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19th century Design Reform Movement & web design

The popularity and trends of wallpaper in 19th Century Britain would seem like an unlikely article for a web designer, but there are many lessons the maturing web design industry can learn from.

Kris Jeary

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Published: 11th November 2013

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Wallpaper (as we would recognize it) began life as early as the 16th Century and was popular amongst the working classes as a way to decorate their houses at an affordable price. By the 19th Century it became fashionable with merchants and the aspiring middle classes and was used as a way to imitate the décor of homes of the aristocracy, in the manner of silk and other fabric drapes and hangings of the aristocracy.

Flock wallpaper was especially popular and was made using paint, glue and wool to make it an extremely tactile product, again reminiscent of real fabric (cloth in this case). It didn't just stop here, other popular styles included paper made to imitate marble or stone. What binds all the styles together is the fact that wallpaper was always trying to look like, or imitate, something else.

London's Great Exhibition of 1851 was a showcase of modern industry with thousands of exhibitors, amongst these were a large array of wallpaper manufacturers showcasing their latest designs and techniques. It was here that the outcry against bad design standards gathered pace with several notable designers taking issue with the taste of the consumers, as well as with the manufacturers themselves.

Wallpaper produced for the Great Exhibition
A wallpaper design produced for the Exhibition showed a lot of the faults Pugin railed against.

Chief among the concerns was that judgments of excellence at the Exhibition were lauded to those producers that demonstrated the best and most modern techniques of production and not enough attention given to the standards of design or aesthetic achievements. This was part of an official report by Richard Redgrave (then Inspector-General for Art) on the standards of wallpaper on show.

The Design Reform movement did predate the Exhibition but was given much more publicity after high profile criticisms by leading designers such as A.W.N. Pugin. His was a pure approach to design, his leading principal was that only flat patterns should adorn flat surfaces, he detested the illusion of depth and believed that design should always be honest and appropriate.

These principals became the centre of the Design Reform Movement and promoted by many prominent designers, artists and architects keen to educate the public. The prominence of the movement is best illustrated by its mention in Charles Dickens' "Hard Times" (1854) when he writes about a Government Inspector explaining good taste to a room of school children

Let me ask you girls and boys, would you paper a room with representations of horses? … Of course not … Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of a room in reality - in fact? ... Of course not. Why, then, you are not to have, in any object of use or ornament what would be a contradiction in fact … You must use for all purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.

Charles Dickens

The parallels with Web Design

Whilst researching this article I was struck with the parallels to the long road to maturity web design has undergone.

In the early years it was enough to just have a website and the tools available to designers were limited (and certainly not taken seriously by any designers of note).

We then had a phase of every new technique being applied to websites, not for any design aesthetic, but to showcase the skill of the website builder. Some obvious examples are animated gifs, mouse trails and font choices.

The Flash era then overlapped, possibly the most horrific period in web design when it comes to the user experience… do you remember the intro movies and the 5 minute wait for a site to load? That is not to say every Flash website was bad, there were some really amazing work (I recall the Diesel websites by hi-res), but a vast majority were designers showing off their skills and losing touch with the end user and their client's product.

The emergence of CSS gave web designers a much better canvas with which to work on. I believe the gentle withdrawal from skeumorphism and designing only such work that is appropriate to the medium, show the emerging maturity of our industry. The full skeumorphic phase played a great role in the transition but it is time to move on.

I firmly believe we are living in the first golden age of website design and there are some truly remarkable and inspiring designers out there now and new, young designers emerging that have grown up with the internet.

Our focus now needs to be to educate our clients on good design principles, just as Pugin detailed in 1853.

We have all had the client that ends up compromising a project by putting their personal tastes (or lack thereof) ahead of what is appropriate and in good taste. The hardest thing about design is the subjective nature of it, not many people believe they have poor taste and most have designed something at some point in their lives, even if it simply choosing the wallpaper for their bedroom!

Notes & Thoughts on Flat Design

Whilst I am an advocate of many of the principles of flat design, I do not subscribe to fashions. The design should be appropriate and with purpose, the aesthetic is but one part and should work with the User Experience (UX) to lead the customer to the information they want, and in turn, increase the value of the website to my client.

I haven't totally abandoned drop shows and gradients, they can work well with UX to show the user, for example, what element is clickable. If you always keep the word "appropriate" in mind you will never stray too far from the goal of truly good design.



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