Working in the virtual world scares newly minted designers with good reason. If you create a book that opens upside down and backwards, and questions books altogether, you are declared a genius, and the project is called “delightful.” Create a complex website that departs even a little from current visual conventions on the web—column grids, fixed color schemes, horizontal navigation bars, things made to look real, everything touched by a designer—and within days the internet is littered with angry notes from people who want to come and kill you and then burn your house down. As future-oriented as technology is expected to be, the web is not a friendly place for the avant-garde.
The new whitney.org site, designed by Linked by Air, launched almost exactly a year ago but still exists in the near-future. It rethinks and questions every aspect of an art museum site, moving the format toward dynamic content and engagement rather than static delivery of content. And it attempts this over 64,000 pages of content uploaded by 63 different authors, asking big questions about what the site is: Why not make viewing, collecting and sharing artwork the primary activity on the site? Shouldn’t visitors be allowed to put together their own membership package? In the Kids’ section, shouldn’t they be making art? Why not give the curators tools to make their own pages and announcements?
In an era when companies cling to crowdsourcing and competitions to avoid taking responsibility for design, credit is due also to the Whitney Museum first for commissioning and then for supporting an innovative site that truly pushes boundaries and expectations. As for the designers, I declare them genius, and find the project delightful. No art or design form has pushed forward or gained respect without a critical avant-garde. Seeing it on a site accessed by so many is a sign that design on the web has finally come of age.