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Intelligent (web) design and the evolution of the internet

portrait of Charles Darwin

Survival of the fittest, right Flash?

Way back in January I read an interesting article called “Stepping out of line” over at Cognition. It got me thinking about the internet as a whole, web design as part of that whole, and how the two are radically different (albeit interdependent). Now, almost three months later, I finally find myself with enough time – and pressure, in absence of our regular writer Gordon – to summarise my thoughts.

Whilst this little post really isn’t about Michael’s article (the main points of which, for the record, I absolutely agree with), allow me to highlight exactly what put me in a philosophical mood that January afternoon:

“Designing a site without some prescription for interaction and content is, at best, reckless — what are we, savages? — and the waterfall method assumes phases are fulfilled before moving on, satisfying an immutable law of experience design: form follows function. But Sullivan’s credo never called for a divide. Rather, the process should mimic nature, to be organic; it posits an object’s form naturally evolves out of resolving its purpose, the way bees instinctively build a beautiful and efficient, geometric honeycomb. Nature has no “visual design” phase. Why do we?”

This is where my inner philosopher – or pedant – reared its little head. I thought: as much as Nature is organic and purpose-driven, Nature is also bound by the constraints of Evolution – and if anything follows the waterfall method it’s Evolution, right? Nothing in Nature ever materialised without a predecessor. Every single feature of every single creature is a result of relocating the available, preceding, biological assets to enhance the “design” for a particular function. The reason Nature has no “visual design phase” (apart from the notion that there is no “designer”) is that all Evolutionary change happens this way – through miniscule tweaks to existing material – and going back to the drawing board is simply not an option.

Web designers (indeed all designers), on the other hand, do have the possibility of going back. We can retrace our steps, throw everything out the window and start again. We don’t have to follow the waterfall, and that’s precicely how our process differs from Evolution. If anything, it’s the exact opposite: Intelligent Design. Every time we start a new project we’ve got a clean sheet. We’ve got unlimited choice of colour, innumerable typefaces, a bottomless well of ideas (in theory, at least!)… Within the physical limits of our virtual universe we’re creating without constraint.

Said limits are, of course, constantly changing (albeit at an all-too-slow pace), and that’s how the concept of Evolution is relevant to our industry. Whilst the design process at its most creative is completely free, as we can change our minds at any point (behold, the mighty Eraser!), the Internet as a whole is shackled by available technology. No feature will ever see the light of day if there’s no technology to support it, new languages take ages to assimilate (if at all), and crucially, any improvement to existing technology must be compatible with the system as a whole to avoid rejection.

In this sense the Internet can be compared to an organism constantly making the most of available resources, allowing external forces – Natural selection – to cull unnecessary or ineffective components, preserving only what’s genuinely useful. In another word: Evolution.

Is any of this important? Perhaps not. I simply found it an interesting concept to explore: the broad strokes of our industry are painted with an Evolutionary brush, yet the individual droplets of paint are Intelligently Designed.

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Author: Espen Brunborg

Espen can easily ruin conversations with questions about chimneys.


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  1. Snapper April 10, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    It is important. There are some evils in the web design industry and we deal with them every day. We happily make it our mission to get small businesses on a path to understanding the value in what we can do for them. That value is lost when it’s constantly dummied by those that “cheat” the process to make a quick buck.

    The more time real designers and strategists spend talking about the process, removing the evils and improving the web, the less struggle we will have convincing our would-be clients that we are not some fly-by-night operation.

    Excellent read!

    • Espen April 12, 2012 at 5:22 pm

      Thanks Snapper – it was only a light philosophical rant, but I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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