What The SOPA/PIPA Blackout Says About Internet Companies’ Attitude Toward Design (Hint: Not Much)
Lots of excitement and analysis about yesterday’s U.S.-based blackout of many major websites, including Google, Wikipedia and Wordpress. I already posted a link to Clay Shirky’s analysis of PIPA and SOPA, and unsurprisingly, other opinions have emerged in the meantime, including John Gapper’s Financial Times piece, Halt The Silicon Valley Histrionics, Jaron Lanier’s op ed in The New York Times, The False Ideals of the Web and tech writer David Pogue’s blog post, Put Down the Pitchforks on SOPA.
As I moseyed around the web yesterday to check out the protesting sites, a thought struck me: the way in which the sites chose to indicate their position against the acts perhaps also, even unwittingly, spoke volumes about that company’s wider approach to design. Did it seem like the blackout was the responsibility of an engineer who had found him or herself in charge of visual design? How seriously does it seem like design is being taken in these businesses? You know, the businesses that promise to represent the brightest hope for our economy. What hope for design therein?
So I collected a bunch of screengrabs and decided to canvas the opinion of a host of design experts. Admittedly this was more of a fun exercise than anything else, but nonetheless, their feedback was pretty telling: Many of them were supporters of the instinct and the gesture, but saddened at the quality of the design on show. As Adrian Shaughnessy, designer, writer, visiting professor at the Royal College of Art and founder of Unit Editions in London wrote, tartly:
One of the most interesting features of the “Occupy” movement has been the graphic and verbal flair of the protest banners. In comparison, the anti-SOPA/PIPA blackout screens are po-faced and ponderous. Where’s the razor sharp wit? And don’t get me started on the typography—it looks like the IT department stayed late to do it.
Another Londoner, designer and director, Johnny Hardstaff commented rather sorrowfully:
I love the act of witholding data. In itself it’s such a simple and effective solution to the problem, and it both expertly and childishly asserts a freedom that I strongly believe in… but, the visual languages that these designers have each invoked in their individual blackouts strikes me as unimportant. I’d hate to critique or “unpack” their somewhat lackluster individual design solutions, when what’s important is the gesture itself, and the fact that they made a stand.
As I’ve written before, there’s a growing movement to promote the value of design within internet-focused companies, but it’s clear from even this brief scan that for all the rhetoric, “good design” is not a central part of the currently dominant internet companies. There were exceptions—most of the experts applauded the efforts of both Google and Wordpress—but here’s the deeper issue. When even designers say that design is beside the point and what matters most is the content of the message, it seems like there’s still a long way to go before we figure out where design truly fits into all those business equations.
Here, then, are screenshots from twelve of the high profile protesting websites. My sincere thanks to Adrian Shaughnessy and Johnny Hardstaff along with the other four design(er) critics: Michael C Place, creative director of London-based design agency, Build; Jan Wilker, of New York-based design agency, karlssonwilker inc.; Liz Danzico, chair of the MFA Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts in New York and Timothy O’Donnell, author of Sketchbook and creative director at Philadelphia-based design agency, 160over90. And apologies, I do realize some of this is super inside design-ball, but I like that the comments also show the depth at which designers agonize over the types of issues so many people don’t even know to notice.
Michael C Place: ”Utilitarian, no-nonsense. Ranged-left type, a nod to the modernists out there.”
Jan Wilker: “This is simple and to the point, with a fitting error message. I do wonder if anyone actually read it.”
Liz Danzico: “This has the potential to subtly and effectively piss people off—in all the right ways.”
I Can Has Cheezburger
Michael C Place: ”I bet the designer of the Cheezburger logo didn’t include a note for ‘If logo is to be used for a serious cause’ in the brand guidelines!”
Liz Danzico: “In which Cheezburger gets involved in prospect theory.”
Timothy O’Donnell: “How did they not feature a LOLcat bemoaning the potential loss of our online freedoms? Seems a missed opportunity. With any luck, that fork lift will drop the flagburger and rescue the orphan in the call to action.
Michael C Place: “Centered layout, plenty of leading, multiple type sizes, mixture of upper and lowercase… This looks like it was done in a hurry.”
Jan Wilker: “Love the postscript.”
Liz Danzico: “Effective. But more confounding than not having craigslist at all? Craigslist with colors.”
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Michael C Place: ”Centered and ranged-left? Come on, this is serious!”
Jan Wilker: “Given the topic, it’s a little strange that they use the crumbled-xeroxed-flyer-with-distressed-type as the basis of the headline.”
Timothy O’Donnell: “Distressed or not, Kabel is not the font to inspire a public uprising. Those rigatoni-esque ‘s’es and sloping ‘e’s are perfect for 70’s funk compilations, but do little to symbolize jackboots stamping on people’s faces.”
Michael C Place: ”Jaunty angle, and, not quite covering the lowercase ‘g’, an eye on the brand still.”
Adrian Shaughnessy: “Collectively, all of these confirm the suspicion that the internet is run by geeks rather than by people who understand how to communicate with a mass audience. At least Google’s blacked-out logo suggests a modicum of wit and panache.”
Liz Danzico: “Lovely, if not just for the rare and correct usage distinction between ‘Internet’ and ‘web’.”
Timothy O’Donnell: “Equal parts Heidegger and the cover of AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Google had the simplest and most impactful response.”
Michael C Place: ”No bullshit. Looks like Helvetica is the typeface of protest.”
Liz Danzico: “Spot on. SpotOn.”
Michael C Place: ”At least they are on-brand with the ‘Protect the Internet’ headline.”
Liz Danzico: “A review of the language would suggest that the copy is all about them. “Help us,” for instance. “Today Mozilla,” and “Join us.” What about me?”
Michael C Place: ”Highlighted typography? Come on. It’s not the 90’s.”
Jan Wilker: “‘Today’ needs an upper case ‘T.’ Thank you.”
Timothy O’Donnell: “Turning the Reddit logo’s smile into a frown is a nice, subtle touch. Less convinced with the color scheme: black, grey and salmon hardly seems the Palette of Dissent.”
Michael C Place: ”Love the ‘You can toggle this on your blog’s Settings page’. Shows the site is ever mindful of the user.”
Liz Danzico: “Leave it to Tumblr to make the “blacking out” of blogs on the Tumblr platform as easy as checking a box. Usability: check. Comprehensibility: check. The three short paragraphs here are chock full of useful links. And further, when the House put the brakes on SOPA, Tumblr updated its content. Nicely done.”
Michael C Place: ”It’s all a bit Neville Brody.”
Liz Danzico: “While the red and white graphics are pretty, harking back to the showbiz floodlights of Hollywood, a video may have been more on brand even. If fact, a video was just the thing that made the potential impact of SOPA/PIPA unspeakably clear.”
Timothy O’Donnell: “The architects of these protection acts were diabolically clever in naming them. I’m dead-set against censorship but find it hard to feel outrage at what sounds like Hello Kitty’s cousins from Sweden.”
Michael C Place: ”The theme tune from The X-Files would fit nicely here.”
Jan Wilker: “Classy, in the Wikipedia sense.”
Liz Danzico: “One of the few sites that spoke of a post-SOPA/PIPA world from the user point of view. The haunted-house-drop-shadow-effect the cast over the screen by the “W” chilled spirits as we considered a world “without free knowledge.” Cheers to them, though, for making a page eerily consistent with the brand.”
Timothy O’Donnell: “I don’t know — something about this had me looking over my shoulder and reaching for the Victory gin. It seems more focused on demonstrating Wikipedia’s far-reaching influence — which I can’t deny, as 15 minutes later I forgot it was blacked out and tried to discover who directed The Goonies.”
Michael C Place: ”No BS. The Full Monty. Perfect.”
Jan Wilker: “A designer did this!”
Liz Danzico: “Proof that the shape of information does not always, and rarely, stand for the information itself.”
Timothy O’Donnell: What Google did successfully with one stroke has less impact here, but I can’t deny it makes a nice visual. Reminds me of some of Muller+Hess’ work with strikethroughs.”