Historically, designers have been used to controlling the design because the design was physical and fixed. Web design is fluid, flexible and interactive. Web design is about putting the customer in control. It is about creating a design that is controllable by the customer.
A search engine is a classic example of web design. Some find it hard to even think of a search engine as something that is "designed." That’s because the very word “design” has become heavily associated with aesthetics and visuals. In this world, it’s much more important how something looks than how it works. It wasn’t always this way. Design thinking used to focus a lot more on the functionality but towards the end of the last century visual design thinking began to dominate, often to the detriment of good overall design. “Styling for its own sake is a lazy 20th-Century conceit,” the great designer James Dyson has observed.
This is the essential difference between, for example, the culture of Google search design and the culture of Bing search design. When you visit Bing, the page is dominated by a huge image. You get the sense that you’re at a photographic website that also happens to be a search engine. The Bing designers want to control the design and your experience. When I last visited they showed me a picture of the New York skyline at night. It was beautiful but it had nothing to do with why I was at their website.
Google, on the other hand, has maintained its relentless focus on giving you control. Its homepage is a blank canvas. You use your search words to get the result you want to get. You go to where you want to go to. The entire environment says: You are in control. The Google search philosophy is about putting you first, streamlining the experience and preventing distractions.
Great web designers create controls you can use. You can search, navigate, calculate, compare, comment and share, upload your own videos and photos. You are in control. As you interact with the design it responds to your controls. If you want to zoom in, it zooms in. If you want pricing, you can click on a link called “Pricing.” If you want those prices in euros, it changes the prices to euros. It doesn’t care whether you’re using a desktop, laptop or smartphone. It adapts to your world rather than forcing you to adapt to its world.
Traditional designers who come from a print, physical world culture want to control every pixel. They have an image in their mind and they want to control every last detail. Print design is often breathtaking but the web is not print. The web is not physical. The web is digital. Print is inflexible whereas the web is fluid. Print is about the artifact whereas the web is about the act.
Design is a battle between ego and empathy. Digital design is where the designer designs the controls rather than controls the design.