Last week I was at DIG London, in London, Ontario. It's normally a gaming conference, but they've added a web track and asked me to come speak. It was a fairly good experience, helped in part by their keynote, the infamous Jeffrey Zeldman talking about responsive design and related topics.
One of the points Zeldman made was that users want content their way, not the way we (web designers, web authors, and web devleopers) want it. Visually impared users want content read to them, or resized. Color blind users want a different color scheme that they can actually read. Smartphone users want content in a narrow column, without a dozen sidebar blocks. Mobile users want content offline, so they can read it on a plane. Many users want just the content, no design, and so use tools like Instapaper to strip out everything but the text of an article. RSS feeds have been around for a decade, and are now growing rapidly thanks to mobile devices, and those are generally (mostly) layout-free. If you're doing responsive design, then you're not making a design but the framework of a design that will change, and possibly mostly disappear, under certain circumstances.
Of course, that to me begs a very important question. When I asked it during Q&A, even Zeldman didn't have an answer. (Yes, I stumped the King of Web Standards. Woohoo!)
In the modern web, does web design even matter?
Of course, what qualifies as web design is an open question. Some, like Mark Boulton, argue that it encompasses everything from copywriting to IA to graphic design. Long-time web standards gurus, and most web engineers, would argue that content and presentation should, duh, be separated. (HTML and CSS, PHP and templates, etc.) For the moment, however, I am looking specifically at graphic visual design and layout of web pages. Good copywriting and good IA are still important to any site, regardless of the user agent.
Sure, we want content to be "presentable". We want it to "look good". And the artiste in us all wants to show off how good we are at making things look good and presentable.
Sure, we need space for ads, because on many sites that's how they make money. But users have been going out of their way to remove those for years, and we're struggling to figure out how to make ads work in a small-screen responsive design.
But really, users don't care about how good of an artiste we are. Users don't care that we have ads we have to show to pay for things. Users care about content, and they want it now.
Responsive design principles say to give up on total control over the page; the screen will be the size the screen will be, and you just have to learn to deal with it and adapt (er, respond, whatever). But take that only one step further, and your content may not even be in your design in the first place. RSS feeds, Instapaper, browsers that let users vary the color scheme or font size, these have all been on the market for a while and will be growing fast. Most of the phone-sized designs that I've seen that have actually worked have been barely any design at all beyond a tiny header banner. And of course that ever-important user, the search engine, doesn't care about your design in the slightest and is usually better off if you don't bother with it at all.
So for the sake of argument, I will make the following claim: Graphic design on the web is dead. User choice and user freedom is in the process of killing it, and will kill it. Fancy graphic designs will eventually fade out the way table-based layout did, because they will become increasingly irrelevant to most users. Users will circumvent them or simply ignore them, and it will eventually become simply not worth the investment to bother designing something that fewer and fewer users will ever see.
Instead, we should be focusing our efforts on things that will matter: Solid IA; Natural and obvious navigation structure; Content people actually want; Semantic indicators, be it HTML5, Aria, RDF, microformats, or whatever is cool this week; And just enough layout design so that those users still using a desktop browser don't think we forgot about them entirely, even if they will be a minority.
In short, focus on the data, not the presentation. The user will control the presentation, not us. Give the customer what they want, which is data, not an opportunity to marvel at how good a color choice we made or if our vertical rhythm is off.
*dons flame retardant suit*