Can People Who Design Websites be Called Artists?

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To find out, we ask a former web designer: Is web design art?

In the earliest days of the web, pages were constructed entirely from Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), a type of computer code that was invented specifically for the purpose of transferring formatted text from one computer to another. Some people argue that HTML is a programming language, while others believe this to be a ridiculous concept – the name even includes the term “markup language”, after all.

HTML was intended to ensure that information would be displayed in the same way regardless of which computer was decoding it, but it didn’t take long for those who were using the language to discover that their HTML code did NOT look the same on multiple different devices. There were a multitude of reasons for this, but the biggest issue in the early days was the lack of any kind of universal font library.

Artists create pictures; If Web Designers create pictures, are they artists?

The HTML language did allow images to be incorporated into a page, however, and this was briefly used as a hack to get around the problem. Using images allowed web designers to be much more creative with the look of their page, but also used vastly more data than simple text.

Sending an image file containing a few paragraphs of text, just so you can be sure that the font will not change if the webpage is opened on an Apple Mac or Sun Sparc rather than an IBM PC is ridiculously inefficient. This solution went against almost every founding principle of the HTML language, and the W3C consortium, a body set up by HTML inventor Tim Berners-Lee, were quick to begin looking for better ways around this problem.

Could art help to fix the problems of the early web?

Art relies on several principles, most notably color, form, lines, shapes, space, textures, contrast, and finally, materiality. Web pages can be thought of using these same principles. Some might argue that texture does not apply because webpages are viewed on a smooth display, however, many artworks also implement texture by representation rather than requiring a surface with a physically distorted finish.

I think that at this point, the debate over whether web designers were artists did have some merit to it – they were using the same principles, so many web designer positions would regularly be given to those who could demonstrate knowledge, experience, or proficiency within the world of art. It may seem a strange idea today, that artists might be asked to work on webpages, but things worked very differently in the days before JavaScript was invented and programming skills overtook artistic ability as the key requirement for those seeking a career in web design.

This is where things begin to branch off, however; artists may not necessarily have the skills to write HTML code, yet their work was of sufficient quality to warrant employing a second person – a web developer – to transform their ideas into usable code. That’s why, the vast majority of artists tend to collaborate with an art gallery online rather than have their own website.

Web Developers vs Web Designers … No Web Artists?

As you may be aware, there is fierce debate about whether a designer and an artist are even analogous to each other – those with an eye for good design can be useless at art, and vice versa. By now, a technology called Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) had been developed which allowed web developers to specify colors (and therefore contrast), dimensions (aka, form), shapes, margins/positioning information (aka use of space), and specific fonts and styling (materiality) to their work.

That’s right – all the principles of art I mentioned previously were incorporated into a second language designed to complement HTML. CSS separated the vital structural information of a HTML page from the text and images that now compromised a modern webpage.

Artists were now being replaced by people from design backgrounds. Many websites still needed an artist though – perhaps to sketch out the overall look of the site, or to take photographs and create illustrations. It was the developers who were rapidly becoming the key focus of this emerging medium of information exchange, however, and a couple of years of experience working within the industry using CSS gave these developers a keen eye for how to lay out an attractive and functional website too.

Is a web page a piece of art?

Most websites are not intended to remain static – they constantly evolve, with new information being added on a weekly, daily, or even hourly basis. This contrasts sharply with a piece of art – an artist almost always has a result or goal in their mind, even if they find it difficult to accomplish.

This is a common thread in all the creative industries – musicians too will often struggle to decide when a composition is “perfect”. And as for movies… Well, just ask any Star Wars fan about that one. Before you do, however, make sure you have at least an hour or two to spare listening to their opinions regarding the treachery of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg!

Web designers and developers have a unique advantage in this respect – they too are creative professionals, but their goals are very different to that of an artist. While some may grumble when changes are made to the layout of certain elements of Facebook, the furore won’t take long to die down, and people will almost always accept the changes eventually