Nico Macdonald | Spy   Communication, facilitation, research and consultancy around design and technology

British Web Design: a brief history
September 2004
A chapter on the influence of British graphic design on the Web for Rick Poynor’s book ‘Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties’, which accompanies an exhibition that began at the Barbican Art Gallery in London and toured worldwide

102 Seddon House
Barbican, London
United Kingdom
[was 103 Seddon House]

 Online map (from Google)


‘British Web Design: a brief history’ in Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties Rick Poynor (ed.) (Laurence King, 2004) [] (Yale University Press, 2005) [, including Search Inside This Book and page images]

Acrobat facsimile of this chapter [copy- and print-protected, 3.2 MB]


I have written a chapter on the impact of British graphic design on design for the Web. It appears in a book, edited by Rick Poynor and published by Laurence King, accompanying an exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery (London) that ran from 16 September 2004–23 January 2005, and went on to tour to the USA and South East Asia. The exhibition explores the last forty years of developments in British graphic design, focusing on the smaller independent studios and teams that are credited with producing the most creative, innovative and highly regarded design work over the past four decades.

I look at a number of themes including: the influence of graphic design aesthetics and typography, the transition (and failure to transition) of designers and design companies, and the impact of graphic design process and client disposition. Many key industry figures agreed to be interviewed by me for the chapter.

A digital copy of the printed chapter is available (see above). It may be possible to publish the chapter text, if requested. Notes and references (which are not published in the printed chapter) can be found below.

Related articles

A graphic lesson for digital design

Seeking publication

I have drafted an article in which I argue that the rapid development of design for the Web, and interaction design in general, allows us to look at the discipline of graphic design in a new way, but also that Web and interaction design need graphic design more than ever. I am looking for a title that would be interested in publishing it.

In with the New

Nico Macdonald, Creative Review, September 2004

My reflection on the relationship of British graphic design to design for the Web. I argue that, surprisingly, British graphic designers have has held new media at arms length, and the people who have lead the discipline have come from everywhere but graphic design. This contrasts starkly with the history of US new media design, and I investigate the related factors. I argue that British graphic design (rather than designers) has influenced Web design, and that as new media goes beyond the Web the input of British graphic designers is needed more than ever.

British Evasion

Nico Macdonald, PRINT, November/December 2004

Why have British graphic designers failed to embrace interactive media while US designers often lead the way? I argue for a number of causes: techno-fear, obsession with branding and esthetics; inability of graphic designers to re-apply their (unconscious) understanding of design process; lack of appreciation for technical collaborators; and the disinterest of the design media and bodies. I conclude that if British designers are serious about making a difference with design as well as bringing design to centre stage in society they will need to get to grips with design for interactive media.

Weblog posts linking to the exhibition page can be found via Technorati.

‘Dots and Loops’ Review of Communicate book. Jim Davies, PRINT Magazine, Mar/Apr 2005, pp164-165

The eye of the curator’ Review of Communicate exhibition. Jan Middendorp, Eye, Issue 55, Spring 2005 [extract only published online]

Exhibitions ‘State of Independence’ Alex Cameron and Kelly Al-Saleh, Blueprint, November 2004, page 105. Cameron and Al-Saleh consider the section of the exhibition that focuses on the idea of the politically committed designer. “There is no doubting the commitment of [Robin] Fior, or others like Ken Garland and his posters for CND. We do not doubt it at all. What has to be questioned is the notion that it was their commitment to these ideas that made their work so effective. It is idea behind the poster, combined with their commitment to effective design, that made the final work successful... [Much contemporary work] lacks the power of a contested idea... Theirs was an era of big politics and big ideas that were contested in the public arena. Today, the ideas of our generation are based on the politics of anti-politics – more personal grievance than political outlook.”

Communicate debateCreative Review, November 2004. [Subscription may be required] The Barbican’s graphic design show, Communicate, left designer Quentin Newark with some questions: he emails them to curator, Rick Poynor. [Discusses the nature of what constitutes indepdent graphic design, and how the exhibition selection was made.] Quentin Newark You chose not to explain each piece, or group of pieces, in detail with a caption – a practice increasingly common in historical art shows. I think this makes the show quite hard to navigate, certainly very difficult to see the older pieces in any kind of context. What message do you think they can draw from it? Rick Poynor An exhibition is a chance – often a first chance – to look at, engage with, and savour actual things. Many of the items in Communicate feature text which helps to explain them fairly quickly, anyway – it’s communication design, after all. The exhibits have also been selected and grouped to help shed light on each other. [Discusses the significance of the exhibition to non-designers and its cultural significance. Concludes on how to present a representative picture of this kind of design.]

‘Words and pictures’ Rick Poynor, Blueprint, October 2004. Argues that, compared to architecture, product and furniture design, “graphic design receives almost no serious coverage in the mainstream media”. “The only way to address his is to stop gorging ourselves on images, which is too easy, and put the emphasis back on writing that genuinely illuminates the subject. Graphic design is a form of popular culture and it should be possible to write about it incisively and accessibly for the widest audience.” [not published online]

Drawing our conclusions’ Rick Poynor, The Times, September 15, 2004 [free subscription required]

‘Declaration of Independence’ Rick Poynor, Creative Review, September 2004, pp44-46 [not published online]

The graphic grab’ Rick Poynor, Guardian Weekend magazine, August 28, 2004. From record covers to road signs, posters to packaging, graphics and typography touch every area of our lives. Forget fine art, Rick Poynor argues: it’s design that is at the core of 21st-century visual culture.

Barbican Art Gallery talk

As part of a series of talks and seminars related to Communicate, on 8 December I will be discussing ‘4D Space: From Aesthetics to Interaction in Web Design’, along with a presentation by Vassilios Alexiou, interaction director at Less Rain entitled ‘Vandal Squad and Other Stories’. The entire programme, including links to online booking is worth reviewing.

Interact1 at the London Colledge of Communication

The London College of Communication planned a parallel series of events and an exhibition, under the banner Interact1, looking forward to the future of graphic design. These events were complementary to the Communicate exhibition. I convened and chaired a panel on ‘The future shape of graphic design and visual communication’ as part of this initiative.

Notes and references

1., a sports and outdoor fashion-inspired retailer, was a victim of poor performance more than poor design. As the site launch date loomed, it was decided that it would be quicker to add site functionality on the client side. The upshot was that pages downloaded more slowly but, more importantly, processing the page code slowed the client browser considerably, and its complexity generated more errors than ‘flat’ HTML.

2. ‘Boo’s Demise’ Jakob Nielsen, AlertBox, May 2000

3. Interaction design addresses the means by which users input changes to an IT system – including the Web – and feedback is supplied by the system to the user. Interface design considers this challenge in the context of software, and additionally considers the presentation of the user’s working space. For background on interaction design see the UK Design Council resource ‘About: Interaction Design’

4. Hypertext Markup Language describes the codes for formatting documents to be displayed by a Web browser, and the structure documents need to follow. Many applications allow HTML documents to be authored more easily using visual interfaces though from an engineering perspective the code produced may need work to optimise.

5. A blipvert is the equivalent of the interstitial advertising 'stings' used in television to bumper between a programme and the adverts. They tend to be animated, appear briefly, and may include audio. As with television, on the Web a user is required to see the blipvert before moving onto their intended destination, unlike banner ads, which they can choose whether or not to select.

6. For more on this period in the UK, and the trend for self-initiated projects, see ‘How to untangle the Web Blueprint’ Nico Macdonald, Blueprint, December 1996 See also the transcripts of the Design Agenda-Central Saint Martins MA Communication Design conference ‘Designing the Internet: When Digital Design Demands Analogue Thinking’, London, 1996.

7. The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction (SIGCHI) conferences began in the early Eighties.

8. A plug-in is a third party addition to a browser that can be installed independently and adds functionality, for instance accessing data in the Flash file format.

9. For an overview of digital art projects see New Media Art: Practice and Context in the UK 1994-2004 (Arts Council of England and Cornerhouse, 2004)

10. Studios created by Deepend alumni include Re-collective, Poke, De-construct, and Playerthree

11. For more on the fallout for design from the end of the boom see ‘After the Fall’ Nico Macdonald, AIGA Gain, Vol. 1, Number 2, 2001

12. ibid.

13. ibid.

14. While this is an important cultural difference it is rooted in the differing balance of UK and US economies. The US is the home of corporations, many of which are dominant in the UK. The US is still more manufacturing-based and focuses on product innovation and price, while the UK is more focused on packaging and the retailing experience.

15. Vector-based graphics started with Adobe Illustrator and have been quite influential for years. This has been accentuated by Flash as its movies are distributed online for all to see.

16. Already graphical user interface design and Web design are merging. Much user interface design draws on Web interaction models – hypertext links and single clicks – and interfaces to products such as Macromedia Dreamweaver and many Microsoft products are rendered in HTML.

Interviewees and contributors

Vassilios Alexiou, Less Rain / Ranzie Anthony, Tonic Design Limited / Timo Arnall / Tricia Austin, Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design / Nikki Barton, Nykris Digital Design Limited / Mike Bennett / Durrell Bishop, IDEO / Andrew Boag, Boag Associates / Danny Brown / Anthony Burrill, Friendchip / Alex Cameron, YMCA England / Tom Coates / Sam Collett, Lateral Net Ltd / Kieran Evans, CC-Lab / Tom Evans, Mook / Darryl Feldman / Max Gadney, BBC News Online / Bill Galloway, Butterfly Effect / Gonzalo Garcia-Perate, Artificial Tourism / Robin Grant, Tribal DDB / Jonathan Hirsch / Matt Jones, Nokia / Heath Kane, Heath Kane Design / Michael Lenz / Steven McGrew / Dorian Moore / Damon Murray, Fuel / Hilla Neske / Frances O’Reilly, Recollective Ltd / Matt Patterson / Martyn Perks / David Rainbird, Fibre / Giles Rollestone, Urban Feedback / Nik Roope, Poke / Tom Roope, Tomato / Jack Schulze / Andrew Skinner / James Stevens, Backspace / David Warner, Oyster Partners / Lorenzo Wood, Oyster Partners

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Nico Macdonald | Spy 2005