Great web design is not about full-screen backgrounds and advanced animations. This post discusses why the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s “bare-bone” website represents one of the most progressive web-designs published in a decade.
Ai Weiwei (1957) is an artist, designer and activist. While he in the west often is praised in superlatives and referenced to as “the most important artist alive today” (Sooke, 2017; Higgins, 2017); in China, the government-controlled press often speak about him in less amicable terms and often addresses him as “the most dangerous man in China (Smithsonian, 2017).
Through his words, art- and design Weiwei is an unrelenting critique of the totalitarian regime of his country which has cost him time in jail and a to become a target for state-sponsored harassment. Even so; he continues to fight for a just society and to bring injustices and abuse of his government into the light. One example is his publication of the names of all the 5.000 pupils who died during the Sichuan earthquake 2009 as of collapsing school buildings; a consequence of state officials whom instead of following engineering standards had used insufficient building materials and put the money saved in their own pockets (Artasiapacific.com, 2017; TIME.com, 2017).
Weiwei is not the only member of his family who has challenged the Chinese leadership. His father, Ai Qing (1910); one of Chinas’ most renowned poets in 1959 was forced to move the family from Beijing to the northeastern province of Heilongjiang (Ai and Ambrozy, 2011, p.245) after being accused as a rightist, and the family was not allowed to return until 1976 and the end of the Cultural Revolution (M. Cunningham, 2017).
In 1978 Weiwei enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy but soon found his call in the art. To escape the repressing barriers preventing Chinese artists to express their voice; in 1981 he “escaped” to New York and enrolling at the ‘Parsons School of Design’ soon becoming a visible figure in the fertile subculture of the city’s artists and bohemians (The Culturist, 2016).
After making a living from photography and street portraits, Weiwei returned to Beijing in 1993 where he became deeply influenced by the legacies of Duchamp and Beuys and his early work from this period is dominated by conceptual pieces and ‘ready-mades.’
Much of his art also is devised in the vein of Warhol maybe most recognized in Weiwei’s ‘Coca-Cola Vase’ (Fig 1, above); a two-thousand-year-old vase festooned with maybe the most recognized emblem of American capitalism. The year after making this provocative statement Weiwei also created his maybe most iconoclastic and provocative work; ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ (Fig 2, below); a photographic triptych where he smashes a 2000-year-old Han Dynasty Urn creating an outrage among historians and the Chinese regime (Jones, 2017). Ai countered by rationalizing this art-work with saying that “Chairman Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one;” referring to the atrocities and widespread destructions of antiquities during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76).
His maybe most powerful expression, though, can be seen in ‘Straight, 2008–12’ (Fig 2, below) which is a statement about the governmental negligence and corruption leading to the 5.000 children killed when poorly constructed schools collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake which was discussed at the beginning of this text. This 200 tons piece of art; almost 40 feet long and 200 feet wide, is constructed by broken steel reinforcement bars from some of the badly built schools that collapsed during the earthquake and marked the beginning of an adversarial relationship to the Chinese leadership which have come to shape much of Weiwei’s expression (The Art Story, 2017).
A brilliant example of truly progressive web-design
Figure 5; above, is a screen dump of Ai Weiwei’s personal website (Aiweiwei.com, 2017c).
With the homepage composed of only a white centred box on a grey background with his name at the top; his most current work published as a vertical list, and with content sections represented by a simple headline, a short introduction paragraph and an image; the design can best be described as an “anti-design.”
At first glance; Weiwei’s website denotes incompetence, design-illiteracy and a poor understanding of the web-design vernacular. This design is an antithesis to almost all contemporary web design, and with it, Weiwei give the finger too much of the design idioms taught at leading design schools and the axiom which dominate much of today’s web design with full-screen background images, fancy image galleries and smooth animations.
This design is a statement, and it is as brilliant as it is simple. By desquamating the design to its core, the viewer is forced to fully concentrate on Weiwei’s art and message, and with a neutral design the site also does not suffer many of the common problems that come with design being miss-interpreted in cross-cultural communication channels and environments as asserted in cultural communication frameworks such as Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions (2017), Trompenaars Seven Dimensions of Culture (2017) and The Five-factor Model of Personality.
Interpretative factors of this design aside, though; it also is a brilliant design strategic move which all designer can learn much from.
On the web, great designs get copied at lightning speed which is clearly visible on web template marketplaces such as ThemeForest (2017) where bleach copies of prize-winning web-design can be bought for a handful euros literally hours after being awarded a Webbyawards (2017). What is contemporary on the web today, will be ancient tomorrow (or at least in a few months) and if you as a designer want to make a statement with your digital portfolio and/or website by creating a design which is truly contemporary, you need to look at your website, not as a one-shot which you design, publish and forget about; but as an ongoing design project continuously re-invented.
Presenting your work with an ambitious and contemporary design, however, is not a straight ticket to fame, glory and a fat bank account. With no two persons having the same taste of design; what looks great and contemporary in your eyes might in your next prospective client eyes be plain ugly; and seen from this vantage point, the design of Weiwei’s website is simply brilliant.
As the progressive artist he is; if creating a website which through the design would truly represent his progressive art; Weiwei would need not only to constantly re-invent the design, but he would also put himself in a position where visitors connotation of the art presented on the site would be unconsciously influenced by the design of the website presenting it.
Designers and artists have a lot to learn from Weiwei. If you truly want to make a mark with your personal website or portfolio design and believe that doing so will be the right thing for you from a personal, creative and/or professional perspective; then, of course, you should not hesitate to spend as much time and effort that you feel necessary to accomplish your creative goals and vision for your website.
If you, on the other hand, have a lack of time or interest in spending a few days per month redesigning your website to always being in the forefront; then instead of using your valuable time trying to create a ground-breaking design which in a few months if truly avant-garde, most certainly, will end up plagiarized and turned into a commercial template sold to possibly thousands of designers who will use your design to present their personal work; and consequently, will make you, the original author, to look like an illiterate designer without any own ideas – which is what any designer using design templates look like.
In its simplicity, Weiwei’s web design is as brilliant as it is progressive. By peeling off all fluff, Weiwei have put his art in focus and gives the viewer a blank slate to contemplate on his message without getting distracted by personal views on the design of the channel conveying it.
With this design, Weiwei have created one of the most efficient web designs published in recent years and he shows us that the constructivist idiom still matters:
No fluff for fluff’s sake.
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- Weiwei, A. (1994). COCA COLA VASE. [acrylic on Han dynasty vase] Beijing: Galerie Urs Meile.
- Weiwei, A. (1995a). DROPPING A HAN DYNASTY URN. [gelatin silver print on Alu Dibond, in three parts] Zurich: Galerie Urs Meile.
- Weiwei, A. (1995b). Study of Perspective – Tiananmen Square. [Gelatin silver print] New York: MoMa.
- Weiwei, A. (2008). Straight, 2008