Alex Burr

Desktop Publishing: The Anti-Web

Originally published Thursday, June 30, 2011

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The desktop publishing movement set back web development by at least ten years.

My esteemed colleague Robert Kostin has recently quoted this mantra in a Facebook group, adding “I think I’m starting to understand exactly what those words mean now.” I am humbled to be cited in a (semi-) public forum, and the quotation caused me to consider revisiting that argument for a wider audience.

Now, let me be clear that I by no means think desktop publishing is inherently bad. I support any innovation that takes something that is complicated, difficult and expensive and makes it simple, accessible and affordable. I love changes that open channels for people to create, whether it is design, art, music, prose, or programming. That’s what the internet (and the computer) is all about—removing barriers of time, space and cost. Likewise there are some very talented designers and communicators that have built a successful career utilizing these tools.

However with the good always comes the not-so-good. For every musical genius that is able to craft a rock masterpiece in Garage Band, there are twenty cretins churning out unlistenable MIDI files (I’ve been there). For ultimately software is a tool, and knowing how to wield a hammer does not a carpenter make. The talent and understanding of the craft are what produce quality output.

Enter desktop publishing. While some of this software is very useful in the hands of skilled designers and copysetters, the average Joe is now able to produce documents, fliers and pamphlets that previously took large amounts of investment to publish. And this is not inherently a bad thing, as I mentioned.

Unfortunately the long-term result is that average Joe now confuses the skill vs. toolset issue. In many a Joe’s mind, the creative process that a skilled designer follows is the same one Joe follows at home: Fire up Word, paste in some clipart, and hit the Print button. For this reason I would guess that the graphic design industry hit challenges as desktop publishing took off: Suddenly Jim doesn’t want to pay your firm to do anything professional because his brother Joe “can design this flier at home; he has Word.”

So the tradeoff is that while there is an increase in number of published products, the overall quality goes down while the skilled craftsmen find it increasingly difficult to justify their work. In short, commoditization of the tools falsely implied a commoditization of the talent.

This problem compounds in the web world. Development of a website is a strategic project, not a task to be completed. Basic questions about things like Goals and Content Strategy and Conversion need to be asked in order for a project to proceed with proper direction. Designing a single flier or brochure takes talent enough alone, but a website requires another layer of planning as it is multiple pages and presentations all linked together. There is a level of experience design that must be in place.

Unfortunately, early in the days of the web many software vendors attempted to provide content management solutions by applying a desktop publishing model to the web. Products such as FrontPage and Dreamweaver reinforced the idea that if you could type up some text, make it bold and move it to a position on the screen with your mouse, you were a web developer. In short these products were desktop publishing tools that saved to a web server, with the output as HTML instead of some sort of proprietary file format. The really bad news is that these products would sacrifice the integrity of the output in order to maintain what the creator saw on the screen (WYSIWYG, also known as GIGO).

Long term the role of “developer” or “designer” became confused with “FrontPage operator”. And developers/designers (and their respective companies and agencies) fight the “I’ll do it at home on FrontPage” battle on a major scale. Simultaneously, as the toolset has expanded and become more complicated the “operator” type web worker has become resistant. The introduction of larger web CMS applications, for example, forces users to think about the structure and the function of their content as data, rather than as elements to move around on a page visually (this is a simple application of separation of concerns). Users that are unable to take a higher-level, abstract approach to content become overwhelmed quickly and revealed as the non-ideal person for the job. Obviously this is can create a lot of conflict within a customers’ organization and perceived difficulties generated by the web development team.

Internal production groups within large companies perhaps have the hardest time with this. They are never in a position to educate, or charge additional fees for undoing poor work, since the customers are usually also their bosses, and the “FrontPagers” their colleagues.

The tools have increased in a quality and scope in recent years, but it cannot be forgotten that a tool is not talent, and software is not experience. As the story goes:

Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.

“It’s you—Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”

So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”

“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.

“B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”

To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”