Around 10,000 years ago in the Stone Age human beings were using boxwood combs. They may have predated that, but that’s what the physical evidence shows. To put that in context, we’ve been using boxwood combs about 700 times longer than we’ve been using the Web, who’s protocols were put into the public domain on 30th April, 1993 by CERN. Boxwood has special properties. It is strong yet soft enough to be shaped and generates no static. A boxwood comb is perfect for purpose.
Sometime between the Stone Age and now, perhaps around 400 years ago, the Japanese turned Boxwood Combs (tsuge gushi) into something extraordinary. They discovered that Satsuma boxwood (Satsuma-tsuge) was the best quality for a comb. They dipped them in camellia oil to preserve the shine for comb and hair. People sat for 12 hours straight carving a single comb. They began to carve combs of incredible delicacy and precision that to this day, makes Japanese Boxwood combs the finest in the world. They became true craftsmen and women and were immortalised by artists like Hiroshige.
That still continues today. Jusan-Ya in Tokyo’s old quarter has been there for almost 300 years where Keiichi Takeuchi, a 15th-generation craftsman, still makes boxwood combs by hand.
The tradition and craft is important, valuable and precious, but the comb in itself is not the final output of this dedication and history. Craftsmen and women like Keiichi Takeuchi don’t create beautiful combs or just help women have beautiful hair. Through their craft they help to make life beautiful, both for themselves and for their patrons. They do this by creating something that responds to people, something perfect for purpose. That’s what all crafts people do, no matter what their profession, trade or art.
In my eyes, Web design is almost indistinguishable from experience design. In the same way that boxwood comb makers create an experience, so do we. Web designers are all experience designers, or perhaps more accurately we are all narrative designers. A narrative designer creates an interface with flow. If you imagine user tasks as stories or narratives, whether the content is user generated or authored by copy writers, the concept of narrative design starts to make sense.
The mistake that people make is to see Web design as the evolution of print design. Jeffery Zeldman broke it down rather well recently. Others have also commented on this and related topics. This mistake is best emphasised in Web design galleries. It seems to me that even fellow professionals sometimes forget what they are rating or judging and fall in to the trap of looking at the visual aesthetic alone. Sometimes the comments are disappointingly shallow. I wonder truly how many of us can reach past our predilections for pretty interfaces and fashion, and move into the realm of uplifting experiences that require much more than a glance at a screenshot to judge. The irony is that our discipline is very much about visual design, but it is not just about style. In my view, it should be about building carefully crafted experiences based on a thoughtful empathy with the audience and their goals.
There are a lot of craftspeople in narrow disciplines. The issue is not a lack of dedication to craft, but the breadth of narrow disciplines that make up Web design craftsmanship. For example, apart from the technical disciplines of CSS, HTML and the vagaries of cross platform and agent behaviour, there are a vast number of others that overlap, merge and relate. To name a few, there are graphic design disciplines such as typography, illustration and layout. There are user centred design disciplines like accessibility, task analysis, persona building, information architecture and wireframing. There are marketing disciplines like copy writing and brand positioning. Then, if we want to truly create excellent user experiences designers need to understand or work with craftspeople who have depth in application optimisation, scalability, security and adaptability. The list could go on and on.
I think a good Web designer has an understanding of all of these things, has mastered the technical, knows the non-technical and is thereby freed to be concerned with narrative: How users experience an interface and create their own stories based on the information presented to them, or by creating information themselves. Narrative design is what we do.
In his fascinating article on Game Design as Narrative Architecture, Henry Jenkins of MIT said that, “a story is less a temporal structure than a body of information” which seemed eerily familiar to my way of thinking. He went on to make two relevant observations. The first on enacted narratives that could be compared to brochure sites that we create:
“…the story itself may be structured around the character’s movement through space and the features of the environment may retard or accelerate that plot trajectory.”
The second on emergent narratives that could be compared to social sites:
“…spaces are designed to be rich with narrative potential, enabling the story-constructing activity of players.”
Web designers have to consider these kinds of narratives on a daily basis. The skill is in how we push, pull and merge all of our technical and non-technical knowledge together. In order for Web designers to be craftspeople we have to be technically rigorous but also creative and organised, imagining and implementing complex narratives with everything in mind. In that sense, Web design is a much more complex discipline than making a boxwood comb but both aspire to the same ambition of creating something that is perfect for purpose.
It took 10,000 years for human beings to reach the boxwood summit, but I think that many Web designers are there already in their approach. For my part, I’ll still be reaching for the lofty heights of the polymath and on that note I’d better get my finger out and do some work.