Paint by binary numbers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 November, 2011, 12:00am


In 1506, Pope Julius II, affectionately known as Il Papa Terribile, engaged a certain Michelangelo to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The job took four years, with frequent arguments and delays over money, no doubt numerous tea breaks or the Renaissance equivalent and, one imagines, instances of Michelangelo responding to Julius' specifications with dramatic and dampening concern: 'Ah, I don't know about that. your Holiness. It's going to cost you'.

Today of course, few would argue that the frescoes are not art, but the fact is that the Sistine Chapel is first and foremost interior decoration, with a design brief set by Julius, the client.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is one notable example in which interior design in the analogue world can be unanimously agreed upon as art. In the digital world we live in today, where increasingly our access to other people, business and even religion is through the internet, we have new portals that allow us this interaction. Often, the interior design of this new 'architecture', web design, can be crucial to the success or failure of that portal.

Much like Michelangelo, the very best web designers are paid handsomely for their services, and yet the huge market in off-the-shelf website templates means that almost anyone with time and lots of enthusiasm can become a web designer. Given its ubiquity and focus on function, can web design be considered art?

Art and design are communicative expressions of ideas, and both use visual media to convey these expressions - often with presentation that takes technical skill and innovation.

Where art and design diverge is the driver of that expression. In art, the canvas is blank and the artist expresses a personal vision. In design, the designer produces ideas from a set of rules and parameters laid down by others. 'Art is not constricted by real-world limitations; design is always within limitations,' says Hong Kong web designer Ali Reid of Turtle Media.

Jay Forster, head of Salon de Pigeon creative studio in Sheung Wan, also believes the artistic potential of web design is restrictive. 'Fundamentally, the medium of the web is fairly dull as a canvas for art. There are infinite possibilities for creating art in varied settings, and limiting oneself to 1024 x 760 is a bit lame.'

Forster asserts that web design in and of itself cannot be considered art, unlike other new media art forms such as computer animation.

Tom Fallowfield, owner of Hong Kong web design company Ugli, also believes that function should always be the key determinant of web design. 'Websites are hugely more likely to succeed when they are designed and built as machines, not works of art. The focus should be on usability, performance and security.'

The distinctions between art and design are blurred when artists take commissions for portraits or are co-opted by companies looking to give products artistic credibility.

Damien Hirst recently collaborated with American skateboard brand Supreme to cover boards with prints of his works including the Spin and Dot paintings. The rise of 'rock star' designers has blurred things further with such magazines as Wallpaper* and Gary Hustwit's recent design fan boy films Objectified and Helvetica helping to push the idea of the designer as artist. Apple's Jonathan Ive, Marc Newson and Karim Rashid are feted for putting aesthetics on an equal footing with function.

All the designers mentioned have had their 'pieces' exhibited and entered into the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Industrial design is highly collectible, shown by the sale of Newson's Lockheed Lounge chair for GBP1.1 million (HK$13.4 million) at auction in 2009.

Web design hasn't yet reached the respectability of industrial design, but the creative impetus seems to be following the same path.

The first generation of websites followed the most basic design principles; that is, an interface that allowed the emergent technology to work on constrained networks, speeds and machines. With second generation websites, the Web 2.0 sites, functionality became less important; indeed, it was a given that a site would 'work', so the focus shifted to aesthetics and the 'experience' to draw people in and keep them.

Some of the most widely used websites today - including Google, Facebook and Twitter - are, according to their creators, inspired as much by aesthetics as by function. And the future of web design as a creative platform looks even more promising with the introduction of HTML5 code language, which will allow for more seamless video and multimedia embedding in websites.

So, will web design be more widely accepted as art in the future? It hasn't reached the point that it can stir our souls like a Van Gogh painting or tickle the fancy of Museum of Modern Art trustees. Yet, as with industrial design, web design's artistic potential is beginning to be realised. Just as in the Renaissance, function in web design has acquired aesthetics and, at its current rate of development, may one day be led by form.