Meet the designers reimagining what a website can be
During an online event last week hosted by Wix Playground, we heard from four boundary-pushing designers, who discussed the processes behind their most successful website projects.
- It's Nice That
- 12 November 2020
“Why do websites look so similar? And why do we repeat the same templates again and again?” This was how Yehwan Song, the Seoul-based creative coder and designer, opened our online event last week, Web Design in Focus. It was the perfect provocation to set up what proved to be a fascinating evening, with four designers in total walking us through their projects and shedding light on how they create their work.
Across the four talks, one theme remained consistent, with each designer focused on challenging conventions and rethinking the limits of what a website can be. In this sense, Yehwan, as the first speaker, very much set the tone. “I aim to make web design feel more diverse,” she explained. “And I try to shift website concepts from being user-focused to more content-focused.” Throughout her work, we see the designer disrupt what we would normally think of as an obvious or simple interaction, and replace it with something far smarter.
Today I Walked is one of Yehwan’s projects that demonstrates this approach best. It is a mobile website that allows users to “walk” down a street on their smartphone screen using the “finger-walking gesture” (familiar to many of us when we’re bored). For Yehwan, the fact that we use our fingers to touch our phone screens is significant. “I started thinking about how we use your fingers in our daily lives, to point something out or to communicate using sign language,” she said. “The fact that we use our finger to touch the visuals on our screens directly can be so emotional and powerful.” This insight led to the creation of Today I Walked, which at one stroke turns a smartphone screen into a city neighbourhood.
That project is just the right mix of playful and poignant. One studio that knows a thing or two about play is Hato, the London-based studio that employs a process called “playtotyping” – that is, “the idea of play as a method of working”. Kenjiro Kirton, the co-founder and creative director of Hato, joined us at Web Design in Focus to talk through one particularly playful project – the unique website that Hato designed for the famous London restaurant Sketch.
“In the initial meetings, the client said they didn’t want any photography of interiors or food,” Ken said. “It was quite a shock for a restaurant client to say that.” However, Sketch is one of the world’s most Instagrammed restaurants, so it doesn’t need to do its own storytelling through photography.
Instead Ken and his team were tasked with transforming the various different interiors and dining experiences available at Sketch into a variety of interactive digital experiences. By “bringing the client into the prototyping process” and by maintaining a process “centred around play”, Hato created a website that completely upends the conventions. Whereas most restaurant websites lead with empty interiors shots and photos of dishes, Sketch’s site brings to life, in a highly playful and digital way, the excitement and atmosphere that punters can expect from each dining space.
There are also countless conventions when it comes to the websites of publishers and magazines. When Yehwan asked, “Why do websites look so similar?” she might well have been asking specifically about websites in the publishing world. Yet even these conventions can be turned on their head, according to Adam Rodgers and Stefan Endress, the founders of International Magic. The studio designed the website for 032C, the Berlin-based fashion and culture magazine and threw out a lot of the “best practice” preached by other publishers.
“We wanted to simplify the user journey and eliminate the noise,” Adam said, discussing the project at Web Design in Focus. “No related articles or adverts or interruptions. It was just purely about the content.” In fact, you could say that a laser-like focus on content is something that all the speakers share. International Magic also took a novel approach to the way they tackled the design system. “We started mobile first and then moulded that to the desktop version,” Adam went on. “The desktop version is basically a massive mobile site.” In the case of this project, what you end up with is a site that reflects the “big and bold and brash” attitude of 032C, while maintaining functionality and readability.
Last but by no means least, we were joined by Hamish Smyth from Order, a design office in New York focused on branding and identity work. Hamish focused on Standards, a new tool that he and his co-founder Jesse Reed have been building that allows designers to build online brand guidelines for their clients. The initial impetus came from looking for a similar product on the market: “We couldn't find what we wanted,” said Hamish, “so we decided to build it ourselves.”
Ordinarily, creating standards manuals or brand guidelines is an arduous task, yet an absolutely essential part of any identity project. As Hamish puts it, “We’re big believers that branding is only as good as the way it’s implemented and the biggest measure of that success is having good guidelines to work from.” Standards, which won’t officially launch until early 2021, is designed to remove some of the pain points with modules and drag-and-drop features. “We’re aiming to cover the time-consuming parts, the essential, repeatable parts of guidelines,” said Hamish, “and do it in a way that we think looks great, but that is also very functional.”
Listening to all four designers during Web Design in Focus, a couple of things were clear. They are all testing the limits of what a website can be – or, as Adam from International Magic put it, “pushing at the edges of what’s possible on the internet”. And secondly, when they’re designing for the web (and not creating books, corporate identities or exhibitions), they approach the brief with a specific mindset best summed up by Yehwan in her talk: “Whenever I work on the web, I try to make something that is only possible on the web as a publishing platform.” Considering the unique attributes of the web, and then pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in that sphere – it’s a powerful combination for producing unique and ingenious websites.
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