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Is digital killing creativity?

In 1986, Huey Lewis and the News proclaimed that ‘It’s hip to be square’, and who are we to argue with such insight? It’s a well-known fact that digital design has historically been made of squares, boxes and tables, but is this a blocker or a catalyst for creativity? Alan Coates, 44’s resident Head of Digital and 80s rock fan, explores…

A brief history of web design

If you’ve ever dabbled in web design, you’ll know that web pages are made of boxes. Going back to the birth of HTML, websites went from just text and images loosely placed on a page, to a structured design. This was done by using tables the same way you would in a Microsoft Word document. One column at the top for a logo, three in the middle, one at the bottom to create a footer, and there you were.

As time went on, we stopped using tables and instead utilised the styling (creative stylesheets or CSS) to create the structure instead. This way, we could move and style the content boxes however we liked, independently of each other. However, the way HTML was developed created a kind of digital gravity. The way browsers read the code means that design elements naturally follow one by one – stacking on top of each other like boxes from the top down.

To get around this, web designers started to build web pages out of Adobe Flash, which gave them a blank slate to design in. This worked well, as long as users could view the site from a desktop or laptop.

How mobile changed everything

When internet-enabled devices came on the scene, things changed for two reasons. Firstly, Apple (a competitor of Adobe at the time) didn’t allow Flash to run on its iPhones. Due to the popularity of the device, this almost single-handedly killed the use of Flash as a web design tool and so we went back to using boxes.

Secondly, it meant web designers had to consider users viewing their sites in dramatically different sizes and shapes. Laptop, desktop, tablet landscape, tablet portrait, mobile landscape, mobile portrait and so on.

Initially designers got around this by creating ‘mobile-optimised’ sites, designing one site for desktops, and one for mobiles. However, content managing two sites wasn’t time or cost-effective, and so responsive design became the standard.

The effect of responsive design

To create a responsive website that caters for all device types, you have to create a rule system. Based on screen width, responsive design will adjust the layout and prioritisation of the content in the best way for each device automatically. This makes it a foolproof delivery system. However, one change to the code – a single misplaced <div> tag, for example – can break the rules and ruin the design of the page and the experience of the visitor.

To prevent these mistakes, and to make it more user-friendly to add content, Content Management Systems (CMS) were developed. CMS platforms allow us to hot-swap content in and out of the web page, without having to go into the code at all.

So now our web pages look great on any device, and our content can be changed and uploaded easily.

But what we have now are boxes, within boxes, within boxes. Have we killed all hope of creativity and customisation on our digital channels?

I would argue not.

What’s in the box?

The first argument in favour of digital creativity is to not just consider the boxes on the page, but what those boxes contain. Digital channels have given us a whole new array of digital content to play with and use to new effect. We have seen, and continue to see, a huge rise in video creation – both film and animation, and interactive video.

Two-way communication through social media, feedback forms and comments have all helped to bring users into the story and make ‘going below the line’ (into the comments section) part of the online reading experience.

Through the development of HTML5, CSS3, and open source JavaScript libraries, we have seen huge developments in on-screen animation, content design and interactivity such as virtual reality and 360° video.

Creative constraints

And yet beyond all the technological history, and the programmatic issues with each kind of digital platform, we need to remember that creativity loves a constraint.

Famously, Ernest Hemingway was once bet that he couldn’t write a complete short story using just six words. His response, ‘For sale; baby shoes; never worn’, won that bet. While it’s a likely apocryphal story, this is creative constraint in practice.

CMS systems and responsive design don’t throttle our creativity, but only give us the parameters in which to be creative. A painter has a canvas on which to create a masterpiece. Magazine designers have a page in which to create a cover. Rock bands typically fit a song into three minutes. For their part, web designers have a header, introduction, main image, side bars and the richest toolbox of digital and interactive media we’ve ever had access to.

It’s not what we have that makes us creative, but what we do with it.

After all, as Huey sang: “It’s not too hard to figure out; you see it every day; and those that were the farthest out have gone the other way.”

Maybe it really is hip to be square.

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