By Jóhanna Símonardóttir and Margrét Dóra Ragnarsdóttir.
An island isolated right by the Arctic circle doesn’t seem a likely arena for vivid Web design, but that is indeed the case with Iceland. Iceland is an exemplary Web market because no other country has higher Internet penetration: a whooping 92%! The good news for Web developers: more than 90% of Internet connections are high speed. And the next sentence will make CSS and HTML developers practically flock to Iceland: less than 5% use Internet Explorer 6 as their main browser!
So what exactly goes on in this idyllic Web environment? We looked to a group of Web designers and developers and asked them to discuss Icelandic design.
Interface designer Margret Dora Ragnarsdottir and usability expert Johanna Simonardottir met up with the group for an after-work drink in a trendy bar in downtown Reykjavik.
The group consists of Web developers Borgar Þorsteinsson and Viðar Svansson; Web designers Jonathan Gerlach and Reynir Pálsson; Web gurus and jacks of all trades Einar Þór Gústafsson and Soffía Kristín Þórðardóttir; all of whom have years of experience working in the Web industry in Iceland, some even abroad as well.
We started off discussing Icelandic Web design in general, what defines it and what makes it different from design from other parts of the world. The group agreed that pretty landscape pictures are definitely a defining characteristic.
The Showcase and Discussion
What Defines Icelandic Web Design?
Icelanders are practical at heart. They are down to earth and factual, even minimalistic. They don’t like to decorate things, and this is reflected on most Icelandic websites. With very few exceptions, corporate websites are concerned more with the company than the “brand.”
Icelanders are professional by nature, which they have used to their advantage on the Web. In Iceland, more than 90% of all tax returns are filed online. Most municipalities have websites that are almost like intranets for residents; you can find anything from forms to information on children’s activities to school attendance.
Online banking is the norm for most transactions, Icelanders wouldn’t dream of mailing a check to pay for anything.
Iceland’s approach to online accessibility is exemplary. Most companies and organizations go beyond the call of duty to ensure that users can access and interact with all content on their websites. One could even go so far as to say that Iceland has the world’s most accessible online banking; if you are disabled, you should be able to access and fully interact with the website of nearly every domestic bank. Usability and utility is very much the focus; function over form.
The problem with this sensibility, though, is that it makes for websites that are straightforward, one might say homogeneous (dare we say boring?). Websites look and feel the same, even those of companies that are not in the same industry.
Websites are also comprehensive. They tend to be treated as archives: anything a company wants to say is published with little regard for priority or focus. This may be the biggest problem with Icelandic Web design today. Websites tend to be sprawling and crowded, often with poorly written content.
Perhaps the main reason why Icelandic websites are homogenous is that they tend to be service-oriented and not very adventurous. There seems to be an underlying fear—more among clients than developers—of taking chances and trying something new.
Icelandic websites show common usability traits, the most prominent of which is a standard menu, a logo in the top-left corner and a clean white interface. This makes the websites familiar and easy to navigate.
What Kind Of People Are Iceland’s Web Developers?
The Web attracts people who have an artistic touch, who want to create cool new things. You will find graphic designers, programmers, social scientists and engineers. Most of them are self-taught, meaning they are also passionate about the Web. This is what makes them so good.
The market seems to have a distinct layering of specializations. People tend to find a niche and stick to it. You will find analysts, designers, developers and programmers, but not many people who are a mixture of these. These professionals tend to team up. For example, a designer probably wouldn’t code his own website; he would find a developer whom he trusts to do it. An analyst would look for a design and development team whom she trusts to execute her ideas. The market being so small, this circle is quite interconnected, and people work together repeatedly. Some of these teams are long-standing and have a great track record.
Designers and developers also move around a lot, following projects of interest and companies that do exciting new things. Thus, people will cross paths repeatedly. This makes for a distinct pattern in the industry: the best professionals tend to sniff out the best projects or are actively sought by clients.
The ambition of professionals in this industry is evidenced by the fact that the Icelandic Web Association (SVEF) has handed out awards every year since 1999. The SVEF also organizes many formal and informal gatherings, a biannual international conference (Iceweb) and various master classes. These events are widely attended, so local networking is healthy, and most people in the business know each other or know of each other.
One would not expect Iceland, being such a small and isolated community, to have so fertile a grassroots community, but it does. This is evident in other creative genres, too. No other nation publishes more books per capita. And Icelandic musicians such as Bjork and Sigur Ros are recognized internationally. The country also has many successful fashion and industrial designers.
What’s The Market Like?
In many ways, the market in Iceland is sophisticated. End users are well equipped, which helps a lot with development. Clients usually provide clear criteria for wireframes and specifications. But the work entailed for developers is too seldom understood. Deadlines are too tight or unrealistic. Budgets are also too small, resulting in websites being thrown together with glue. Web designers and developers prefer to do things right and would rather their clients focus on doing fewer things well than trying to do everything at once.
The experience can be frustrating. One can’t really say that Web development is highly valued here or regarded as high-level work. But in true Icelandic fashion, designers or developers will never publish a poor-quality website. They put a lot of effort into polishing the design and code. They pride themselves on well-woven websites.
During the last boom, rebranding and redeveloping big websites was the priority. Lately, companies have become cost-conscious. In today’s economic crisis, money is scarce, and projects tend to be about maintenance, improvement or optimization. All of a sudden, marketing through traditional media has become too expensive, and companies are turning their heads to Web and social media. But again, they don’t want to pay too much.
Hopefully, the market will mature as a result. In fact, we are already seeing signs of it.
Traditionally, Icelandic Web developers have worked locally. Recently, they have been cultivating international contacts, and Icelandic companies have been encroaching on international markets.
At the moment, the economic situation and the value of the Icelandic króna make working with Icelandic professionals favorable for international clients. They’ll get high-quality design, exemplary code and great value for their money.
Icelandic Web Designers
- Arnar Ólafsson
- Dagný Reykjalín
- Eggert Ragnarsson
- Egill Harðarson
- Gummi Sig
- Jonathan Gerlach
- Jóna Dögg Sveinbjörnsdóttir
- Kristín Eva Ólafsdóttir
- Reynir Pálsson
- Rósa Stefánsdóttir
Web Design Agencies
- Allra átta
- Annað veldi
- Hugsandi menn
- Hvíta húsið
- TM software