The Web as a material

I had an enjoyable evening listening to two talks at #LDNIA last night.

First up was Tom Armitage. He was talking about “The Material World”, and how design is in part having an understanding of those materials, even when those materials are intangible (or ‘immaterials’) – things like the Web, or wi-fi, or a particular data set.

This was followed neatly by Paul Robert Lloyd, whose talk “This is for Everyone” discussed the universality of the Web as being its key design principle. This, in short, means embracing the fact that the web can be experienced on a whole range of devices, with widely ranging capabilities. To put this in the language of Tom’s talk, this is to say that the material of the Web is not screens, but HTML, URLs and HTTP.

I found myself nodding along to both talks. They both articulated well the practices that I and other web-tinkerers seem to follow instinctively. The first stage of many projects I’ve done is to just “muck about” with the core technology or data set, discovering how it works and what it means. This is the process of material exploration that Tom talks of. Wanting to follow the ‘grain’ of the Web and to design the HTML structure and semantics first also feels natural for anyone who’s spent a long time making web pages – particularly if, like me, you’ve watched HTML slowly evolve and have spent a long time reading the specs.

Social media platforms and services are materials too. And they each have their own conventions, affordances and cadences. These subtleties are why I always feel uncomfortable when people cross-post, posting the same content to Facebook and Twitter, or pulling tweets onto their webpage (for a start, hashtags outside of Twitter feel really ugly). It’s also why I think there’s a value to Medium which is different from blogs – Medium has an undefined but discernible house style which makes it a unique form of content.

One final thing about the event was that it prompted me to think about how the Web’s universal nature could be made a bit more apparent, in an age where browser rendering has become mostly consistent and user browsing preferences have been minimised. I have some ideas for this, but it’ll take a bit of work and playing around to make them happen.