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29 June 6

The future of web design

Under - Design, Media, My Musings, Technology, Usability

First, I’d rephrase the title to ‘The immediate future of web design’. Second, I’d like to clarify that this article is not about design trends, typography and 100 best sites of futuristic designs.

Having visited FOWD this May in London the question that kept popping in my mind was how rapidly the digital media landscape is changing (like always!) and how quickly we can deal with it? Paul Boag from Headspace shared his thoughts around this subject that left me scratching my head. The focus of FOWD conference this time was around CSS3 and HTML5 along with many other ‘hot’ bits and bobs of design and marketing that we all love to read and discuss. The talk however that was missing is ‘What is the future of web design?’.

The capabilities of latest and smart browsers coupled with the introduction of more robust and user-friendly technologies such as HTML5 and CSS3 with JS frameworks etc are definitely affecting the design and usability in a very positive manner. But, these are not the only factors determining the future of ‘web design’ – rather, it is the introduction of new hardware or ‘new categories’ of hardware that are going to shape the future of web design this time. I see web design splitting into two major sub-categories that I call ‘Clicks’ and ‘Taps’. We would soon find designers setting their course for specialization in either of the two (no one stopping us doing both though!).

So what’s it about?

Here I would define the two categories I mentioned above:

  1. Clicks – conventional web design on PCs where interaction is achieved with cursor movement (rollover/rollout) and on mouse press or release
  2. Taps – web design for multi-touch gesture browsing on handheld devices such as:
    • Smartphones – iPhone, Palm Pre, HTC HD2, Else Intuition, Nokia N900 etc, and
    • Tablets – well, this is the redefined tablet category that iPad created. This category is ‘now’ about devices that fall in-between a Smartphone and a laptop computer such as iPad, and all the iPad-killer devices such as joojoo, WeTab, HP Slate, Google Tablet and a dozen more here.

Now, how on earth is this categorization going to affect the future of web design?

The answer lies in the hardware and OS capabilities of these devices, in the refined mobile usability experience and in multi-touch gesture browsing that we are getting accustomed to. These elements are going to drive the future of web design and would heavily affect the ‘Clicks’ side of it.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to us, if we look closely at the development within the Smartphone industry and what these iPad like devices are trying to achieve, that our PCs are going to be offloaded with the Internet that we’d be carrying with us in the form of Smartphones or tablets. This major addition in web design serving platform would trigger a shift in our overall design approach which is governed by the medium and its capabilities – isn’t it?

Photo source 邪恶的正太 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/juehuayin/4556617846/)

Clicks – conventional web design or web on PC

The immediate future on this front apparently seems to be overrun by new browsers (or browser war) and their capabilities in supporting and rendering HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript. These technologies are going to change the web and interaction design landscape forever, but the best thing that is going to happen is the amount of unprecedented focus to usability and accessibility (this – mostly for handheld devices!). Web design would ‘seriously’ have to act like an interface between business/communication and technology, and technology and people. A designer can only perform these functions by being part of all of them!

Now, without going into web 2.0 vs. web 3.0 argument we can see that user behaviour has changed within the past few years especially with the introduction of social media, information accessibility on mobile devices and cloud computing. Still, it is changing rapidly with higher expectations as limitations are falling away within digital arena. Such demanding user expectations mean shift in design approach from inside out (function follows design) to outside in (design follows function).

So my dear fellow web designers, to get ready for the future, we have to take seriously what business and market analysis is and how online business strategies are formed. How projects are conceived and KPI’s outlined. How perceptions are changed and online brands are built. How technologies are decided and information architecture is laid out. How user journeys are developed and usability testing is done. How our designs perform functions and deliver results. How we market and measure it.

Our role as a web designer is one of the driving forces behind this web evolution where we have to rediscover our niche every two years or so – or we are simply outdated. We don’t design websites anymore – we are required to design businesses, functions, systems and measurable performance with solid results. This might be the only profession in the world where one can enjoy a successful career by being a generalist than a specialist!

Taps – web design for multi-touch gesture browsing

Mobile computing is the other side of web design that is fast becoming a norm where web interaction is faster and smarter than ‘Clicks’ with less or no bells and whistles attached. Where everyone (business/service) has to redefine (separate websites, widgets and apps) themselves because of the medium itself, its usability and user behaviour.

Apart from a few, all those new handheld devices are coming with their own OS nowadays or adopting new operating systems which may look a bit chaotic right now but within a few years when dust is settled there are going to be a few winners. The most common element in the development of modern multi-touch handheld devices is that they all are focusing on innovation and usability. Usability is universal hence making all these devices look and perform more or less the same in the end! Additionally, these devices are all multi-touch that we run by tapping and swiping fingers on screen with one or both hands. This gesture browsing means that we cannot use conventional ‘Click’ designs or the design approach effectively (where interaction is performed by additional devices such as mouse etc) for this medium.

This fundamental difference in the usability of web design would split it into two categories that I highlighted above. Web on PCs or ‘Clicks’ is where interaction is performed by a mouse so the design would follow conventions set for that medium whereas for multi-touch devices we would be confined (but not) within the capabilities of this medium. This segmentation is creating a whole new exciting conversation. If we look at what Bonnier and BERG has done in the form of ‘Mag+’ for Popular Science magazine the point here would be easier to understand. It was a prototype that they conceived and iPad has actually done it.

Photo source Bonnier R&D (http://www.flickr.com/photos/bonnier_rd/sets/72157622918954909/)

If you have used iPad or watched this Mag+ prototype video, you would agree that this kind of user experience cannot be developed for the web on PCs where user interaction is indirect (though exceptions are there but their practicality is in question!).

We have to come out of ‘Web on PC’ state of mind to be able to conceive the presentation and interaction design for these new mobile devices. This requires extensive research and dedication that would result in unique apps, interface designs and interaction.


I would highly recommend young designers to build skills and/or understanding in frontend development, and keep a close eye on the advancements within this area. If you already have frontend skills then polish them and acquire knowledge in other areas to get ready for a multifaceted role that you are going to play in the coming days. This time, it wouldn’t be a choice to stick to ‘design-only’ excuse.

I shared my thoughts around the ‘Future of Web Design’ here and what it holds for us. It would be interesting to know what you think about this subject so please feel free to share it below.

6 thoughts to “The future of web design”

  1. BWD

    June 30, 2010 at 12:40 am

    Good post. Nowadays everything is changing so why not web design and its processes change.

  2. Karthik Keyan

    June 30, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    Thank you for this article. Through this article i just come to know that what is going on and what is going to be in the future of web designing.

    From this article i have changed my thoughts from designing for PC to designing for mobiles.

  3. Aggelos Karalias

    July 4, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    This is so true.. and it is almost happening now, there are many sites out there trying to replace the usability from mouseover, mouseout events with something onclick..

    I think that, not too many years before, everyone had in mind that the change from a mouse to a multitouch device should be transparent to the event model, language, developer etc.. but the hardware capabilities and the user experience are so different that we are forced to separate “Clicks” and “Taps” (I find your terms fitting perfectly to the subject).

    But saying that it is true doesn’t mean it is good. We’ll have more things to keep in mind, sometimes more conditional situations to handle and other things needing, once again, an extra effort to keep them clean and maintainable.

    Maybe some abstraction may happen but the problem is that it’s easy to abstract some parts of an app (the data access is an example maybe) but when we are in the UI side of development abstractions and generalizations usually result to poor UX.

    The fact is that future is getting closer all the time and the new specs are one (or more) step forward for the web. But we should not make past’s mistakes by running to the future..

  4. Tony

    August 16, 2010 at 1:28 am

    Great article, this is a great time to be a web designer !

  5. Anthony Meszaros

    May 2, 2011 at 2:24 am

    Wow! Great article! I really was inspired by your words. Thanks for this post, I really enjoyed it.

  6. Kathrin

    February 7, 2013 at 12:03 am

    So, the future of web design will be a that it will keep us constantly busy, tapping and clicking away on our multifunctinal devices, which are not meant to last, which need software updates and battery charges. Honestly, I hope not! Is a human riding the tube NOT holding an ipad or something alike in his hand and no earphones on an alien at this point?
    Seriously, I think the kids will all be internet addicts and we will have digital dementia when it comes to this. I am a graphic designer and I do also online communication. Still, I think the illuminated and animated billboards, the banners and interfaces will at certain points never beat a magazine or a book on paper. Especially not for people, who´s eyes have been fixed on a screen the whole day.


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