When Gary Hustwit’s documentary Helvetica premiered in 2007, it almost immediately became part of a punchline in a joke about designers. An entire movie about a font? This was just too much for most people outside of the designer community, which I’ve been a part of or adjacent to for almost twenty years. But a lot has changed in the decade since its release.
Products like the iPhone and the Tesla Model S—that seamlessly meld utility and high design—have almost accidentally given non-designers a fast education in design principles. In office teams, “design thinking” is an expected part of almost everyone’s job, not just those of us in black turtlenecks with Dieter Rams posters. More people seem to “know what they like” in terms of the designed world, and most of it is pretty good. Design nightmares are getting harder and harder to come by — except in most of the tools intended to let non-designers produce good design.
TL;DR, being a web designer is hard and frustrating.
Somehow, while we were making every car beautiful and every phone a stately sheet of black glass—while we were democratizing design to really be for everyone—we forgot to make a visual web design tool that isn’t awful. And before you question putting a web design tool on the same plane as a car or a phone, let me ask you: when was the last time you did anything of much importance without the internet? If you bought a car, got a marriage license, set up a doctor’s appointment, or contacted someone you love, you did it with the internet. You also used it to buy tickets to the last in-person event you attended. And you probably saw some Comic Sans and a gif of party hats when you did it. Admit it, it was awful.
As I mentioned above, I’ve been designing things of one kind or another for almost twenty years. My first website was built by hand in a text editor, and it was a process that was as full of pitfalls and bugs as it can be now. I had to coerce every different web browser into doing my bidding, and often failed. Designs looked frustratingly close to what I had in my head, but with no way to take them the last mile. As I grew as a designer and developer, I got better—but ugly bugs would still rear their heads. And then the smartphone age dawned, and most of my time was spent just making pages look right on everyone’s pocket computer. TL;DR, being a web designer is hard and frustrating.
And this is where Canvas comes in. A handful of “visual web design” tools have hit the market over the last five years or so. They promise big, amazing things but are built mostly for people who already understand all the complexities and inherent problems of doing design on the web, like me. No one has yet built a tool that does the two “holy grail” things a tool like this should do: allow non-designers to feel in control when designing something with tons of built-in complexity, and to generate code that is clean, and that programmers can work on without losing their sanity. Working in Canvas I feel, for the very first time in a long career, that it’s not only letting me build what I want visually—I can put things where I want, resize things, change colors, add images and code snippets of my own—but it has my back when it creates the code, too. Sites look letter perfect on my iPhone and iPad as well as all the laptops and TVs in the studio.
It’s such a quantum leap forward that it’s almost upsetting. My feelings about it sort of loop back to Helvetica, predictably. As a typeface Helvetica was made to give life and character to whatever it was used for, be it a hospital sign, a phone screen, or even the Nike logo. It’s a typeface for big corporations, but also for you and all your friends. Canvas is a high-octane power tool that does a seemingly impossible thing, fit for designers with decades of experience and novices who just want their event sites to make the right impression. Canvas, like Helvetica, gives more back than you put in. How many things can you say that about?