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Has Web 2.0 Killed Good Design?

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Recently, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the ascendency of Web 2.0 driven companies and the conversation-starting technologies they’re based on. It seems like I can’t go to a professional event anymore without watching a speaker evangelize about social media or search engine optimization. (Okay, I know, SEO isn’t really a Web 2.0 thing, but the social media is usually placed within the context of search engine optimization, so the two are virtually inseparable these days…)

“Here’s How to Integrate Facebook Into Your Business’ Marketing Plan…” might be the title of one talk.

or

“Strategies for Content Generation for Long Tail Search in SEO…” might be the title of another.

As someone who straddles the world of both marketing and design, I’ve watched the rise of Web 2.0 and — unless my forty-something eyes are suffering from more than just midlife farsightedness — I’ve noticed something. The internet — and the brands it has spawned — is becoming an uglier place.

Consider the extinction of the all-Flash website. Four years ago, at the height of the real estate boom, nearly every developer client of ours wanted us to design these luscious, all-Flash web sites for their projects. Flash, as many of you probably know, allows for the creation of truly immersive web experiences. You can have musical underscores, overscores and lots of pretty, moving pictures and type. But Flash has a big downside. Namely – for a lot of technical reasons I won’t bore you with – it’s pretty stinky from the standpoint of search engine optimization. So, in the last couple of years, we in interactive design have witnessed the virtual extinction of websites authored exclusively in Flash. And, although it’s true that diehard design devotees (like the folks at webcreme.com) are still out there, championing beautiful design, we’ve found that, these days, aesthetics are having to take a back seat to a whole range of other Web 2.0 generated concerns. (Try designing a site which – besides having to feature the usual navigation bar – also needs to feature link buttons to Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Digg, Delicious, LinkedIn, StumbleUpon… you get the picture. Making something like that look pretty and uncluttered is a challenge.)

Then there’s the accompanying rise of what I call the “visually brandless” companies of the internet universe. Let’s start with the biggest Gorilla on the web, Google. Do you remember when the search engine phase first took hold and you logged onto Google for the first time? I do. And, boy, I remember being confused about what all the hype was about. (That barren screen, with only the centered logo and search window drawing your eye’s attention…) I can appreciate the simple functionality of the interface and I think that’s a good thing but — if the only visual element you plan to feature in your user interface is your logo and the technology behind your product is next generation — wouldn’t you want that logo to be at least a little edgy or visually provocative? I mean seriously, from the standpoint of design, that logo is suspect. From a designer’s point of view its use of off-the-shelf typography seems lazy. And the embossing and drop shadows are Photoshop cliches which young designers are cautioned to avoid.

Which brings me to my final observation. As I was researching this article, I discovered that Google’s original logo which — essentially — is the visual ancestor of the current logo, was designed by none other than one of Google’s founders, Sergey Brin. His technical and entrepreneurial brilliance aside, Brin’s professional training is in mathematics and computer science. Frankly, his lack of formal design training is evident. Why he didn’t “get” that the mark he was creating would have far ranging impacts on his business for years is a point of puzzlement.

All of this “geeks driving design decisions” makes me realize that, in the entire 30 year span of time dating back to the dawn of the personal computer, not much has changed. With the noteworthy exception of Apple, tech brands have often overlooked or even devalued design. For decades now, the Microsoft vs. Apple competitive feud seems to express the ambivalence technology companies have about design and brand. On the one side, Apple has embraced sleek, straightforward design and married that sleekness to intentionally spare interfaces. Design is integral to the brand. Microsoft (and other tech companies, like Google or Flickr, for example), have been more reluctant to embrace design as significant components of their identity, though. Apple’s commitment to design has served them well, because it has created such a strong identity for the brand that — even through down times — people understood what the brand stood for and steadfast loyalists stood by it.

I wonder if brands who place less of an emphasis on design as a core value earn this loyalty? If Google falters in the next couple of years or starts losing market share to an upstart, will its fans rally around its corporate standard? Or are Google users simply “information mercenaries” who will change sides at the slightest suggestion of a technology shift?

Technology companies — including all the current Web 2.0 companies — are at the mercy of the winds of change. And the winds of change are as predictable as the Santa Anas in the world of high tech. Buffering their reputations with thoughtful, well designed brand identities would serve more than couple high tech companies well.

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