Unstirring the Jam

In order to establish a sense of history, web design will need to find ways to make allusion to predecessors, acknowledge its influences, and learn from the past.

not for the sake of stealing, but of open borrowing, for the purpose of having it recognized.

— Seneca the Elder1

I was probably fifteen when my parents, apparently moved to build a bit of character in their sons, instructed my two brothers and me to paint a newly renovated room at their business and tasked poor Ray, one of the maintenance men, with ensuring we got most of the paint on the walls rather than on each other. (He was not, it should be noted, entirely successful on that front.)

We all liked Ray; despite having been born and raised in the hills of northern Vermont, Ray spoke with a Southern drawl, a slow, easy, approachable rhythm, and we all listened intently as he began showing us how to steadily apply a layer of primer with smooth, easy strokes. After he was sure his instruction got through our thick skulls, Ray sauntered off, saying he’d be back to check on our progress. It was hot, decidedly unglamorous work, but we made some progress, covering most of the longest wall in an hour or so.

And, after a time, Ray returned to inspect our work, walking up and down the length of the room. He came over to me. Considering my work for a moment, he pointed out a problem area: a bead of primer had coalesced on the wall and had begun slowly rolling toward the floor. As he pointed it out, Ray said, “Here’s the thing of it: if that drop dries, the paint will form around that shape. And whether you layer on two or twenty coats of paint, that drop’ll shine through.”

If I close my eyes, I can still see that solitary drop, slowly tracing a gentle line down an empty wall. Even now, as I enter my second decade as a web designer, I think there’s something fundamentally evocative about that layering: of a work attaining its form from something that preceded it, carrying the echo of something older within itself.

THOMASINA: When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?


THOMASINA: Well, I do. You cannot stir things apart.

— Tom Stoppard2

When I reached college, I found myself surrounded by teachers who were similarly hooked on this idea of layering, of looking at tradition as something that could define the shape of an idea. I remember when my jazz piano teacher hauled out some old records by Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker, albums on which Miles Davis had performed as a band member. After playing a few tracks on each, he pulled out some of Davis’s later recordings and began showing me how you can hear subtle but unmistakable hints of his former bandleaders’ influences—a borrowed phrase here, a quiet moment in an otherwise complex arrangement. And my literature professors were no different, helping me wade through works such as John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. They showed me how Milton adopted the imagery of his classical predecessors, invoking the likes of Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. But specifically, he did so in the first two sections of his poem—passages that were, conveniently, set in Hell. (Nice little dig, that; a bit of a rap battle between dead white poets.)

These professors traced paths between texts, songs, and artwork, and even taught me a name for the connections: “allusion.”

Genres and movements are the forms and philosophies around which creators gravitate. But allusion allows an artist to draw connections between the current work and its predecessors. In its most basic form, an allusion is an intentional reference to an event, person, or concept. I might say that a particularly torturous deadline “was my Waterloo,” perhaps invoking images of a man doomed to crushing defeat. (Or at least, a few sleepless nights.) It’s a kind of rhetorical shorthand, but here’s the thing: it only works if, well, you know what Waterloo is and understand its historical significance. Metaphorically speaking, there’s something remarkably fragile about allusions, because they rely on the audience to truly work. Otherwise the reference is missed, “Waterloo” just sounds like so much gibberish to your ear, and my intended meaning is lost.

That’s not to say that you need to understand an allusion to enjoy a work. One of my favorite examples of this would have to be Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel Watchmen. It’s a tale set in a bleak, alternative version of the 1980s: Earth is seized by xenophobia, fear, and nuclear détente. Its central characters are a band of flawed superheroes reunited by the death of one of their own and attempting to overcome a global threat. The story itself is exquisitely crafted, a beautiful, sweeping work that’s approachable to even the comic book novice. But the first time you read it, you might not realize that the main characters are thinly veiled references to minor characters appropriated from the already-defunct Charlton Comics library, which had been acquired by DC Comics before Moore began writing.

In an interview with Blather.net, Alan Moore once said, “there was a sort of a seed of the original Charlton characters but we took them further…. [It] was just taking these ordinary characters and just taking them a step to the left or right, just twisting them a little bit.” In other words, it wasn’t just that these older characters were templates for Moore’s work. Instead, by alluding to them, by reshaping them within the constraints of this new, Watchmen-specific universe, Moore created an area for discussion, for interpretation. What are we to make of Steve Ditko’s Captain Atom when we encounter Moore’s Doctor Manhattan, a godlike being who dispassionately regards humans as ant-like and inconsequential? And while Moore’s Rorschach is a violently insane vigilante, he becomes an indictment of traditional superhero values carried to their logical extreme, especially when you realize he’s a pastiche of Ditko’s Mr. A.

By adapting these characters into his work, Moore created a kind of hidden space within his own work. It’s a little narrative pocket that allows for discussion, for interpretation, but one that’s not critical to understanding Watchmen. If you’ve never heard of Charlton Comics, Steve Ditko, or his work, there’s nothing lost, and the story’s still satisfyingly gripping. But Moore has entered into a kind of critical conversation with Ditko—and with the idea of superheroes in general—and invited you, the reader, to participate.

But where is this conversation happening in web design? Do we have the ability to introduce this kind of allusion into our designs, to create these conversations in our work? A significant amount of web design is commercial art, which makes any kind of visual borrowing—no matter how well-intentioned or subtle it might appear to be—an inherently problematic proposition. That moving, thoughtful essays are still being published on the subject of copying versus creating elements of homage suggests we’re still trying to define the line between inspiration and blatant plagiarism.

Our closest analog to the use of allusion might be the web design trends over which we so frequently wring our hands. But let’s face it: when was the last time you heard the phrase web design trend mentioned in a positive light? Trend is the key word: whether it’s rounded corners or oversized sans serifs, hatched backgrounds or textured patterns, you can practically hear the derision drip off of the speaker’s tongue. It’s a word that implies a short lifespan, the very fleetingness of an idea, a thing without depth, created without much thought. What’s more, a work that’s part of a trend doesn’t exist in isolation: it’s part of a larger thing, a single entity mindlessly trudging alongside the rest of the herd.

I wonder if it would help if we were more overt in acknowledging our sources. A few years ago, in discussing a major redesign of his personal site, Eric Meyer took a moment to acknowledge one concept in particular he’d borrowed and adapted from another’s work, the grid-like design of the metadata and comments:

In this area, I was heavily influenced by Khoi Vinh’s [new site], and I definitely owe him a debt of gratitude and inspiration. As will be evident from even a casual comparison of the two sites, I took a general design idea Khoi uses and adapted it to my particular situation.

Like Moore, Meyer looked to Vinh’s distinctive design for the seed of an idea and, well, reshaped it a bit to suit his needs. And while you can definitely see strains of Khoi’s aesthetic, it’s not a direct copy. But additionally, and just as critically, Meyer acknowledges this debt. That’s not to say every act of alluding to an established work needs to be additive, or even constructive. In fact, the reverse can also be very, very true.

Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.

— Saul Bellow3

Even though eyewitness accounts are few and far between, we know that on Christmas Day in 1949, Charlie Parker strode onto the stage of Carnegie Hall. Behind him sat one of the finest jazz bands to ever share a spotlight: Red Rodney on trumpet; pianist Al Haig; Tommy Potter on bass; and behind the drums, Roy Haynes. By all accounts, and from the few live recordings that survived the performance, it was an astounding bebop performance. Over the course of the set, “Cheryl” came into rotation—not one of Parker’s better-known songs, but a catchy little blues/bebop amalgam in its own right. And about a minute or so in, he began his solo.

Then something interesting happened. The first notes out of Parker’s saxophone weren’t improvised; they weren’t even his. Instead, Charlie Parker started his solo by playing, nearly verbatim, Louis Armstrong’s opening to “West End Blues.”

If you haven’t heard “West End Blues,” I highly recommend giving it a listen. Not simply because it’ll give a bit more context for this anecdote but because it is a wonderful song. Written over two decades before Parker’s performance, the song reached extraordinary heights of popularity once Louis Armstrong recorded it in 1928—a recording that’s been lauded as one of the finest moments in American music. And one of the most remarkable parts of that recording was, in fact, Armstrong’s opening cadenza, a dizzyingly rapid succession of notes that soar, fall, and brightly rise again. It’s as distinctive as it is virtuosic, and Louis Armstrong’s signature introduction would have been instantly recognizable to any jazz fan in the audience. And here was Charlie Parker, one of America’s premiere jazz saxophonists, quoting it note for note.

What’s even more striking about Parker’s usage of “West End Blues” is how isolated the phrase is from the notes that follow it. Instead of appropriating it as a foundation for the rest of his solo, Parker pulls in the line then moves on to another idea entirely as though he’d never played Armstrong’s intro. It’d be a bit like singing the first line from “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and then continuing on to sing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” as though nothing had happened.

Parker’s solo wasn’t even a minute long, but his Armstrong-enhanced opening made quite the impression—if not with the audience in attendance, then certainly with music historians and scholars who’ve spent the subsequent decades analyzing why Parker did it. Not that jazz quotes were uncommon; even today, musicians pull in lines from other works, using the original notes as the basis for further improvisation. But many jazz historians note that by the time of the Carnegie performance, Parker had reached a particularly confident stage of his career and had long ago abandoned the practice of using other musicians’ notes in lieu of his own.

A few things are happening here. First, by leading with Louis Armstrong’s distinctive introduction, Parker pulled an incredibly popular musical phrase out of its original context and placed it in another song entirely—his song. Allusion is, on the face of it, an act of a younger author establishing some authority over an older, more recognizable work. And by keying off a musical phrase that would’ve been immediately recognizable to his audience, Parker managed to establish his technical prowess by co-opting Armstrong’s work into his own.

But all that aside, there’s an interesting historical context at work here. There’d been no small amount of animosity between the bebop movement and more established jazz figures like Armstrong. It’d come to a bit of a head that year, in fact, when Armstrong himself had dismissed bebop as nothing more than “jiujitsu music” a few months prior. So taken in that light, Parker’s solo isn’t just a masterful act of musical splicing; it’s a not-so-veiled rebuttal of Armstrong himself.

Every man’s memory is his private literature.

— Aldous Huxley4

This is all conjecture, of course. One of the many things I find beautiful, if not downright enviable, about Parker’s allusion is that he fearlessly adopts a musical phrase from years before his performance, reaching over two decades into his past to change the shape of his work. And currently, that breadth of history isn’t available to our very young medium.

By looking for inspiration in others’ work, adapting it significantly, and openly acknowledging those debts, I think we can move that phrase “web design trends” past that stereotype of unthinking, unambitious adoption and set a standard for evolving those trends over time. And, in doing so, we’ll invest a sense of memory—of history—in our adolescent industry.

That’s not to say I’m advocating the wholesale copying of another’s work; nor am I suggesting that slapping a “Hey, thanks for the logo!” on your blog will somehow make that copying acceptable. But perhaps your next redesign could acknowledge the work that inspired you and how you learned from it. By becoming more referential designers, we’ll begin to develop the methods for following a conversation, for charting a lineage across sites, across redesigns.

After all, Müller-Brockmann didn’t singlehandedly create the typographic grid. He, with the help of contemporaries like Emil Ruder and Max Bill, helped formalize and extend Jan Tschichold’s Die neue Typographie in which Tschichold, in turn, was drawing upon millennia of principles of grid-driven page layout. And years later, Khoi Vinh and Mark Boulton helped underscore how critical the typographic grid was to the web and how to make it accessible to the modern web designer. These aren’t isolated events but links in a lengthy chain. As outstanding as these individual links might be, they take their shape from their predecessors.

Despite the web’s youthfulness, I worry that, with a few notable exceptions, our industry isn’t accustomed to looking to the lessons of the past. I’ve met scores of designers who have never heard of John Allsopp’s seminal “A Dao of Web Design” or encountered Jeffrey Zeldman’s work. Now, some of this is complicated by the web’s ephemerality. Or perhaps more problematically, by our assumption—as builders, as designers, as workers of the web—that what we build won’t last. Too often, our work is measured in months, not years or decades. If we can’t acquaint ourselves with the history of our medium, much less preserve it, what will we draw upon?

I think the time is now, and the opportunities are here. Maybe this is a problem that will, over time, resolve itself. As the web and our industry age, we’ll develop the methods for having these discussions, for creating stronger bonds between our work. But it will take a very real desire from us to look past the now of the web, to draw upon its past to improve its future.

  1. Seneca the Elder, Suasoriae 3.7 (As translated in the English edition of Gian Biagio Conte’s The Rhetoric of Imitation).

  2. Tom Stoppard, “Arcadia,” I.1.

  3. Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, (Viking, 1970).

  4. Aldous Huxley, Attributed.

Ethan marcotte

Ethan Marcotte is an independent designer/developer who is passionate about beautiful design, elegant code, and the intersection of the two. He coined the term responsive web design to describe a new way of designing for the ever-changing web, wrote a book on the topic, and would like to be an unstoppable robot ninja when he grows up. Beep.

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Illustration by Jing Wei · Portrait by Luke Pearson