Art direction on the web?

On Tuesday morning, while Malarkey was furiously getting himself uninvited to Håkon Lie‘s Christmas parties, and oneself was busy publishing the latest issue of A List Apart, and the jungle drums spoke of nothing but Firefox 3, Jason Santa Maria quietly slipped a torpedo into the harbor.

Jason didn’t just redesign his website, he issued a call to arms. And what he called for was real art direction on the web.

Now, over the years, plenty of others have called for art direction on the web, and some have achieved it. Quite famously, starting in September 1996, Derek Powazek achieved it with the original {fray}, an independent, non-commercial, personal storytelling site featuring the finest writers and illustrators on the web, not a few of whom {fray} discovered and launched. Stories like Lance Arthur’s A Little Black Death, Molly Steenson’s Pulling a Geographic (now sadly stuck in a loop), and Rebecca Eisenberg’s Mugged weren’t just compellingly written; they were compellingly written and art directed. The drama of viewing and wondering what the next page held was part of the reading experience, as it is in visually leading print magazines like Seed and Wired.

{fray} was a magnificent achievement and still is, and if design officialdom didn’t recognize it at the time, and hasn’t recognized it since, the fault lies with officialdom.

But {fray} was not only a labor of love, it was also a labor of labor—each page lovingly hand crafted in the browser-centric HTML of the time. And today we are modern and streamlined, not only in our markup, but in our means of production. We’re all about blogs and zines, templates and CMS platforms. Nobody but weird Unibomber-like hermits and Tantek hand-codes individual pages anymore.

And it is to that environment—to our environment—that Jason’s redesign speaks, calling for real art direction in the context of template-and-CMS-based publications.

Well, here is my experiment: a very simple setup for fast design and art direction around content. I’m approaching this is much the same way one would approach the design of a magazine: a system for the way content gets handled, but every layout and story can take on a look of their own within that system.

It’s just a blog, like any blog, although better looking than most. Housed on what is essentially a beefed-up open source blogging platform. Beefed up just enough to allow the writer/designer to change colors, typefaces, and the position and shape of copy blocks on a per-post basis as needed.

Speaking of beef, where is it? Where are all these posts with unique layouts within an overarching and unifying system of design? They have yet to be written and produced. But I’ve seen the comps and know some of what is coming, and it is going to be a lovely, drawn-out feast.

And even if it were not half as lovely as it will be—if Jason, instead of being one of our leading web designers, were a visual illiterate—the idea would still matter, and this proof of concept would still merit our gratitude.

[tags]artdirection, webdesign, jasonsantamaria, derekpowazek,{fray}[/tags]