The aim of this essay is to explain the basis of criticism of websites and relate it to art criticism. The composition is divided into several parts. In the first one I will try to define and explain the principles of art criticism. Second part will be dedicated to putting a connection between criticising websites and art itself. Finally, I would like to demonstrate how basis of art criticism can work for and be applied to web criticism. Included illustrations and photographs will help me present my point of view.
Principles of Art Criticism
Criticism can be defined as interpreting and evaluating (1). Investigation of any particular subject involves looking into a problem from a broader perspective. Yet analysing and making judgement on a piece of art requires additional knowledge in history and theory of art, philosophy or aesthetics. This leads to a conclusion that each matter should be examined within its own and suitable criteria. It is essential to describe and evaluate any artwork by putting it in the right context. Besides, any opinion should be supported by an adequate comment and examples, sometimes referred to corresponding philosophical and theoretical concepts (2).
Picture 1 – It’s easy. It’s not art, it’s table – available online
From my point of view, a professional opinion about art cannot be limited to a single statement that something is a good or bad piece of art. I believe that an interpretation of artwork always sounds more credible if it is based on logical and justified notions.
Art criticism fundament is to describe and comment on schools and individual works of art. It is the very first approach towards any artwork. Once the visual characteristics are defined, it is easier to make an interpretation and explain its possible connotations. All these basic factors help settling one’s point of view. This stage of criticism leads to the analysis, which purpose is to situate an evaluated object in the right context. Artists and artworks they create are connected to a certain background, trend, society. They might also be related to other pieces of art. Defining properly the visual and contextual aspects gives a good overview of the evaluated work of art. It illustrates the overall concept of an object, which I think it is crucial before making a judgement. In a good art critique, expressing a point of view should include giving reasons and grounds of one’s opinion (3).
To sum up, before making any criticism it would be useful to adopt a following framework that consists of four steps: describe, analyse, interpret, judge (4). It is worth keeping it in mind as it adds a logical structure to the critique. To me it also allows to systematise opinion of the person that is making criticism. Moreover, this framework points out the relation between each step. Thorough description, analysis, interpretation and, finally, judgement all together constitute an excellent critique, in fact not only the one that is written about art.
There are also various approaches to art criticism. Each of them situates a piece of art in a different context that defines the direction of analysis and judgement. The art criticism perspective can be: sociological, psychological, semiotical, historical etc (5). All these contexts attempt to relate an object to a certain background. There is also a tendency to consider artwork separately from other outside factors. New Criticism (although name may seem a bit out of date; it appeared in Reid’s book published in 1969) “stresses the uniqueness of each work” (6). In this approach interpretation is more based on visual and emotional experience that is provided by a piece of art.
I believe the decision which art criticism approach and path to choose is also an individual decision – a single person that criticises always adds some of their personality to comments and judgements.
Towards Web Criticism – web design as a possibility to extend the borders of art
Is web design art? With regards to its quite recent development, I think it is still difficult to say and, on the other hand, I would rather not be so firm and would not call every website either art or rubbish. Definitely web design is related to digital art, it has got also a lot to do with graphic design. It also uses different media to create a complex look and layout. If websites have at least a few things in common with art itself, I am sure we can base web criticism on art criticism and apply some of the principles mentioned above. Furthermore, internet is also a new space for presenting art and undoubtedly has been influencing it since the beginning.
When famous philosopher and art theorist, Walter Benjamin, claimed that nowadays artworks loose their aura because of commonness of reproduction (7), he also saw the benefits of those media which diffuse art. To him web and internet could appear as a “fairly democratic space. It has opened the productive forces of society so that almost anyone can participate” (8).
According to Marshall McLuhan’s global village theory, Internet and World Wide Web work as a common space (9) where everyone can share anything with anyone, where plenty of various information can be found, very often for free. However, there in also an ambiguous aspect of this social virtual space. While we can easily communicate, comment, share news and data, at the same time all these actions are associated with a single user only. It is being in a common social area but standing on your own (10).
Anonymous user, a world where reality is being confused with virtual creation – these were Jean Baudrillard’s concerns about introducing Internet and technology to every aspect of our lives. He noticed that “cyberspace truly is a new form of absence” (11). However, Baudrillard also emphasised that web space can be a beneficial place for creativity and collective usage.
Internet is full of contradictions – associated with freedom in expressing oneself, it has limited access to some information. It offers new possibilities for each discipline but, at the same time, adds its own principles.
Art has got an influence on web space. There are plenty of web designs that are considered to be pretty and form our our tastes (I am sure also HTML and CSS codes can be created in a beautiful way and not only visual design). Although it is good when website design appeal to us, web pages judgement is also based on other criteria, for example designers take into consideration usability and readability issues.
Principles of Web Criticism – how the basis of criticising artworks can work for websites
The general definition of critique as interpretation and evaluation refers to any field. The principles of each analysis are still based on the same framework (describe – analyse – interpret – judge). The differences lies in some specific criteria that needs to be kept in mind while evaluating a specific object, in this case a website.
The overall evaluation of a web page should be based on viewing the whole site and expressing the general feel about it. It is rather a personal opinion. As websites are designed to appeal to a particular user, to me web criticism should be subjective. Inner, personal experience is always a good point of reference when it comes to observe how other people navigate through a site. Secondly, the evaluation should cover analysis of positive and negative aspects. This part of criticism gives the opportunity to take a closer look at various elements that are on a website. It is related to the other step which is giving feedback (12). To me it seems crucial to support each comment and judgement with an example or suggestion if something needs to be changed. Constructive criticism consists of stressing out both strong and weak points of a web page, justifying your opinion (13).
Image number 3 is a screen grab of Greenpeace International website. From my point of view the website gives a good first impression. The layout is logical, as well as the usage of colours – green perfectly matches with the pro-ecological profile of the organisation and orange is an excellent emphasis for action buttons. I also think the top grey background creates a nice separation between the header and main content sections.
I feel the top navigation is very clear and besides has got a pleasant drop-down menu. Greenpeace is a large worldwide, commonly known organisation and I must say I am impressed with the logical structure of the navigation. It makes the site easy to use.
In my opinion the way hero image is joined with headline gives the website a fresh, modern look. This is one of web design trends to show large, good quality images. Photographs can often say more than loads of words. Big image on a top banner that links to a “call to action” page seems to be a well implemented idea.
I also like the “donate” button on the sidebar. It has got matching, visible colour. It was created using sprite image and has got a very nice user’s feedback when hovering.
Verdana font gives a friendly look to the site. It is used in the eye-catching green headlines and calmer paragraph text in grey.
Unfortunately, it is noticeable that small images next to news, videos etc do not have the same dimensions. Even if they are aligned to the left, the copy on the right starts in different places, depending on the width of the corresponding picture. I do not consider this to be a good practice. It is better to read if text sits in similar places, so that when a user assumes a paragraph below will begin in a particular moment, it will actually be there.
I think there is also one more issue with the choice if green for header and footer. Whereas the shades of green at the top are vivid and pleasant to look at, the ones at the bottom do not go well together. To me there is too big contrast between each stripe. Moreover, I feel readability aspects weren’t properly considered then footer was designed. Font colours and the bad quality of social media icons assure me that this part of Greenpeace website should be redesigned. However, I like the idea of faded background image with animals.
In general I must admit I like the website because it looks professional and is easy to navigate. The overall information is arranged in a logical way. I think the only aspects I would reconsider the usage of large solid green blocks and make sure the grid is in its place in sections that are especially designed to make the user stay on our website.
Picture 6 – You Tube – homepage
I decided to choose You Tube website for the technical evaluation because it uses plenty of images and videos so loading time could be a problematic issue. However, page loads with the usual speed, even on mobile Internet connection. When it comes to harmonious colours, in fact it is difficult to say anything. You Tube is a website with movies inserted into a two-column layout. Links’ blue colour probably was a result of the idea to create an easy to navigate, intuitive page. This might also be the reason of the lack of any background colour or image. However, this could be also related to readability aspect – presenting movies’ thumbnails, each with its own colours, on white background helps the content stand out. Code seems to have some errors, mainly with scripts and the usage of special characters.
In my opinion the technical evaluation looks good. I didn’t notice any major issues that might cause difficulties in using this website.
Aesthetics and general design is also crucial when it comes to judging web pages. Usually this aspect it the first thing each user comments or evaluates before making a decision whether to stay or to move on to a competitor’s one. The design flow is very important in this part. If it has a logic behind the layout, it should be clear for the user to be able find it and follow. There are also more artistic websites that sometimes don’t have any grid. Nevertheless, the page still should have it clear where to take a person and which information should or should not be displayed at first glance. What is more, it is essential to keep consistency between images and text. Value of content is a point which plays a very important role in the evaluation process. Last matter is related to the usage of technology on a site, for example: jquery widgets, flashy boxes etc. Supportive technologies can add a modern, interesting look to a project. It is worth keeping in mind though that a website that is overloaded with movement or too different elements rather distracts than attracts (15).
Pretty Production is a website for Swedish design agency. I decided to present it in this section because of its unusual layout.
In fact this website finishes with the fold and continues width wise. All the elements that compose it follow the horizontal rule here. Our eye-sight is guided to the right by graphical elements. All the images have the same style and create consistency with text and light grey background. To me the design does not at all have too many moving elements. The technology use is limited. I believe this is why because of the atypical layout. To me it is enough replacing vertical scroll bar with the horizontal one.
Web criticism has got a lot in common with art criticism. This is because these two disciplines derive from the same root – to evaluate beautiful (or maybe not) objects that surround us. Although their principles are very similar, each of them has also got its own criteria which help judge an object. When criticising a website, we should remember that constructive critique always sounds better when it doesn’t only focus on negative items. I believe including positive comments and suggesting methods of improvement for those elements we didn’t like will probably make it easier to create beautiful designs and redesigns.
- Britannica Online Encyclopedia, Art Criticism, available online, accessed on 15th January 2011.
- Vigneron, Frank, What is Art Criticism?, p. 1, available online pdf, accessed on 15th January 2011.
- Reid, Louis Arnaud, Meaning in the Arts, Published London : George Allen & Unwin 1969, p. 19.
- Janice Mason Art Museum, Four Steps in Art Criticism, available online pfd, accessed on 15th January 2011.
- Vigneron, Frank, op. cit., p. 12-15.
- Reid, Louis Arnaud, op.cit., p. 19-20.
- Freeland, Cynthia, Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Published Oxford : Oxford University Press 2003, p. 120.
- Ibidem, p. 136.
- Wikipedia, Gobal Village (term), available online, accessed on 15th January 2011.
- Freeland, Cynthia, op. cit., p. 137.
- Ibidem, p. 137.
- Ross, Anders, How to Effectively Handle Web Criticism, available online, accessed on 15th January 2011.
- Kyrnin, Jennifer, Web Criticism : Provide Feedback that Will Be Heard, available online, accessed on 15th January 2011.
- Kyrnin, Jennifer, op.cit.