While visiting with friends and family this weekend, I ran into a long-missed flame who said she was frustrated because she'd gone back to school to renew her web design business, last heard from about a decade ago, but the school seemed insistent about teaching her programming instead. Her head was full of PHP and Javascript, when what she really wanted to do was "draw pretty pictures" and hand them off to the developers.

Curious, and because I'm always looking out for good designers, I asked her what her design aesthestic was.  Did she like grunge or cleanOrganic textures or vectorsDark or light?  What did she think of grids?  How about Minimalism? Typography?

I'm afraid in my high-speed way I hit her with all of those questions in one long stream and she stared back at me like a deer in the headlights.  She'd never heard of any of these terms being used in conjunction with her current studies or practices.  Now, admittedly, these were terms from poster and illustration work back in 1999 that had only just begun the leap into web design practices.  When she jumped out I was working with flat, vector advertisement people who thought the height of design sensibility was the Taco Salad typeface (Ugh, totally hate that one now, even though it's immortalized in a design I did in 1997 that will live forever and that I can't take back).

I'm still much more of a developer than a designer, but I keep a daily zeitgeist feed of what's hot in the design world, and I collect and keep tickler files, so when I'm in need of a new design, I can collect a few and when I hire a designer I can say, "I want a feminine design, slightly three-d (drop shadows are adequate, some pseudo-perspective boxes would rock), with a wine-purple background to suggest sensuality and mystery.  The objective has some infographic weight, so a stable grid would be a good idea.  Let's talk information architecture and session flow.  I want something that's a mash-up, not a compromise, between a website that sells porn and one that sells high-end cosmetics.  The background has to be IUI compatible." Or, "I need an info-rich magazine layout for the adult story set, something way sexier than what's currently out there, but with enough whitespace that each article can successfully compete with its neighbors for eyeballs based on content about the length of a double-tweet. I need a bumper-sticker-sized banner, with a solid typographic cascade, for the story of the hour. And I need some Section-508 compliance in the site, so high contrast is a must." Or, "I need a web 2.0 throwback site for a low-end web app. A simple thing. Let's do green and white, subtle gradients and high-contrast borders, unless you've got something burning that I can buy into."

Being able to talk this way with designers is a plus for me, but it also lets me experiment on my own.  I know what I want.  I know what other developers are doing with it, and I can whip out the Wacom (or, better yet, colored pencil and paper) and just let myself explore the possibilities.  I've been hanging out with a bunch of web "creatives" recently, and this is the language they use.  The posters of their office space run the gamut from photorealism to grunge to flat OEM (original English manga) style, with same 60's psychedelic for a wine-and-Shakespeare festival on the far wall.

I'm sure you can run a good sized web business without this knowledge base.  But you'll look like these guys.  I've sent these guys my resume' because, you know, that's what I'm required to do under the circumstances.   But let's face it, these guys need help: four separate flash items on the home page, bad 2003 swirly headers, no alt tags on the title images, table based layout, and no grid sensibility at all.