Images aren’t just there for decoration; they have meaning too – so make sure your choices have context, says James Fenton
This article first appeared in issue 235 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.
There is an oft-repeated mantra within the web design industry that ‘content is king’, and without meaningful content design is reduced merely to decorative ornament. Most of us understand the purpose of design, not simply as a way of beautifying things but to communicate in the most accessible, readable and usable way possible.
A good designer strives to understand their medium of choice, on both a technical (constraints and standards) and a psychological (the needs of their users) level. Over time we’ve seen and participated in the web’s evolution, and laid the foundations for a future-friendly platform on which we can build and develop. The diversity of user needs and choice in how they consume has meant a redistilling of the web back to its origins as a flexible and wide-reaching medium for sharing information. Chunks of raw data – be they text, images or audio/visual – are packaged, distributed and repurposed, enabling users to choose how information is delivered to them.
Despite the obvious benefits of this knowledge distribution, there are compromises to be made. By treating our content as packets of data, which can be repurposed and compiled in endless ways, we must sacrifice the control of its presentation and design. The result is putting a great strain on the contextual relationship between text and image.
Words and pictures have shared an intimate relationship for millennia, and play a significant role in our cultures. As children we learn to read by making associations between words and pictures, developing a broad visual vocabulary. As our education progresses we learn to interpret these visual metaphors, conventions and cultural references, which in turn aid our understanding and navigation of a vast world of information.
As graphic designer and educator Ellen Lupton said, “One of design’s most humane functions is, in actuality, to help readers avoid reading.” This means that the way information is presented and illustrated adds new levels of understanding and meaning. Imagine how incomprehensible popular science would be to the masses without iconic visualisations such as DNA’s double helix, or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland without John Tenniel’s famous illustrations. Visual content plays as important a part in accessibility and inclusiveness as the manner of its distribution.
Designing with data and context
Yet it’s also the role of designers and writers to make better choices with complementary content including photography and illustration, or even audio and video. Throwing in clichéd stock photography becomes meaningless when it can be viewed completely outside of context at its own URL. We must start treating our image choices as distinct chunks of content in their own right, ones that communicate an idea or story without full explanation. The example of the infographic perfectly demonstrates the role <img>s need to play in the future of the web – allowing them to have meaning and purpose whether viewed individually or as part of larger packet of content.
We can’t expect to have full control over the web, but designers need to relearn these methods and principles if they are to have any chance of creating predictable patterns in how content is displayed at point of delivery. They are nothing new, more a return to the original principles of the web and art direction of content.