Stuff and Nonsense

Malarkey is Andy Clarke, a UK based designer, author and speaker who has a passion for design, CSS and web accessibility.

Andy has been working on the web for almost ten years. He is a visual web designer and author and he founded Stuff and Nonsense in 1998. Andy regularly writes about creating beautiful, accessible web sites and he speaks at events worldwide. Andy is the author of Transcending CSS: The Fine Art of Web Design, published by New Riders in 2006.

Look out Johnny Foreigner

I hope that British web designers can escape from under the smothering influences of American flavoured globalised design.

Dateline London. Later this month, Waterloo in South London will be the place to be as the great and the good gather and @media 2005 rolls into town.

The event was sold out weeks ago, a demonstration in itself that standards and accessibility are mainstream issues in the UK. Many of the designers and developers attending are no doubt enduring London traffic or public transport to hear such fabulous international speakers as Doug, Jeffrey and Joe. I'm also proud that the majority of speakers on the @media 2005 bill are home grown.

A need to identify ourselves and stand apart as British is part of the British psyche, a pride which perhaps stems from an island dweller mentality, nostalgia for a bygone greatness(?) or from a chip on our shoulder stemming from our lost Empire. We live on the fringes of Europe, but we cling to the dream that we are still a world power. From BritPop to BritArt, in culture at least we can be (almost always) justifyably proud of British achievements, and with @media 2005 almost upon us we should be proud that in the field of design, web-standards and accessibility, British designers and developers can stand tall.

Who are the Brits?

Of course, this discussion begs the question What does it mean to be British? I believe passionately that the United Kingdom is little more than an economic union and one which is now well past its sell by date at that. Like Russia which has struggled to form a unique cultural identity after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Britain is mostly a culturally confused mess of Anglo-Saxon and immigrant notions, tinged with the influences of American cultural imperialism, neither culturally part of the European tradition nor sharing the cultural progression of our own former colonies. However looking at Britain from the outside, many have a distinct perception of Britishness.

In popular music, like many areas of our popular culture, British music has been influenced most heavily from America. In the past our music built upon and developed these influences into a sound which became ours. From the Rolling Stones (influenced by Blues greats such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf) to the quintessentially British Mod(ernist) sounds of the 1960's (influenced by Soul and R&B classics). At times, particularly during periods of social despair such as the late 1970's and early 1980's, British music has shown flashes of uniqueness, best seen in the raw sound of The Clash. Other individuals stand out as dictinctly British, Ian Dury, Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello among them.

Comedy is also an art where Britain is seen to have a distinct cultural identity. Travel anywhere in the world and conversations inevitably include Fawlty Towers, Monty Python or (God forbid) Mr. Bean.

But this is a site about design isn't it?

So what about the web? Is there a distinctly British style? I am not so sure. A broader question might be Is there any cultural diversity in web design?

Looking at the work of web designers from across Europe, Australasia and the Americas, it is hard to see distinct cultural differences in design. For me the web is a design cultural melting pot. My fear however is if this continues, web design will become as homogenous as car design has become: bland, uniform and bereft of character. Where is the Englishness that was Morgan or MG? What has happened to the Gallic flavour that was Citroen? I hope that British web designers can escape from under the smothering influences of American flavoured globalised design.

I sincerely believe that British web designers can do so and I see small flashes of distinctive work. British designers once lead the world in automotive and motorcycle design, we can do the same thing on the web by not conforming to design globalisation and by developing a style which is quintessentially British.

@media2005 and beyond

And so to @media2005. Among all the exciting talk about standards, XHTML, CSS and accessibility we must not forget that these tools are nothing without design. @media2005 shows that British designers and developers can stand side-by-side with the incredible transatlantic talent. Now is the time for us to move forward.

It is time for us to think differently and I know that there is the talent to make that happen. I would also call upon designers in other countries to develop cultural diversity in web design. It would be amazing to see the pages of StyleGala and the Web Standards Awards graced with sites which are quintessentially Mexican, Japanese or even Belgian.

And as for @media2005 and beyond, as that English gentleman of web design Jon Hicks once said, Look out Johnny Foreigner! The Brits are coming!

:)

Replies

  1. #1 On May 31, 2005 09:15 AM patrick h. lauke said:

    this johnny here will bring his german flag to the event (cue WWII and football scores of decades gone by)...

  2. #2 On May 31, 2005 09:24 AM Jon Hicks said:

    While I agree, I don't think that there is such a thing as 'British" looking design, I would say that there is definitely an "American" design. There's generally something about them that says US to me.

    Global design - now there's a BIG topic!

  3. #3 On May 31, 2005 10:02 AM Mark Boulton said:

    I have to agree with Jon here, I don't beleive there's a British style, but I do believe there is a European style. With so much graphic design influence historically coming from Germany and Holland, along with Scandinavian furniture design, all of this is evident, to some degree, in a British designer's work. It only takes working in a different culture and country for this to become really noticable.

    But Jon, you're right, Global design - BIG!

  4. #4 On May 31, 2005 10:24 AM Kev said:

    As my wife is having the bad manners to give birth on or around mid-June I can't attend. I'm not happy about it and am considering divorce. As such I, as a Brit designer/develop, find it impossible to stand tall and will thus celebrate everyone else having a great time by crouching down or possibly hopping on one leg.

    I may also lecture my as yet unborn child on the important of adhering to standards when choosing to be born.

    In short: Bah.

  5. #5 On May 31, 2005 11:03 AM Ben Darlow said:

    I'm not convinced that there is such a thing as American design, really. As you say, web design is the product of a melting pot, as most designer/developers will pick up the elements of all sites they like the most and incorporate them into their own designs, and this places little - if any - emphasis on the national origin of those sites.

    A few years ago when I first started out in web design, I used to read k10k.net regularly. From the sites they linked to (or at least based on their names) it seemed that 99% of the "hot" designers were actually from Scandinavia. These were the guys popularising pixel-text (even if that probably originated from somebody like Jason Kottke) and abstract 3D or splashed-paint motifs on their work.

    Arguably this sort of thing has no place on the web today, as usability was clearly pretty low priority for these designs, but they will certainly have influenced people looking to find their own style. But this is only one such example of where individuals from one geographical area influence the entire world. Look at the designers behind CSS Zen Garden; the list of contributing designers whose work was used in Dave Shea's book should reveal just how international the community of designers are. But then again, given how America's inhabitants have come to live there from all over the world, just how many of these individuals are in fact actually American?

    My personal inclination is that bad web design; bland, unimaginative, inaccessible, unusable, unfriendly sites should be stamped out by a process of education that makes no distinction about what constitutes an ideal national style. The web has no international borders, so neither should its design.

  6. #6 On May 31, 2005 12:21 PM Mike Stenhouse said:

    Crikey, this is an ambitious post!

    I think there are cultural influences in web design but they're getting harder and harder to spot. There's often 'something' that marks out Skandanavian, French and German design. With the French it's the colour, the Germans it's the typography and the Skandanavians it's the whitespace. Sometimes. These aren't hard rules, and I quite like that. The fact that someone can launch a great design and be appreciated around the world on a level playing field is fresh. I don't think that there's ever been a medium like this...

  7. #7 On May 31, 2005 12:36 PM Peter Holloway said:

    What a fascinating subject! As a Britisher that the rest of the Brits seem determined to ignore (I come from Northern Ireland) I have found since living in England that most of the rest of the world seem to equate British with English. I do, however like being British and would be fascinated to see examples posted here of any typically British sites found out there. Hopefully they won't include bits that don't quite fit together and a puddle of oil underneath ;)

    Of course, Malarkey, the Mod theme is a most distinctive British style, and therefore stuffandnonsense should go to the top of the list :)

  8. #8 On May 31, 2005 01:03 PM Schultzy said:

    I agree there isnt much of a constant design for the british.

    Why not make one. We could have a site with guides and things. Maybe that is too far?

    I think it would be good if all the brits stuck together.
    Might have to start using my .co.uk address more.

  9. #9 On May 31, 2005 06:15 PM Andrea said:

    Ok, to play devil's advocate a bit, how come the only woman speaking at @media is American? And how come there is only one? I know you specifically aren't responsible for this, but I find it curious.

    When I look at web design today, the thing that strikes me is not lack of cultural diversity, but lack of gender diversity. Most designs scream "male" to me.

    Not trying to hijack the thread, just needed to vent a bit. ;)

  10. #10 On May 31, 2005 06:40 PM Matt Robin said:

    I'll go out on a limb here (the smallest one I can find) - but I have the sense that the Japanese are already developing a 'style' of their own....sure, it's in its infancy right now, but I definately think a cultural identity is already begining to emerge in the Far East.

    As for us Brits? Hmmm, yeah we don't seem to be 'flying the flag' much (err, so to speak)...but is this just because there is a growing reluctance to be proud of Britain in this century? (Note: that's not my opinion, just a theory!)

    Call me mad if you like: but I'm a proud Brit, but more proud of what we 'used' to be...and disappointed at what we've become.
    But...that's going off the topic slightly isn't it? I mean...'Brit Web Design'...I really count this site among the few with any resemblence to Britannia (not the former airline!). Most Brits seem to be adopting the web design styles of the Americans (ooh, that makes a change). But what about this: (not a website obviously)...the iPod was designed by a Brit - and it's styling and sales success is having an impact on designers around the world! If someone can do that for a 'spiced-up' mp3 player...why can't us Brits do that for the Web too?

    I won't be at @Media because of day-job work commitments and a host of other valid reasons...but I hope everyone has a great time! :)

  11. #11 On May 31, 2005 06:49 PM Matt Robin said:

    Andrea: You have a good point there, and the web design community seems to be at the same ratio as computer-game programmers! both industries are very under-represented by women....the reasons for this are LARGE and would require a seperate blog...(or blog site!) entirely devoted to it. But good point...#nods#

    Kev: Good luck with the new sprog!

  12. #12 On May 31, 2005 08:51 PM Matt Robin said:

    Good post from Mike, especially the remark: 'The fact that someone can launch a great design and be appreciated around the world on a level playing field is fresh.'

    Yeah - it's one of the things that makes it appealing in the first place right? :)

    And Ben: 'The web has no international borders, so neither should its design.' ...Good point too!

    I think Andy's suggesting that the Brit (or any other) culture should shine through in it's work...be it web design, music, or any type of craft. And maybe 'Brit' characteristics are not getting enough recognition in the web design (?) world.

    Peter: You're from a different Island...France has closer shores! *nudge*
    (Just messin')

  13. #13 On June 1, 2005 01:49 AM Chris Lienert said:

    Cultural variations seem to develop as a result of isolation and with the web the boundaries have largely been cut down. We're still influenced by what we experience outside the web, however it's no surprise that web design is fairly uniform.

  14. #14 On June 1, 2005 11:31 AM James Stevens said:

    I think it's interesting that the off-line references that you mention, like Morgan, MG, Faulty Towers etc are all cultural icons that point to a time before the Internet. I fear that the advent of technology has stripped away what was once British about this island and as such there can be no such thing as a "British" sense of Web design.

    It's also interesting to note that the examples you cite are all examples that have fallen beside the wayside, for one reason or another such as bad management, or producing products that were generally dated and poor quality (eg MG Rover). Market forces have driven these products into the ground, and I would hope that the same were not to happen to British Web design

  15. #15 On June 1, 2005 02:07 PM Martin said:

    Something that Brits should remember is that much of the rest of the world is still sympathetic to the view that Brits (or I guess I should say "the English") are evil imperialists. This background idea still taints a lot of the interaction between Brits and other nationals, because for example it's still promoted to a degree in TV & film (think of the usual stereotypical Brits in Hollywood films, who are almost always contrasted with heroic, or 'more human', Americans). So when you're "proud" of British things, it can come across to many people as a slightly shameless arrogance. Or so it seems to me. And I'm British.

    I think that the idea of 'Britishness' has been fraying and decaying for quite a while now. A huge irony to me is that Hollywood's support of American stereotypes about the British has informed and to a degree revived Brits' own sense of who they are. Cheers, America!

    But whereas I find it hard to see distinctly British web design, one thing that does seem to survive as something distinctly British, that all the nations and tribes of these isles can share in and which flourishes, is a British Sense of Humour. There just is something in this.

  16. #16 On June 1, 2005 05:29 PM Sean Fraser said:

    Have you noticed how new site designs appear as a single column with header and footer with tiled Victorian background wallpaper? but the code is table-based with style sheets for a:hover and type effects only?

    Let's say that a “distinctly British style” is found and all Great Britian's sites display this style. Then, let's say all site designs on the web follow this style but with local influences, e.g., Saville Row fashions worn by royalty in 1920's Hawai'i.

    Does the “distinctly British style” cease? or, does it - Merely - become another new site design style?

  17. #17 On June 2, 2005 01:25 AM Matt Robin said:

    Sean Fraser said

    "Have you noticed how new site designs appear as a single column with header and footer with tiled Victorian background wallpaper? but the code is table-based with style sheets for a:hover and type effects only?"

    #pukes#

    That sounds ghastly!

    James: Good post about how Andy's examples used have actually showed-up as Brit disgraces as much as anything else (unfortunately)...and yes - it would be a shame to see Brit web design go the same way (although unlikely).

    Andy: Here's a question for you - 'Who do you consider to be the 'Jamie Oliver' of Brit Web design? And why?'

    (Yes, yes, even though Jamie isn't a designer, but he's widely acclaimed in his profession...and a current role-model for some Brits).

  18. #18 On June 2, 2005 01:53 AM Malarkey said:

    OK, here's time to chip in with a bit of clarification about a couple of points.

    I think that often a 'style' is often confused with stereotypes. I certainly don't mean to propose such a thing.

    Let's think about Indian Bollywood movies. Yes they have a visual style distinct from the look of globalised movies. Their style serves and represents the Indian culture. It now also serves as a major inspiration for other 'mainstream' movie makers. Moving on to Hong Kong movies, look at the highly distinct styles of Far Eastern directors (House of the Flying Daggers, Hero etc.) now being sucked wholesale into the movie machine. We can see that rather than pander to globalised tradition, mainstream movies can be heavily influenced by original thinking.

    You get my drift?

    Now, to answer a couple of points raised:

    Ben Darlow said: "The web has no international borders, so neither should its design."

    I cannot agree. There should be no borders/barriers to access, but without multiple cultural influences the design gene pool is weakened.

    Andrea said: "When I look at web design today, the thing that strikes me is not lack of cultural diversity, but lack of gender diversity. Most designs scream "male" to me."

    Absolutely! When you think of women designing for women in other areas of design (packaging, magazines etc.) it makes you wonder why the web is seemingly so male orientated. A feminine influence is vital in ensuring female tastes are accommodated.

    Matt Robin said: "...the iPod was designed by a Brit - and it's styling and sales success is having an impact on designers around the world! If someone can do that for a 'spiced-up' mp3 player...why can't us Brits do that for the Web too?"

    I could not agree more.

    And Matt Robin also asked: "Who do you consider to be the 'Jamie Oliver' of Brit Web design? And why?"

    Now that is a tricky one, and perhaps the whole point of this editorial. I would point directly to John Oxton as a good starting point. Being relatively new to designing for the web, I feel he has less baggage than some of us seasoned old hands and comes to projects (such as his blog) with a refreshing approach. Plus, like Jamie Oliver, he is a damn good cook! ;)

  19. #19 On June 2, 2005 03:17 AM Dave said:

    Hmm i understand you wish to be proud to be British, but in web-design how can you distinguish between sites made by a Brit and those that are not? I just don't see defining factors that differ them..

  20. #20 On June 2, 2005 06:45 AM Prabhath Sirisena said:

    Some time ago, I wrote something similar titled "How local is local?". It turned out to be a rather vague post, but my intentions were the same.

    Even more than in the western world, in Asia, where things are moving rather slow technology-wise, web design has taken an "American" look and feel. What's worse is that we are talking about ye olde style of bevelled buttons and flash intros. Not even the Japanese, who are far ahead of us Sri Lankans, can boast of a decent "style" on the web.

    It's interesting to note how even Brits are feeling too "Americanised".

  21. #21 On June 2, 2005 08:53 AM Malarkey said:

    @ Dave: "... how can you distinguish between sites made by a Brit and those that are not? I just don't see defining factors that differ them."

    And that is the point.

  22. #22 On June 2, 2005 12:46 PM Faruk Ateş said:

    The only thing you could say that can make a defining factor is the spelling, but there's nothing stopping an american from writing "colour" and a brit writing "color" of course...

  23. #23 On June 2, 2005 03:39 PM Sean Fraser said:

    What is “American flavoured globalised design”?

  24. #24 On June 2, 2005 04:49 PM goodwitch said:

    coming from a university, state and country that are pretentiously proud of being XXL,
    i value the perspective from all angles. in fact, i find incredible insight when listening to
    different perspectives and the individual voice as opposed to just the masses.
    it is so easy to hear the giant and to mindlessly follow the crowd. but i believe the true treasures are to
    be found in each one of us.

    your question feels like a mirror that is asking us, "are you bland, uniform, and bereft of character?" and
    in the spirit of creative cultivation, i suggest that we are NOT just a mindless energy source for the expansion of the
    vanilla internet...quite the opposite...we are the innovative minds and limitless imaginations that turn
    science fiction into reality.


    my theory? a well selected "pack" or "posse" creates a synergistic space to explore, discover and challenge each other
    to speak our dreams and to dare to live them....and in so doing, clearly reveal our unique identity.

    thanks for reminding us to remember who we are and be true to ourselves.

  25. #25 On June 6, 2005 11:47 AM Chris Hunt said:

    I think it's a misconception to talk about " American flavoured globalised design" (I'm a Brit too, btw). The web is a uniquely global phenomenon, its design mores have evolved through the efforts of designers world-wide. If the demographics of internet users mean that many of those designers are american, so what? Does that make it "american" to have a logo in the top left or a drop-shadow under a box? When I look at a website, I don't usually see an "american", "canadian", "german" or "british" design; I just see an internet design - be it good or bad.

    It's a question of your peers and your market. Say you're designing some kind of real-world widget. Most of the widgets you see in the UK are British ones. The designers you know, work with and learnt from are British. Customers are used to the look and feel of British widgets. So you'd expect British widgets to evolve a particular style. In the online world it's different - we're all exposed to world-wide design, and share a community with world-wide designers. It's simply irrelevant that you're a British designer, what matters is that you're a good designer.

    In many cases, surely, websites are aiming for a global audience, and to de-emphasize any regional bias. Where a national flavour is required, it's achieved with reference to offline design elements - as in this website for example.

    One factor the does militate against regional variation in web design is the limited pallette that designers have to work with. In particular the very limited number of typefaces available for use. In the real world, variations in typography give a real national flavour to items. Maybe you'll see more national variation when we can reliably embed fonts.

    But I doubt it.

  26. #26 On June 8, 2005 11:31 AM Ben Darlow said:

    "There should be no borders/barriers to access, but without multiple cultural influences the design gene pool is weakened."

    But how are we to know the origin of a particular style? Unless we are consciously aware of the nationality of our inspirations, we will always be creating based upon a m´┐Żlange of cultural styles. On a similar note, how are we supposed to tell the gender of a site's designer?

  27. #27 On June 11, 2005 01:38 AM Krishnan Patel said:

    Excuse me? "A need to identify ourselves and stand apart as British is part of the British psyche, a pride which perhaps stems from an island dweller mentality, nostalgia for a bygone greatness(?)"

    Bygone _greatness_? Do you forget (or know) that your "greatness" led to the misery, death, destruction and plunder/poverty of masses of people in what is today called the Third World. (People in the western world, particular America and UK may not agree with this, or will somehow find this controversial, but the British Empire was one of the root reasons for World War I if you look into it much, much deeper...)

    You fear American cultural imperialism, but British bygone "greatness" exhibited the same problems.

    P.S. Bolywood culture doesn't really represent Indian culture, IMO; it is escapism. It bears nothing of reality, and it anything most soaps and films reflect more westernization in recent years than anything else.

    I can understand your national pride, just as I have mine, but please at least understand the political controversey of your statement. Might not be your fault, as no-one in the western world seriously apologises in any meaningful way for your by-gone "greatnesses..."

  28. #28 On June 11, 2005 02:20 AM Malarkey said:

    @ Krishnan Patel: You are of course correct in everything that you stated. Bygone greatness was accompanied by a (?) and I for one are fully aware that there are many things that today's British patriots need to learn about the criminal behaviour of our imperialist forefathers.

    Perhaps I should have made my statement a little clearer? Anyway, back to design I hope.

  29. #29 On June 12, 2005 01:09 AM Malarkey said:

    I felt I needed to post a link to an excellent follow up piece by Craig Cook.

This article was originally published by Andy Clarke on his personal web site And All That Malarkey and is reproduced here for archive purposes. This article is published under a Creative Commons By Attribution License 2.0.

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