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  • February 28, 2013

Invention is slow.

By now you’ve probably seen Noah Stokes tweet assailing responsive web design’s command over aesthetic: Decorative Illustration

@motherfuton: I feel like responsive design has sucked the soul out of website design. Everything is boxes and grids. Where has the creativity gone?

He followed with a blog post clarifying his position, adding an important observation I found myself dwelling on: “I wouldn’t go so far as to call it settling, but I do think that we are letting what we know about the technical aspects of RWD limit our creativity on the visual side of RWD.”

Can creativity be divorced from limitation?

In truth, design is not very hard. If I ask you to close your eyes and imagine a chair, you’ll picture an object in your mind I’m sure satisfies basal restrictions for what it is that defines a chair, without thinking on it very much. The chair formed in your mind is built upon an archetype, shaped by many people, over many many years. You could design a chair (maybe not a good chair), because all design is governed by a system of rules responsible for its form.

Restriction makes the designer’s job possible.

“Web design” is just a negotiation of limits (real and imposed) over time, which we call an experience. An amateur can borrow paradigms we’ve long established to resolve an interface problem without the help of a professional. Not much skill is required, nor should there be. Design for the web is easy, because archetypes exist to guide us.

Good web design is more difficult to do, and to define, though I’d argue all good websites share commonality that could establish an archetype: standards compliance, accessibility, experience parity, progressive enhancement, all that extra love web designers put into a website so content can be made available to more people. (I exclude graphic style because its usefulness in describing an archetype is debatable.) For us, as professionals, there are intrinsic qualities of Good, of an archetype, that define the edges. The rules box us in. They free our minds to reflect and act on the nuance of design language. Creative freedom, at least in the way a designer demands it, or laments a lack of it, doesn’t exist. It leads to catatonia — faced with limitless solutions, the mind breaks.

We need the archetype.

RWD is new, and its edges are, appropriately, elusive. We’ll get a handle on them eventually. When we do, we’ll be free to think on other things, and our design vernacular will evolve. Fascination with technique always follows technological advance. We’re not doomed to writing love letters to Rothko forever.

Right now, we just have to keep working at it. Over and over and over, until it’s perfect.

We’re all shaping an archetype. We’re all after Good.

Invention demands patience.

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