Style versus design, revisited

STYLE VERSUS DESIGN READS like it was written this morning. In fact, I wrote the original version in 1999, when I had a monthly web design column going at In 2005, Adobe asked if I’d mind updating the piece. I changed a couple of words and they agreed that the revision worked. For although the web had changed tremendously between 1999 and 2005, the issue I addressed in my article had not. This afternoon, while importing some old Ma.gnolia bookmarks into Pinboard, I came upon Adobe’s HTML version of the 2005 revision to “Style vs. Design.” I read it again, and tweeted the link. Within minutes, designers were responding. Many thought the piece was new. For what I said in that article over eleven years ago still rings true, although there are now more designers who see things as I do. It’s nice that a piece of writing about web design could remain relevant for over a decade. But it’s also a bit sad. See what you think.

13 thoughts on “Style versus design, revisited

  1. Despite being 11 years old, the only part that really seems dated to me is the preoccupation with Flash and splashscreens. Luckily that has seemed to die out, and JavaScript whizbangery has taken hold instead.

    Other than that, everything in this article remains relavent.

  2. It’s a subject of discussion which I believe has been relevant for years in all forms of visual communication, well before the web was even conceived.
    I feel I’m probably fairly lucky in that my design education was based around forming ideas and creative thinking. We had only a little subject matter on execution and style and even then there had to be a purpose for it. Why have you chosen that typeface? Why have you put that there? What is your proposition? That last question was imperative. Know what to say before you consider how to say it.
    Over the past few years I’ve learnt to see the difference between good design and not so good. The good stuff needed little time and explanation from the speaker for me to “get it”, to figure out the underlying concept or theme. It was simple, effective and witty.
    While it is important to discuss using of HTML5, Flash, jQuery and all that, it’s even more important to ask why we’re doing something in the first place. Why are you making that website? Why do you want to put that content there? What is your message?
    Only when those questions are answered can you apply the style.

    Today phrases like “emotional design” and “responsive design” are banded around but how many people really know what they mean? Will they just become the new “style”? Will it be Web 2.5? Will website just be full of jokes and arbitrary cartoon monkeys because MailChimp did it and it’s ‘cool’…?

    Sorry Mr Zeldman, I think I’ve filled your site up enough with my babbling! This subject was relevant then, it’s relevant now and will be relevant well after everyone’s forgotten HTML5.

  3. G5s, Pentiums and new widescreens are the only hint to 1999. Otherwise designing for a pupose over flashiness will hold true for decades to come. Just wish clients could understand.

  4. Talk about bad design: the document title of that page has nothing to do with the content (not the title of the article! – try bookmarking it and finding it back), and the copyright 2010 at the bottom is wrong, and bound to confuse, and make people think it’s new.

    But it’s a great read, and I could not agree more. Try “reposting” it once every year, don’t wait so long next time!

  5. I agree 100 percent with your distinctions between design and style, as well as the fact that a true designer will always allow style to be dictated ultimately by the nature of the message or subject which is being designed for. That distinction will always be prominent point of discussion in design due to the nature of society (as you point out in your article).

    What I don’t necessarily agree with are your comments about “this kind of design” (the kind of design which exists in the vast middle ground between eye candy and hardcore usability) receiving little recognition in the design community. That being said, since I am relatively new to actually working in the industry (about two years out of school), I don’t believe I am qualified enough to comment on the state of the industry years ago when the article was written, nor can I make valid comments on how it has evolved since that time. What I can argue for, however, is my perception of this “middle ground” today.

    What is meant by recognition?

    If by recognition you mean industry awards, then my response would be that many design competitions offer awards for categories which represent this middle ground quite well. South by Southwest has an entire division of interaction awards which represent categories ranging from business, to community resource, to mobile. Likewise, the Webby awards accept interactive submissions to categories such as government, health, travel, and tourism just to name a few. All these categories have the opportunity to embody entries which define this middle ground in web design.

    If by recognition you’re referring more to the lack of a defining community which represents this kind of design, I would have to argue that in my opinion there are many notable places where intelligent discourse on the subject is taking place. Conferences like Build, The Future of Web Design, Brooklyn Beta, and IXDA perpetuate discourse on the kind of middle ground your speaking of. Also, designers like Jason Santa Maria, Dan Cederholm, Andy Budd, Dan Mall, and Liz Danzico (just to name a few) not only contribute to creating a beautifully usable web, but are also inspiring younger designers to join in the effort. Even community blogs like the infamous have begun to host inspiring discourse on similar topics.

    It’s that community element that keeps the distinct areas of design beating. Its the efforts of designers who love what they do and inspire others to do the same. I mean to say that the community for the middle ground you speak of seems (to me) to be at this moment alive and well.

  6. The subject has not lost its relevance. Web design is a field that attracts more than a fair share of style-inclined practitioners.
    Don’t see this topic becoming irrelevant anytime soon.

  7. I agree totally, although I believe it’s good to keep pushing the boundaries, especially the parralax scrolling that’s being done at the moment. Not being gifted enough technically to be on the cutting edge myself. I do believe the main function of the internet is to facilitate the transmission of information 24/7.

  8. When I read the words “hardcore usability,” I realized I hadn’t visited Jakob Nielsen’s alertbox in quite a while, either.

  9. Another great and and (yes i do think) timeless article by Mr. Zeldman. I always do the best i can and try to design a website and not to style it as i think design has to do with function, should have a long life and be appealing to the eye. However there is a long way to go to be a good webdesigner, that is why i try to learn from the “20” and not to copy them.

  10. It’s still a relevant article Jeffrey.

    Unfortunately no designer ever gets hired for creating a simple and functional interface. It’s the bling that counts to the employers. Usability and accessibility are a given.

    We’re nearly at the end of 2010 and most designers still can’t be bothered to validate the html of their own home page.

    All software disciplines have this problem. The industry moves so fast that it’s very difficult to create qualifications for web design and programming without them becoming irrelevant within a short time frame.

    If you apply for a developer role these days most companies worth their salt will make you sit an on-line test. Is it beyond the wit of man to devise something like this for web standards?

  11. When Style is a fetish, sites confuse visitors, hurting users and the companies that paid for the sites. When designers don’t start by asking who will use the site, and what they will use it for, we get meaningless eye candy that gives beauty a bad name…

    Tell me about it. As someone who builds out a lot of sites that have been “designed” by graphic designers hardly one goes by without me spotting a ton of issues that inevitably affect the important people – the sites visitors. All that pointless eye candy that needs several k’s worth of extra CSS and bandwidth… why do they do it?

    What’s worrying is that new entrants to the web design world seem to be still starting by opening up their image editors and creating eye candy sites and not addressing what’s important.

    For the last 12 years that I’ve been building sites I’ve always maintained that any web designer worth their salt should be able to produce a fully usable, accessible, task driven site, aimed at the end user, with nothing more than HTML and CSS – if you can’t do that you ain’t no web designer.

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