “What we often forget is that the blueprints from which we construct a site are themselves maps of processes and flows that already exist, from verbal dialogues to the exchange of money for goods and services.”  This is quite true.  We often do not think of our jobs as a means to facilitate processes which used to only exist in a physical space. I can think of a few reasons for this:  our role is designer (not merchant),  the processes have been completely abstracted. I find it more interesting that in such a short time (under 30 years) we have all assimilated to the idea of e-commerce.  For centuries we went to a physical space to buy goods and now we only have to go online.

We still have some concept though of the web as physical space. After creating the charts laying out the site’s architecture, during the process of coding websites and linking pages, the website feels more like a physical space. There is a sense of forwards and backwards, even browsers have interpreted this sensation with “forwards” and “backwards” buttons. The name “home page” is given to the “landing page” – the page we give the main address to and figure that most users will arrive to this page first. The home page’s goal is to give the user a starting point to explore the site, while simultaneously conveying a sense of the purpose of the entire site. Though Sam has mentioned many papers likening the web to Deleuze’s theory of the rhizome, it is easy to see how many people can make that connection.  However I see the internet more as smooth space. There is no true starting point nor an ending point. It is continuously expanding and how we use the space, how the information and capabilities of it are utilized continue to change.

Rester builds upon his idea of space and web design by mentioning Descartes and Lefebvre’s ideas of space. Unfamiliar with Henri Lefebvre’s work before this article, I found his ideas applied to web design quite interesting.

“A building, in Lefebvre’s reading, is a map of the interactions of the people who inhabit it; an architect is not a builder in an otherwise empty wilderness, but an observer, chronicler, and shaper of the networks that exist around her — in short, a map maker. Websites informed by a Lefebvrian conception of cyberspace rather than a Cartesian one would provide truly user-centered design, by recognizing that it is the users themselves whose actions produce the website; the web designer merely facilitates that creation.”

In this quote I immediately had associations to Bernard Cache’s Earth Moves, and I thought of the beginning chapter ‘Territorial Image’ and the city of Lausanne and the problems its landscape presented in unifying the city. In web design it is helpful to observe how users interact with sites (e.g., what they are drawn to) and how they navigate through the site. It is our responsibility to make the navigation as easy and intuitive as possible.  Most of the time I work on websites where user interaction is minimal, so I hadn’t thought much about the ability of the users and their actions to produce the website. These ideas are easily applied to social networks. Twitter is a prime example of the Lefebvrian concept. The developers of Twitter have stated they never predicted that their site would be used to aid in protests and revolutions in the Middle East. They provided the code and the platform while the users were the ones to bring about the innovations.

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