Let’s start with the truth: Eye on Design is not a sustainable website. By nearly every standard, the site you’re reading right now makes environmental tradeoffs for the sake of user experience and aesthetics. The big beautiful images you’re seeing? Those add a little extra bloat. Our custom typefaces? They come at an environmental cost, too.
We’re not alone, of course. The internet today is full of big, beautiful websites that also happen to be data hungry monsters. By one estimate, the “communications industry” (that includes the internet) will use 20 percent of all the world’s electricity by 2025. And that’s only poised to grow given the trajectory of how much time people tend to spend on the web.
So what’s to be done in a time when the expectation of what makes “good” web design requires ample server space? One website has an idea: tear the whole thing down and start again.
Last month, Low-tech Magazine rolled out a new solar-powered website to showcase the environmentally focused journalism it’s been producing since 2008. The website is striking mostly for what it lacks. There’s no logo, no parallax scroll, no colored photos, no custom type, no pop-ups. Its barebones design brilliantly achieves its intended effect of showing how little energy a website requires to function—and look good in the process. “I wanted to practice what I preach,” says Kris De Decker, Low-tech Magazine’s founder.
De Decker’s previous website had been just as guilty as the rest. So when the time came for Low-tech Magazine to redesign, De Decker and his collaborators, Marie Otsuka and Roel Roscam Abbing, decided to take steps to radically reduce the size of the magazine’s online footprint.
The most drastic change was setting up the website to run on energy gathered from a solar panel on De Decker’s Barcelona terrace. The page is at the whims of the weather—a sunny day allows the website to run at full capacity; rainy days can drain the battery to the point where the page won’t load at all. A battery icon showing how much juice the website has left is front and center as an unnerving reminder that energy is a finite resource. De Decker estimates the website will be offline around 30 days a year.
But page size is also a matter of design choices. Every visual element on a webpage adds to its weight. Photos are the biggest culprit, but so are more benign-seeming elements like custom typography, which require additional requests to the server in order to properly load. The designers’ idea was simple: make the visual layout of the website reflect the reality of energy usage. Doing that required stripping everything back. “Making the website was an interesting exercise in seeing how pared down it could be while still being user friendly and something people would want to read,” she says.
Early versions of the website were text-only, but De Decker insisted photos were an integral part of Low-tech Magazine’s storytelling. Otsuka and Abbing decided to apply a dithering effect to the photos, which compresses them so much that they take on a grainy, sketch-like quality. The grayscale images get a layer of color through CSS coding, which doesn’t add any weight to them. For text, the website loads the browser’s default typeface in a single weight. Hierarchy is shown through text size. The logo takes a similarly stark approach with the same default type being used with an arrow to create a simple text mark.
On the face of it, browsing Low-tech Magazine site isn’t inherently different reading to the New York Times–text is text; photos are photos. But think about all of the little moments of interaction you have with a website. Today, the internet is a business. Websites need to be monetized, and with that requirement comes all of the annoyances we now associate with the modern web. “These days if you open a website, you have to click away cookies, then it’s the privacy declaration, then it’s “subscribe to our email newsletter,” then it’s advertising,” De Decker says. “Before you start reading, you have to click through so much.”
All of that has vanished on Low-tech Magazine, which is a subtle but important part of the reading experience. The website doesn’t poke or prod. It sits there quietly, allowing you to explore at your own pace, unprompted. Its inertness is intentional and also revealing. “We’re trying to remove the divide between the surface veneer and what’s powering the website,” Otsuka says.
Otsuka and Abbing say they were inspired by the early web of the 1990s—a time when barebones websites were a reflection of what was technologically possible. You could argue that Low-tech Magazine is just another example of the current wave of brutalist web design, but that would do the website a disservice. Yes, Low-Tech Magazine is intentionally embracing an aesthetic, but it’s doing so with the goal of changing behavior.
And that’s the tricky thing about Low-Tech Magazine; the metrics of success are counterintuitive. Success isn’t found in increasing visits or time on page. If the website does its job, it will have encouraged you to be online less, not more. For De Decker, it’s not as self-sabotaging as it sounds. Even he, a denizen of the web and someone who relies on it to do his job, acknowledges that we could all stand to stare at our screens a little less. “The internet is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” he says. “Can you think of anything else that’s open for so long?”