Where are the Women? Where are the Links?

Nothing delights web designers more than a friendly discussion on women in design and technology. One version of this perennial crowd-pleaser runs, “Where are all the women?” AKA “Why don’t more women participate in design/technology?” The discussion may then fault men for making design or technology seem “hard” or “unattractive”—as if women avoid doing things that are hard, a proposition that’s as ludicrous as it is sexist.

A more accurate variation on this theme acknowledges that there are truckloads of busy, competent women in design (or technology), and asks why women’s achievements in these fields go grotesquely under-reported and under-recognized. That is a fair and important question but we are not here to answer it. Nor are we here to address the creepy predatory behavior to which prominent women in our field are often subjected.

We are here because a postcard from the Art Directors Club alerted me to “The Woman Vanguard,” an ADC [Art Directors Club] Young Guns Live workshop and presentation moderated by the wonderful Debbie Millman, sponsored by Adobe, and apparently featuring the work and thoughts of some leading young female art directors.

That sounded good to me and might to some of you, too, so I decided to learn more by visiting the Art Directors Club’s website and potentially sharing what I learned. And there, hope shattered.

I would link to a page about this event if I could find one on the site. But there are, as near as I can determine, no “pages” on the site. It’s all Flash text (pixellated 1997 style) in squat little iframes. You are always, essentially, on the home page. If you’re lucky enough to stumble onto what you came looking for, you won’t be able to bookmark it or share it. I could spend an hour discussing what’s wrong with this site, but so could anyone reading this. You all know this. Why don’t the site’s creators?

The Art Directors Club’s site was designed by R/GA, an agency run and founded by visionaries. I respect them immensely as art directors and filmmakers. Respect doesn’t cover it. I am in awe of their founder and of their years of achievement in their realms of expertise. But they have no business designing websites, if this is the best they can do on behalf of a leading organization whose purpose is to recognize and promote visual culture.

Information architecture. Usability. Accessibility. Web standards. If you don’t know about these things, stop designing websites until you have learned. Competence in graphic design is merely a baseline; it does not qualify you to create user experiences for the web.

Every time I think I can stop talking about these obvious, simple truths, some crazy bad 90s style train wreck hits me headlong and makes me weep anew.

[tags]ux, ia, webdesign, design, userexperience, usability, adc, artdirectorsclub[/tags]

32 thoughts on “Where are the Women? Where are the Links?

  1. “Information architecture. Usability. Accessibility. Web standards. If you don’t know about these things, stop designing websites until you have learned. Competence in graphic design is merely a baseline; it does not qualify you to create user experiences for the web.”

    Amen to that. The agency I last worked at was headed by a designer who said she was happy for me to take charge of deploying web standards across the company, etc, since she “[didn’t] really use the internet at home anyway”. This kind of mindset is exactly the reason why it was a running battle to get Firefox & Opera installed on machines for checking; why it was 6 months before any kind of testing was conducted on a Mac; before relative font sizes were used over pixels. It isn’t enough to know who Brockman & Muller are, you have to know the internet.

    I like your solution to CAPTCHA too. Brave of you to do it at the expense of the alignment of your inputs.

  2. I agree with everything you say about web standards … but it’s a bad world out there man. Which is why you need to keep talking. And though I may never get the chance (or the balls) to walk up to you and say “Thanks”, I will definitely say it here :-).

    And oh, you can look at more info. about Vanguard women by clicking on Calendar (top) -> Apr 19 2007.

  3. Gee, I’ve been braying about this for a looong time… but you already know about that.

    The problem put succinctly is "that everybody thinks they’re a Web designer."

    The same creative luminaries of whom you write would pee their pants in fury if an amateur insisted that possession of InDesign, Pantone books, Prismacolors, Final Cut Pro, ProTools, a DV camera, or a pro-grade SLR automatically entitles the dilettante to sell gigs that are executed with those tools.

    …Yet Flash and Dreamweaver give their users a free pass? Nuh-uh.

    So there’s the problem.

    The solution I see has two pieces:

    Certification, or some credential that signals its holder has learned and successfully applied the skills required to build an effective and accessible site; and

    Metrics, which we as an industry haven’t even begun to ask for as a matter of habit.

    The obstacles to the first task have been treaded and re-treaded many times already, but I think metrics are the clincher. If clients can see evidence that Peter Pro WebDude has built sites enabling measurable increases in productivity, leads, and/or profits to an extent that result in net revenue, he can expect to get a lot more high-traffic engagements than Annie Amateur WebGrrl.

    Why haven’t we started looking for ways to get these measurements? It can’t be that hard.

  4. I found your article useful and interesting from a couple of points.

    First, I was impressed by the fact that you mentioned women in the design and technology field. As a newer designer, and not a woman, I often like going to their personal or professional sites to get further insight into design, and other ideas. There seems to be a difference amongst women and men designers on some sights, and the contrast can be striking at times.

    Secondly, as a user who still has only dialup at home, the Art Director’s site is atrocious. It’s one of the reasons why I do most of my browsing and work at, well, work! Not to mention that my daughter would have no luck trying to find information on their site, as it definately sucks for accessibility and useability. Thanks for the info and great push for accessible design and standards!

  5. It truly amazes me in this day and age that leaders find it so hard to lead. These type of organizations should make it a point to practice industry standards. I was glad that AIGA finally started in a direction toward this thought process.

  6. Great points in the article, it’s sad that there was no consideration for the user experience, except for “make it flashy!” There is no way to search for anything besides digging through the whole site, which is tedious in itself. I noticed that the Contact Us link in the footer doesn’t work correctly either.

    I don’t want to bash on the site, but this brings up something I’d notcied a few months ago, when the all flash agency sites for Huge and MetaDesign had ditched the flash and gone with a standards based approach, I was quite impressed. It seems like a step in the right direction, favoring user experience over over-the-top flashy effects. I wonder if RG/A will make the eventually make the transition?

  7. Head on over to the R/GA website and see if you can read anything. What in the Wide, Wide World of Sports is a goin’ on with the ungodly small fonts?! Looks like there will always be a need for standards evangelistas.

  8. found the link

    But it just confirms everything you said: it pops open in a new browser window from the main page; it’s not linked from the main Young Guns section; and there’s no way back to the rest of the site once you’ve found the page.

    Is there a Zeldman of Los Angeles? That might link to events happening over here? Or would that be like Father Dowling’s evil twin?

  9. Usability and accessibility often get sidelined because of client priorities or work-flow constraints. Not enough time for user-testing. A client more concerned with the graphic feel of the site then with the actual interaction design. In this cases, the designer must lobby to make sure than usability remains a priority, though the cost benefit may not be obvious to all involved.

    Not in this case, though. Here the designers had plenty of time & budget to squander on complex Flash animations and transitions, apparently. They just didn’t know what they were doing, and the client didn’t know any better.

  10. Zeldman never disappoints me. I pop in here now and then and am always inspired, amused, entertained, or excited by whatever I read. This post started out well — I can relate. I am a woman, an art director, and would love to find out more about whatever that event is. Then the post moves into rant mode, and I am thoroughly amused and inspired all over again. Thank you!

  11. Competence in graphic design is merely a baseline; it does not qualify you to create user experiences for the web.

    This is a very important point, and it’s something that a lot of people in the graphic design world still don’t understand. I come from that world, and I had been designing sites for years before writings by people like you helped me to understand that point. Outreach and evangelism is key, and it will be for years to come.

    Incidentally, I do admire R/GA’s offline work; my girlfriend’s amazing father actually contributed to much of it in the ’80s and ’90s.

  12. Incidentally, I do admire R/GA’s offline work; my girlfriend’s amazing father actually contributed to much of it in the ’80s and ’90s.

    Did he work on the Garp titles? Alien? Zelig?

  13. You’ve said many things that resonate with me, for years.

    At the end of the day I’m always treated as a web production guy over a designer with development skills. I’m supposed to make a design by someone with no web design skills work – which is quite hard if you know too much. If I try to say something my input isn’t wanted and it’s been a hard part of the business for a long time now.

    I’ll admit I have a hard time really communicating that those not qualified need to either learn or trust someone who has learned. I often sound elitist I’m sure, which is not my intent.

    Perhaps this is more of a communication issue than we may think – but I thank you for providing an example and reminding us all about why this is important.

  14. It amazes me that there are still designers that create designs for altruistic sites that are completely inaccessible, unsearchable and generally a chore to use. As a perfectly ironic example, “Design Can Change” is just such a site.

    I don’t think anything that’s so completely inaccessible is going to do much to get “heard” on the internet. I still link to it because I think their goals are admirable (if not completely missed by the site itself).

  15. Flash could still have been used on that site, as a container on the top, communicating with the browser outside. All the text that flowed on the bottom colud have been in the browser, and my beloved Command-+ to increase the text size key would have worked, and I would have been able to read anything.

    As it was, I enjoyed the pxllated transition, the layout of the site, and the miniscule menu text. It was a tour de something but I wondered why it was all done in the player. The only reason to do a site completely in the player (yes I’m saying there COULD BE & IS a reason) is to show off a player-only workpiece. (I think we have to say player now that one player manufacturer has become so adamant about branding its name, and the other player manufacturer has come into the picture. Anyway, The Art Directors Club site was not such a site and now I wish you hadn’t linked to it ’cause I have an achin’ eye.

  16. The only thing I see when visiting the Art Directors Club’s website is this sentence:

    You must have javascript turned on to view this site


    Ain’t it fun going back to the nineties from time to time?

  17. Hey Jeffrey,

    I hope you don’t mind, but I translated the last part of your post to French and added a comment along the lines of “everything still has to be done”. I’ve paralleled it with a comment made by one of the speakers of our Paris Web 2006 conference, who thought that the whole shebang was integrated in people’s minds, and then realised that it’s not the case yet, not by a long shot.

    Thanks for griping: it feels comforting, in a way, to know that we’re right to continue advocating and shouldn’t stop. What’s not comforting is that we should have stopped advocating by now ;)

    PS: if you can’t read French, get in touch via email and I’ll translate the whole thing.

  18. I’ve just had a look at their site and there really isn’t anything in there that couldn’t have been done using HTML and Javascript.

    Last week they were cited by Forrester as one of the top web design agencies. It’s a depressing read from a standard/ accessibility /usability point of view.

    Here’s a link to their print version of the press release http://www.rga.com/press_detail.asp?id=4737 or as they say in flash.. go to the home page, click on news, click on release, click on 11 Apr 07

    Massive global brands seek out companies like this that create visually stunning sites and they have created a lot of sites that I have visited in the past.

    Persuading companies like this to embrace standards could have a massive impact on the direction of the web.

  19. Did he work on the Garp titles? Alien? Zelig?

    I’m pretty sure he worked on the Alien titles. I know he also worked on visual effects for Predator, Judge Dredd, and The Matrix.

  20. I’m a female web designer, although I’m transitioning more into designing motion graphics for stage shows. My actual bachelor’s degree is in Chemical Engineering so I’m no stranger to technical fields and have always been science-minded. My educational track had been to be a chemist until female engineers from 3M came to my high school and spoke to girls about opportunities in engineering and how my income and career potential would be much better as an engineer. After I got laid off, lol, I decided to try a more creative field and started doing design production. When I discovered the web back in the early 90’s, I found a happy middleground between technical and creative interests and latched onto it.

    Maybe more women would go into web development if there were programs like the female engineer one showing girls that tech fields are not just for guys who maybe spend alot more time in front of the computer than being with people. Sorry for the stereotype, no offense intended, but maybe that’s how young girls perceive the field without visible role models to the contrary. I assume there are still many women going into graphic design so what are the efforts in those schools to encourage specializing in web design?

  21. Understanding the web standards philosophy is a critical component of being a professional web designer. But understand that designing an effective user experience for the web does not mean constant adherence to these principles. You should always design for the need.

    The web industry needs standards, badly. For the community to move forward we need to remove the reliance on proprietary elements. Information should be freely available, in many forms, on many devices; beauty can be created on that foundation. Just let’s not deride Flash for not being accessible or standards compliant.

    The web is not just about rss feeds, or linking to an exact piece of information, or being able to increase your font sizes. It’s also about exploring. It’s about experience, information, in a particular context.

    I have great respect for a beautiful, standards compliant website. I have just as much respect for a beautiful and well designed Flash site.

    ps…unfortunately, the art directors club website is a poor example of what flash can be, but take a look at some of the sites on thefwa.com. there are some amazing user experiences there.

  22. Amazing website and interesting topics. I was one of the first women to graduate in computer technology in my province. My schooling started in graphic design before computers became mainstream and Microsoft’s birth. I was introduced via boards to two young guys who sent a sound download along with the access to their search engine and people wonder where the name Yahoo came from! In all my years the ratio was always more men than women. I really don’t know why – but in my experience instructors and bosses skewed the more technical challenges to the unattached youngest males in the group.

  23. Curiously clicked on the link to R/GA site and encountered…nothing
    still wondering, i went back and clicked to see the Art Directors Club’s page and looked straight into pure whiteness!!?! It had a bright orange text, reading “You must have javascript turned on to view this site.”, in fact even this was hard to read and i am not colorblind.
    It seems that Flash(TM) wasn’t enough, even all of us who have javascript deactivated have to stay outside.
    I really wonder how they get listed in any SE at all?

    Respect, and keep on fighting for accessibility and the use of web standards.so do i!

  24. “Information architecture. Usability. Accessibility. Web standards. If you don’t know about these things […]”

    Being a professional female web designer (not from the States though, I’m Austrian) I’d like you to know that almost 50% of my time goes into learning about those things. They’re basic knowledge for any web designer, female or not. The problem is that everybody can call himself/herself a web designer. There are no diplomas required, you do not have to prove that you know what you’re doing. How should a client know if one did have a professional trainig. And even if you have a certificat showing that you did some 2-days course on web design – what does it tell? How is knowledge on the topic attestable?
    Probably that’s what we need? Perhaps there should be some kind of diploma which one must aquire before one is allowed to call oneself a web designer?
    It don’t seem the solution to the problem to me. As far as my experience goes possessing a piece of paper does not prove anything.

    Keep on writing, repeat yourself – over and over again …. that seems the only thing you (we) can do.


  25. It is surprising the kinds of people that claim to be web designers. It makes recruitment a bit more difficult.

    Seeing a real and working portfolio (not just screenshots!) goes a long way when weeding out the Dreamweaver kiddies, but it only helps if one knows what he’s looking at. Perhaps a specialised web design portfolio-screening service is what we need?

  26. I spent most of the last years making Flash websites for my clients.
    Why ? because it’s so hip!

    And even if I tried hard to change my clients mind ( because sometimes … well many times) Flash isn’t the thing they need, they were always insisting on having eye candy and animations instead of accessibility, usability and standards ( cause they don’t give a damn about anything, they just want a site as cute as the big firm’s one) …
    I they only could see the truth …

    maybe I should lecture every new client some of Zeldman’s words so they get the point :)

  27. I feel your pain!

    One of the most frustrating things that I’ve run into as a just-getting-started designer is designing for people (usually younger folks) who have grown up with broadband connections with flash installed and javascript turned on and monitors 1280×900 and above who just don’t understand that even though a flash site may be pretty, it’s not particularly usable for the general populace.

    My struggle in this has been to educate said customers that though they may never have experienced it, there is a significant portion of the population who might want to come to their site that would never come again if on the home page it showed a link that said, download the latest version of flash. In many cases, simpler is better and more usable (as is the case with the Art Directors Club).

    Great post!

  28. I’m confused: the Art Director’s Guild site is all HTML, has pretty nice (and bookmarkable) URLs throughout, and although it’s not actually valid, is called “tentatively valid” by the W3C validator. I see no Flash anywhere.

    Maybe they just updated an old site with this new one? Otherwise, the complaints in this post don’t make any sense at all to me.

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