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    What Saul Bass Can Teach Us About Web Design — Smashing Magazine


    About The Author

    Frederick O’Brien is a freelance journalist who conforms to most British stereotypes. His interests include American literature, graphic design, sustainable …
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    Film credits, brand logos, posters… Saul Bass did it all, and the principles that informed his work are just as valuable now as they were 50 years ago.

    Web design exists at a lovely intersection of different disciplines. In previous articles, I’ve written about the lessons to be learned from newspapers and from ancient Roman architects. This time we’ll be looking at one of the all-time great graphic designers — Saul Bass.

    Saul Bass is a graphic design legend. Responsible for title sequences in films like North by Northwest and Anatomy of a Murder, as well as a number of iconic posters and brand logos over the years. His work, in the words of Martin Scorses, “distilled the poetry of the modern, industrialized world.”

    A selection of corporate logos designed by Saul Bass
    From United Airlines to AT&T, Saul Bass designed some of the most iconic logos of all time. (Large preview)

    We’re in a different world now, a breakneck speed digital world, but that carries with it its own poetry. Although the backdrop has changed, Saul Bass’s methods and mindset have stood the test of time, and web designers would do well to remember them.

    Before getting into the particulars of Saul Bass and his work, it’s worth outlining his approach to design in broader terms. Big characters inspire big ideas, but as is so often the case the real trick is in the details.

    Concerning his approach to title sequences, Bass said:

    “Deal with ordinary things, things that we know so well that we’ve ceased to see them; deal with them in a way that allows us to understand them anew — in a sense making the ordinary extraordinary.”

    — Saul Bass (Source)

    A similar ethos can and should be applied to web design. As we look at his work, yes, by all means envision homepage splashes, but also think about buttons and signup forms and legal disclaimers. There is just as much beauty to be found in the little things. Sometimes more.

    Saul Bass-designed poster for the feature film ‘Grand Prix’
    Nothing Saul Bass did was an afterthought. Every element had to fit perfectly with everything else, from titles to credits. (Large preview)

    That Bass is even renowned for title sequences is a testament to his creativity. Before Saul Bass entered the scene film titles were usually dull affairs, names and static images delivered with all the bizazz of divorce papers. Under his eye, they became pieces of art, statements on the tone, and texture of what was to come. As he so brilliantly put it,

    “Design is thinking made visual.”

    — Saul Bass

    You can find more about Saul Bass’ vision of his work and his influences in the following pages and videos:


    Let’s start with the most basic aspect — color. Bass once said that ‘audience involvement with a film should begin with its first frame.’ So too should visitor involvement begin upon first load. We process the colors and arrangement of a website before we have time to process its content. You’ll find no greater advocate for quality content than me, but it is hampered if not given a quality canvas to unfold on.

    For Bass is typically translated into simple, vivid color palettes with no more than three of four colors. Not too busy, but plenty of pop. Red, white, and black is one of the golden color combinations — one Bass put to use many times. Bright colors don’t always mean ‘loud’, sometimes they mean ‘striking.’

    Posters for the films ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Advise & Consent’
    Saul Bass loved him some red, white, and black. (Large preview)
    Album artwork of ‘Tone Poems of Color’ by Frank Sinatra
    More stimulating than Sinatra’s mug, no? (Source: MoMA) (Large preview)

    What does this mean in terms of web design? Well, a little more than ‘use bright colors,’ I’m afraid. Study color theory then apply it to your projects in tasteful, audacious ways. Several excellent articles on the subjects on the subject listed at the end of this section, and the ‘Colors’ category of Smashing Magazine is home to plenty more. It’s well worth the attention. The right palette can set a tone before visitors have even processed what they’re looking at.

    For an uncannily Saul Bass-esque example of color and shape in action on the web, take the Holiday Center for Working Youth in Ottendorf. What better way to celebrate bold, functional architecture than through bold, functional design? It’s like a Vertigo poster in digital form.

    Screenshot of the website homepage for the Holiday Center for Working Youth in Ottendorf
    The website celebrates legacy not just through words, but through color too. (Large preview)

    Red, white, and black isn’t always the answer (though it is an incredibly sharp combination). The right mix depends on the story you’re trying to tell, and how you’re trying to tell it. Saul Bass knew full well that color is an incredibly powerful tool, and it’s one still often underused in the prim, white-space world of today’s web.

    Screenshot of the Lubmovka Festival website homepage
    The Lubimovka Festival for Russian speaking playwrights uses color on its website to convey the vibrance of what it does. It takes what could have been a stuffy old image of Shakespeare and makes it dynamic and fun. (Large preview)

    Audience involvement with a website begins with color, so make it count. For those unsure where to start here are a selection of Smashing articles on the topic:


    Words, words, words. Design may be thinking made visual, but sometimes the best way to say something is to come right out with it in words. Bass had a typographical style almost as distinctive as his visual one. Rough, hand-drawn, and almost always all-caps, he made words powerful without being overbearing.

    Collection of stills from the ‘North by Northwest’ opening title sequence
    The title sequence of North by Northwest weds typography with color to turn the mundane into the spectacular. (Source: Art of the Title) (Large preview)

    Fonts can tell stories too. They communicate tone of voice, formality, importance, and structure, among other things. Combined with a strong color scheme they can make copy dance where it might otherwise slouch along feeling sorry for itself.

    Screenshot of the Kotak Toys website homepage
    Russian toymaker Kotak uses typography to reflect the playful, mix-and-match nature of their stacking toys. (Large preview)

    Copywriter Jon Ryder showcases this beautifully on his personal website, which is the full package of strong color and bold, playful typography. As you click the prompts the copy rearranges and edits itself. It’s a brilliant idea elegantly executed. If Saul Bass was around to design portfolios this is the kind of thing you’d expect him to come up with.

    Screenshot of copywriter Jon Ryder’s portfolio website homepage
    (Large preview)

    Art of the Title refers to Bass’s approach as ‘kinetic typography’, and I think that’s a lovely turn of phrase to keep in mind when choosing font combinations for the web. Yes, Times New Roman or Arial will do a job, but with the wealth of free fonts and CSS stylings available why wouldn’t want to try giving your words more life? It’s not always appropriate, but sometimes it can be just the ticket.



    This one is as much about the process as it is about websites themselves. Saul Bass was a big believer in drawing. Even as technologies advanced and opportunities arose to streamline the design process, he understood there is no substitute for working with your hands when trying to get ideas out of your head and into the world. To aspiring designers, he advised,

    “Learn to draw. If you don’t, you’re going to live your life getting around that and trying to compensate for that.”

    Storyboard sketches of the shower scene in the Alfred Hitchcock feature film ‘Psycho’
    The shower scene in Psycho was storyboarded by none other than Saul Bass.(Large preview)

    Whatever it is you’re dealing with — page layout, logos, icons — there is no faster way to get the ideas out of your head than by drawing them. In this day and age that doesn’t necessarily mean pen and paper, you can always use tablets and like, but the underlying principle is the same. There are no presets — just you and your ideas. I’m no Saul Bass, but I’ve had a few good ideas in my time (at least two or three) and most of them happened almost by accident in the flow drawing.

    Pencil sketch plan of a New York Times front page spread
    (Large preview)

    The value of drawing pops up in the unlikeliest of places and I love it every time I do. Every front page of The New York Times starts as a hand-drawn pencil sketch, for example. Are there fancy computer programs that could do a similar job? Sure, and they’re used eventually, but they’re not used first. It doesn’t matter if they’re brainstorming corporate logos, revamping a website’s homepage, or preparing the front page of a newspaper — designers draw.

    Here are some good articles about the value of drawing in a web design context:

    An Interdisciplinary Approach

    It’s near impossible to fix one label on Saul Bass. At any given time he was a graphic designer, a filmmaker, a photographer, an architect. The list goes on and on. Having to be literate in so many areas was a necessity, but it was also a genuine passion, a constant curiosity.

    Take the title sequence of Vertigo. Its iconic spiral aesthetic dated back years earlier when Bass came across spiral diagrams by 19th-century French mathematician Jules-Antoine Lissajous. When asked to work on Vertigo, the idea clicked into place immediately. Mathematical theory found its way into an Alfred Hitchcock film poster, and who are we to argue with the results?

    A selection of Lissajous curve diagrams
    (Large preview)

    Having a specialization is obviously important in any field, but there is so much to be gained from stepping outside our lanes. Anyone with even a casual interest in web development has almost certainly found themselves needing a similarly protean approach — whether they wanted to or not.

    Screenshot of designer Tonya Baydina’s portfolio website homepage
    Sometimes websites need photography, others illustration, others geometry or video or data visualisation. You won’t know until you try. This is the portfolio website of designer Tonya Baydina. (Large preview)

    Engineering, design, UX, typography, copywriting, ethics, law… much like in architecture there are few fields that don’t enrich one’s understanding of web design, so don’t be afraid to immerse yourself in the unfamiliar. You just might find the perfect inspiration.

    Iterate, Collaborate

    Even the masters are students, always learning, always iterating, often collaborating. Bass of course had strong ideas about what form his projects ought to take, but it was not his way or the highway. Look no further than Stanley Kubrick’s feedback on potential posters for The Shining. The two went through hundreds of drafts together. In one letter Hitchcock wrote, “beautifully done but I don’t think any of them are right.”

    A rejected poster design for the Stanley Kubrick feature film ‘The Shining’
    (Large preview)

    One can only imagine how many hours Bass slaved over those mockups, but when you look at those rejected it’s hard to disagree with Kubrick; beautifully done, but not quite right. I think the final result was worth the work, don’t you?

    Poster for the Stanley Kubrick film ‘The Shining’
    (Large preview)

    We live and work in a largely corporate world. Like Bass, that doesn’t have to hamstring the things you make. Hold your ground when that’s what the moment calls for, but always be on the lookout for genuine partners. They are out there. The client isn’t always right, but they’re not always wrong either. Collaboration often brings out the best in a project, and even geniuses have to work like hell to get it right.

    There are few things more valuable than feedback from people you trust. It’s hard to beat that cool, communicative flow where egos and insecurities are out of the picture and it’s all about making the thing as good as it can be.

    Here are a couple of articles on iteration and experimentation in web design that I’ve really enjoyed working on:

    Beauty For Beauty’s Sake

    No-one dreams of doing corporate art, but Bass is a model example of excellence thriving in that world. Decades it still holds its own and is oftentimes genuinely beautiful. He showed better than most that designing for a living didn’t mean creativity couldn’t thrive. Whether you’re making brand logos or homepages there’s a lot to be said for creatives fighting their corner. You owe it to the work.

    Bass put it better than I ever could.

    “I want everything we do to be beautiful. I don’t give a damn whether the client understands that that’s worth anything, or that the client thinks it’s worth anything, or whether it is worth anything. It’s worth it to me. It’s the way I want to live my life. I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.”

    Everything else stems from this ethos, from beauty for beauty’s sake. From color to iteration to delight in the little details, Saul Bass showed the way for graphic and web designers alike. Be audacious, curious, and learning all the time. Make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.

    Smashing Editorial
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    web design

    What Vitruvius Can Teach Us About Web Design — Smashing Magazine


    About The Author

    Frederick O’Brien is a freelance journalist who conforms to most British stereotypes. His interests include American literature, graphic design, sustainable …
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    The ancients can teach us a thing or two about design — even web design. The Roman architect Vitruvius had buildings in mind when laying out his golden triad, but its principles are just as applicable to the web as they are to brick and mortar.

    There’s no escaping the ancient masters. Their shadows loom large over philosophy, literature, architecture, warfare, and… web design? Believe it or not, yes. Although Plato infamously omitted CSS Grid from from the final draft of The Republic, there is nonetheless plenty the old heads can teach us about web development.

    Today’s lecture is about architecture, and how some of its core tenets apply to the worldwide web. Architectural terms are not unusual in web development, and for good reason. In many ways, web developers are digital architects. This piece will focus on Vitruvius, a Roman architect, and how his principles can and should be applied to websites.

    This will focus in particular on the Vitruvian triad, three qualities essential to any building: durability (firmitas) , usefulness (utilitas), and beauty (venustas). Familiarity with these terms — and what they mean in practice — will help make your website better.


    Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was a Roman architect, civil engineer, and author who lived during the first century BC. He is remembered mainly for his writings on architecture, De architectura. Addressing the then emperor Augustus, Vitruvius outlines his thoughts on architectural theory, history, and methods.

    Drawing of Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio
    Vitruvius posing for a LinkedIn headshot. (Large preview)

    De architectura is the only treatise on architecture to survive from antiquity, and remains a design touchstone to this day. As you could probably guess, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man was inspired by Vitruvius’s writings about proportion.

    For those of you interested in going down an architecture rabbit hole, the full text of De architecture is available for free on Project Gutenberg. This piece will not attempt to summarise the whole book. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, there’d be an awful lot to cover. Second, I haven’t totally lost sight of the fact this is a web design magazine. We will be honing in on the Vitruvian triad, a standard for design that applies well beyond architecture.

    The ancients had a knack for reducing topics to their bare — you might say elemental — essentials. The Vitruvian triad is one such case. There are other architects worth studying, other design theories worth being familiar with, but Vitruvius offers a particularly neat ABC that applies just as well to the web as it does to temples.

    The Vitruvian Triad

    In De architectura, Vitruvius identified three qualities essential to any piece of architecture. In the centuries since they have established themselves as his ‘golden rules.’ If you want to make Vitruvius happy — which of course you do — whenever you make a thing you should strive to make it:

    • Useful (utilitas)
    • Durable (firmitas)
    • Beautiful (venustas)

    Designing with these three things in mind will elevate your work. Having one of these qualities is nice; having two is good; and having all three together is divine. Divine seems like the best option. Let’s break down what each of the three qualities mean in principle, then how they can be applied to web design.

    Useful (utilitas)

    In principle

    Buildings are designed and erected for a reason. Whatever that purpose is, it should always be an architect’s mind. If the structure does not meet its purpose then odds are it isn’t going to be very useful. A theatre with no stage has rather dropped the ball, for example.

    According to Vitruvius, usefulness will be assured “when the arrangement of the apartments is faultless and presents no hindrance to use, and when each class of building is assigned to its suitable and appropriate exposure.”

    You’ve heard this one before, albeit with different language. Vitruvius is the granddaddy of harping on about how form should follow function. Louis Sullivan, the ‘father of skyscrapers’, coined that particular term in 1896. Sullivan supposedly attributed the idea back to Vitruvius, although documentation of this is dubious. In any case, that’s what utilitas boils down to.

    Photograph of the old Public Library of Cincinnati
    Purpose: Library. All clear? (Large preview)

    Different types of buildings have different requirements. A building designed with these requirements as an afterthought will likely disappoint. This may sound obvious, but there are enough white elephants in this world to warrant caution. Labyrinthine shopping centres and highly conductive metal domes in playgrounds may look cool in investor presentations, but they don’t wind up being terribly useful.

    Screenshot of New York Times news article about a playground lawsuit
    Don’t be the playground designer whose playground gives children second-degree burns. Full story in The New York Times. (Large preview)

    This also means the individual parts of a structure should be logically connected. In other words, they should be simple to access and navigate. If a building is useful and easy to use that’s a very good start.


    Utilitas also applies to web design. Every website has a purpose. That purpose may be practical, like a search engine or weather forecast, or it may be artistic, like an interactive story or graphic design portfolio. Whatever it is, it has a reason to exist, and if it is designed with that reason in mind it is more likely to be useful to anyone who visits the site.

    An encyclopedia you would expect to be easy to search and navigate, with cleanly presented and properly cited information. Wikipedia, for example, ticks all of those boxes. It is the web equivalent of an enormous library, right down to the obscure sections and staff bickering behind the scenes. It was built with usefulness front and center, and so its core design has remained consistent in the years since its founding.

    Alternatively, the purpose of a publication is to produce original content that is of value or interest to its readers. To be useful, a website’s publication would present said content in a vibrant and direct way, paying special attention to the reading experience across various devices. A website with wonderful content and bad design undermines its own usefulness.

    Homepage screenshot of The Guardian newspaper
    The Guardian is a newspaper. It’s purpose is to report the news. Its award-winning website doesn’t faff around with slogans or spectacle; it packs it full of content. (Large preview)

    A clear purpose leads to clear design. If a purpose has you pulling in several different directions then the same will be true of the website. You can’t be all things to all people, and it is pointless to try. Usefulness tends to meet specific needs, not all needs.

    When it comes to usefulness you can’t afford to treat websites as something abstract. Like buildings, websites are visited and used by people, and ought to be designed with them in mind above all others. Investors, advertisers, and all the other sordid actors will have their time, but if you let them in too early a site’s usefulness will be compromised. When a publication breaks up articles across multiple pages purely to inflate traffic numbers, its usefulness is reduced. When an e-commerce platform seems more concerned with shoving you down conversion funnels than with providing honest information about its products, its usefulness is reduced. In such cases, the purpose has become secondary, and the design suffers as a result.

    Homepage screenshot of the DuckDuckGo search engine
    We recognise the hallmarks of search engine design just like we recognise theatres, libraries, or sport stadiums. Their forms are shaped around their function. (Large preview)

    Also, like buildings, websites should be easy to navigate. Ensuring the usefulness of a website requires thorough planning. Where the architect has floor plans and models, the web developer has sitemaps, wireframes, and more. These allow us to identify layout problems early and address them.

    Looking at the design through different lenses is especially important here. Does the palette account for colour blindness and cultural differences? Colours mean different things in different places, after all. Is it easy to browse using keyboards and screen readers? Not everyone navigates the web the same way you do. Surely it’s better to be useful to as many people as possible? There is no good excuse for websites not to be both accessible and inclusive.

    Durable (firmitas)

    In principle

    Firmitas boils down to the idea that things should be built to last. A fantastically useful structure that topples over after a couple of years would be widely regarded as a failure. A well-made building can last for centuries, even millenniums. Ironically, none of Vitruvius’s own buildings survive, but the point still stands.

    This principle encompasses more aspects of architecture than might immediately come to mind.

    Durability will be assured when foundations are carried down to the solid ground and materials wisely and liberally selected.
    — Vitruvius

    In other words, choose your destination carefully, lay deep foundations, and use appropriate materials.

    Photograph of the Great Wall of China
    With some sections well over 2,000 years old, it’s safe to say the Great Wall of China was built to last. Photograph by Andrea Leopardi. (Large preview)

    We all instinctively understand longevity is a mark of good design. It reflects quality materials, meticulous planning, and loving maintenance. The Pantheon in Rome, or the Great Wall of China, are testaments to durable design, renowned as much for their longevity as for their majesty.

    The principle also concerns environmental factors. Are buildings designed with due thought to the strains of weather, earthquakes, erosion, etc.? If not, it may not be a building for long…

    Footage of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge shortly before its collapse
    The Tacoma Narrows Bridge has its durability put to the test after engineers cut corners on cost. Spoiler: it collapsed.

    It’s reassuring to know you can count on a structure not collapsing for a while, and in the long run, it usually winds up being cheaper. A durable building sits on strong foundations and uses materials appropriate to its purpose and its environment. Buildings that aren’t designed to last are typically glorified film sets. Before long, they are rubble.


    Time seems to pass much faster on the web, but the principle of firmitas still applies. Given the endless turbulence of online life it makes sense to plant your flag in something sturdy. Out of the three qualities, it is the one least visible to users, but without it, everything else would fall apart.

    This starts with under the hood considerations. The foundations must be strong. Where will the website go? Is the content management system the right fit? Can your web hosting provider handle the expected traffic (and more) and still run smoothly? As anyone who has migrated from one CMS to another can tell you, it’s worth getting it right the first time if possible.

    A generic error message for websites with server issues
    This is what a crumbling website looks like. (Large preview)

    There is also the longevity of the web technologies you’re using. New frameworks may seem like a good idea at the time, but if a site needs to be around for years it may make sense to fall back on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, as well as universally supported SEO markups like structured data. As in architecture, building things to last often means using established materials rather than newfangled ones.

    Durability extends to design. Web pages have to bend and stretch and warp in ways that would make architects weep. A responsive website is a durable website. As new devices — foldables, for example — and markups enter come at us, websites need to be able to take them in stride. Architects don’t get to cross their arms and sulk about earthquakes, so why should web designers shy away from the hazards of the web? Great design faces up to environmental challenges; it doesn’t avoid them.

    As a site grows its users will become familiar with its design. The more that happens the more of a headache it is to make wholesale changes. If a site is designed carefully from the start then renovations are more likely than rebuilds, and the appearance remains familiar even when it is updated. In this sense, a site’s durability is helped immeasurably by clear purpose. That in itself is a kind of bedrock, helping to keep sites sturdy in times of change. Even the best sites need updates from time to time.

    Homepage screenshot of Smashing Magazine website
    Smashing Magazine’s 2017 redesign solidified behind the scenes elements like content management, job boards, and ecommerce while keeping the front-end character familiar. (Large preview)

    There is also the question of sustainability. Is due attention being paid to the commercial realities of the site? In other words, where is the box office? Be it paywalls, advertising, or membership systems, there’s no shame in incorporating these into the design process. They are not a site’s purpose, but they help make it durable.

    Beautiful (venustas)

    In principle

    As Vitruvius says, “the eye is always in search of beauty.” It is a perfectly legitimate quality to aim for.

    According to De architectura, beauty occurs “when the appearance of the work is pleasing and in good taste, and when its members are in due proportion according to correct principles of symmetry.”

    As well as being useful and well made, buildings ought also to be pleasing to the eye. Some may even touch the heart.

    An illustration for Vitruvius’s writings on architecture
    If you want to design a good temple, Vitruvius is useful for that, too. (Large preview)

    Vitruvius outlines several qualities that help make buildings beautiful. Symmetry and proportion were of particular interest to him (hence Da Vinci’s Vitruvuian Man). Obsessively incorporating shapes into everything predates graphic design by a few millennia.

    Each element of a structure should be considered in relation to others near it, as well as to the environment that it is being built. Vitruvius sums up this interplay with one word: eurythmy, a Greek term for harmonious rhythm. (British pop duo Eurythmics drew their name from the same term, in case you were wondering.) Vitruvius defines it in an architectural context as follows:

    Eurythmy is beauty and fitness in the adjustments of the members. This is found when the members of a work are of a height suited to their breadth, of a breadth suited to their length, and, in a word, when they all correspond symmetrically.

    Like music, buildings have rhythm; their individual pieces forming into a kind of harmony. A beautiful building might be the carved marble equivalent of a Beach Boys chorus, while an ugly one is like nails on a chalkboard.

    An example of McMansion Hell critiquing shoddy architecture
    For those curious what beautiful architecture doesn’t look like, McMansion Hell is a good place to start. (Large preview)

    As well as being well proportioned and symmetrical, individual pieces can enhance beauty in other ways. Good craftsmanship is beautiful, as is attention to detail. Materials appropriate to the structure are also beautiful — reflecting the sound judgment and good taste of the designer.

    Ornamentation is acceptable, but it must complement the core design of the structure — think column engravings, paving patterns, etc. All these little details and considerations amount to the building as a whole. When they all fall together, it’s breathtaking.


    Beautiful websites adhere to many of the same standards as architecture. Proportion and symmetry are mainstays of attractive design. Grid systems serve the same purpose of organizing content clearly and attractively. Beyond that, there are questions of color, typography, imagery, and more, all of which feed into a website’s beauty — or lack thereof.

    To get the ball rolling, here are a handful of resources on Smashing Magazine alone:

    An aspect of venustas that is especially relevant to web design is how users can interact with it. As well as being nice to look at, websites have the potential to be playful, even surprising. It’s one thing to sit there and be admired, it’s another to invite visitors to become part of the beauty.

    Screenshot of Bruno Simon’s portfolio website
    Bruno Simon’s portfolio website invites visitors to drive around using their arrow keys. (Large preview)

    Google’s interactive doodles are another good — and less daunting — example of this. Covering all manner of subjects, they invite users to play games, to learn, and to be entertained. It’s nice in its own right, and aligns with Google’s purpose as a source of information.

    Example of a Google Doodle
    Ironically, this is just a GIF of an interactive thing rather than the interactive thing itself, but you can see the full doodle and details of its making here. (Large preview)

    With the web continuing its shift towards mobile-first experience, in which users can literally touch the websites they visit, it should be remembered that beauty pertains to all the senses — not just sight.

    As for the ‘environment’, with web design that is the device it is being displayed on. Unlike buildings, websites don’t have the luxury of being one shape at all times. To be beautiful they must be responsive, shifting size and proportion to compliment the device. This is pleasing on its own, and done well the shape shifting itself becomes beautiful in its own way.

    A Balancing Act

    Vitruvius’s rules of utilitas, firmitas, and venustas have endured because they work, and they have endured as a triad because they work best together. Attaining all three is a balancing act. If they pull in different directions then the quality of whatever is being made will suffer. Beautiful but unuseable is poor design, for example. On the flip side, when they work together the result can be far greater than the sum of their parts.

    As with architecture this requires a bird’s eye view. The pieces cannot be done one at a time, they must be done with the others in mind.

    The architect, as soon as he has formed the conception, and before he begins the work, has a definite idea of the beauty, the convenience, and the propriety that will distinguish it.
    — Vitruviuas

    No doubt the details will change, but the harmony should not.

    This extends to the people making a website. As with architecture websites typically have to balance the wants of a client, an architect, and a builder — not to mention investors, financiers, statisticians, and so on. For a website to be harmonious, so do the people responsible for building it.

    None of this is to say that the three qualities are equally important regardless of the project — only that each should be given due thought in relation to the others. The usefulness of the Eiffel Tower seems fairly trivial, as does the beauty of the Hoover Dam, and that’s fine. If a website is made to be ornamental or temporary, it doesn’t have to be more than that. The natures of utilitas, firmitas, and venustas themselves change depending on the project. Like most rules worth following, don’t be afraid to bend — or even break — them when the mood takes you.

    My Website Is A Temple

    Web developers are the architects of the Internet, and websites are their buildings. Vitruvius makes a point of saying architects are not — and indeed cannot be — experts in every field. Instead, they are jacks of all trades (my phrasing, not his). For the triad to be achieved it is better to have a good grasp of many subjects than expertise in one:

    Let him be educated, skillful with the pencil, instructed in geometry, know much history, have followed the philosophers with attention, understand music, have some knowledge of medicine, know the opinions of the jurists, and be acquainted with astronomy and the theory of the heavens.

    The relevance of some of these is obvious, others less so, but it’s all valuable to architects and web developers alike. Geometry informs proportion and layout; history puts designs in context and ensures they are understood as they are meant to be; philosophy helps us to approach projects honestly and ethically; music awakens us to the role of sound; medicine gives thought to accessibility, and potential strains on the eye, ear, or even thumb; and law looms larger now than ever. The theory of the heavens might be a stretch, but you get the idea.

    Here are yet more links to help you on your way:

    Not that theory alone will get you there. There’s no substitute for learning through doing. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, “the Vitruvian picture of architecture is rooted in experiential knowledge of making, doing, and crafting.” Or better yet, as Vitruvius himself puts it: “Knowledge is the child of practice and theory.”

    The Vitruvian triad is a worthy standard to use whether you’re building a coliseum or a portfolio website. Not everyone has the luxury of (or budget for) a team of experts, and even if we did, why deny ourselves of the breadth of knowledge that strong design requires? We can build Levittown or we can build Rome, and everything in between. A useful, durable, beautiful Internet sounds like a good deal to me.

    Smashing Editorial
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