Web Design – Art Or Engineering?

This has been the single most troubling query for me since I have arrived in the Web arena. The systems programming and application programming are more tilted towards the engineering aspect, applying engineering basics for designing the UI (User Interface). However, because Internet is being treated as media rather than a platform, art has more scope here. I have seen the Photoshop guys and the Content guys at each other’s neck to own the design. Who gets the credit?

Content or Graphics?

My engineering background biases me towards that. On the web Content is the King. Give importance to the content identification, information architecture, user profiling and then design. User a Content Management System. A web site should support the standards, should be usable, accessible (at least to its intended audience) and more importantly secure. But it cannot be just this! In today’s competition for the top birth, the graphic design plays an important role. Users are not ready to go with anything that is drab and already done. It has to be fresh, with new ideas. And it has to be usable, accessible – wow am I going in circles?

Tommy Olsson of Accessites.org analyzes the two approaches two designers take – Visual and Structural and attempts at a possible solution. The primary difference is that the structural design will flow with the content, whereas the visual design will end up filling up spaces with content. The structural approach can end up looking looking boring and too engineered. Whereas, like Tommy mentions, visual approach can put less focus on the usability and accessibility aspects. He goes on to speculate

Why, then, is the visual approach so much more prevalent than the structural? One reason is that most people think visually, especially when it comes to web design. Many also find abstract thinking very difficult, and abstract thinking is required for the structural design approach. Furthermore, visual designers believe that starting with the content will impose limitations on the design possibilities. The main reason, of course, is most likely that many designers use WYSIWYG tools like Dreamweaver or FrontPage, which are design-centric to the extreme.

That is the key, the either parties end up using tools which are design-centric to the extreme. The visual designers see content as an impediment and the structural ones will view graphical design as a restriction. One thing is sure that today both are important.

Tommy wonders if both the visual and structrual designers having equal in HTML, CSS, usability, accessibility and graphic design will design visually identical designs. Practically, it will be difficult to find this, and even if it is done, the design will change depending on whether you focus first on the graphics or first on the content. Ideally they should be done by the corresponding domain experts and then both should be blended together.


Will it not be great if both of them sit together and sort out the issue? Instead of stubborn designs on both sides, can there be design ideas and a brainstorming session to materialize the ideas. Both parties can contribute in each other’s designs from their perspective. It can become imperative, in fact, in cases where graphics is part of the content. A case to consider is when putting up images the art will focus more on colors and textures, whereas the engineering will consider impact of the images on the size and performance. Which of these has more importance probably depends on the type of the website and the type of the target audience. I would tend to invest in structural approach when designing for a news paper, however, the weight can be heavier for the visual approach when designing for an art gallery.

Ultimately, the resulting website is a blend of both, so they have to be treated together and approved togther. There is no one-upmanship. Web design is both art and engineering, and what the user should see is a balance between the two.

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Copyright Abhijit Nadgouda.

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