Web Design as Foreign Language

I know around 650 French words, plus a score of English ones that can be made to sound French. While certainly not enough to understand Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie without subtitles, given my ability to make some sentences out of the words that I know, I can have a primitive conversation in a pinch.

When it comes to design, I once had a real tussle with language when, as part of a consulting job, I had to interview applicants for a critical web design position, for which not only was my high school French inadequate, but all the years I've spent working as a print designer—and therefore mastering the idiomatic speech of the trade—were useless.

I may have an iMac on my desk, but when it comes to the web, I know how to use a search engine, and that's about it. Given that the new digital design language is so foreign, I feel like a stranger in my own land. Never before in the history of modern graphic design—at least since Gutenberg—has our common language changed so rapidly and radically, to the point of being downright exclusionary for those of us who have never read (or are incapable of using) a user's manual. Forget those silly semantic distinctions between commercial art and graphic design that crop up at design conferences—this is where the real divide lives. I really had no idea before talking with my first applicant that to speak, understand and otherwise intelligently interview a web designer—no less an information architect—I couldn't bluff my way through by knowing just a few key terms. N'est-ce pas? Rather I needed to form meaningful sentences. Zut alors! I needed a Berlitz guide to fathom just the basics of this new language.

Of course this isn't exclusive to design. Other professions are laden with technical verbiage. But I'm not in another profession—in fact, I entered this one because it was bozo-friendly. Therefore, it is frustrating that the graphic design vocabulary has changed so quickly from being essentially accessible English to techno-ese, to ethnographic-ese.

Nevertheless, I had a job to do: I had to judge the suitability of more than 10 applicants for a job whose fundamental parameters I understood but where the measure for making the determination was beyond my ken. So in a nightmarish state, after three interviews during which I sat behind my desk, virtually speechless and nodding uncontrollably, I requested that a translator be present. And it was a good thing too!

If I had known the language I could have asked the pertinent questions that had bearing on the applicant's competency. Instead I stuck to basics: “You make webpages, do you?” Fortunately, my fluent translator did the major questioning, and ultimately had the good sense to take over the entire procedure. I sat there, as though listening to Radio Moscow for all I knew, attempting to follow each conversations. On the surface, all the applicants seemed to know what they were talking about, but how could I tell?

Being incapable of conducting the interviews was not, however, as much of a problem as being totally surprised by the developments that have revolutionized design and visual communications right under my nose. Where had I been for the past few years? Was I asleep under a workstation? What bothered me even more was learning that other former print designers with whom I have frequent contact could actually speak and understand this language. How could I be so ignorant to what was going on?

Yet rather than rush to enroll in a class or hire a tutor, my response to this professional crisis turned out to be not unlike my time spent in high school French class—stubborn intransigence. As a high school student I felt dwarfed by my schoolmates who surpassed me. Their successes forced me to remain in French 1 until I had mastered the course. I would not leave until I was certain I could pass French 2 with ease. Yet upon being graduated, after four years of French 1, my highest mark was a C+. Today, I still resent my friends who found it so easy to learn and speak French and other languages so well. Similarly, I feel dwarfed by all those young designers who speak the new digital language so fluently.

“I wouldn't be a member of your club, even if you begged me,” I said in frustration, several years back. Well, I'm not so adamant now, but I haven't gotten any invitations. I realize that the design world has changed so radically that not knowing this language is like not speaking Spanish in Miami Beach. So, what I need is help. Is it too late to learn a new language? Is it too late to learn a new culture? Both are needed to survive in this new world. It's not enough to hire a translator—these days they're pretty expensive, anyway—it's important to have some degree of fluency, even if it is only equivalent to a sixth-grade spelling level (in fact, sixth graders already know how to make websites). The first thing I want to know is how to speak the basic language; the next thing is how to make complete sentences. And the third thing is how to think for the screen the way I think for the printed page. The biggest question is, can I do it?

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com