Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

All Flash, No Standards

The new interactive annual from Communication Arts confirms something the web standards community has always known: that mainstream media rewards complex Flash sites and largely ignores the movement to a more accessible and semantic web. Included are some numbers from 2001-2007 detailing this inequality.

The web standards community has long lamented the fact that major design publications have always favored the glitz and glamour of Flash websites over plain HTML. This is understandable. Interactive agencies and freelancing Flash cowboys exert a tremendous amount of effort over complex rollovers, physics modeling, database tie-ins, and special effects. Sometimes this is all well and good, and the fundamental design works, but more often than not, usability and accessibility are honored less than a dead goldfish flushed down the toilet.

I am not here to rail against Flash, or Flash developers. I am, however, going to call out mainstream design media for their bias. In their interactive annuals, Communication Arts, whose rotating panel of judges are the most egregious worshipers of load times, has all but ignored HTML websites. Going back to 2001, here is a breakdown of media representation:

breakdown of flash vs. HTML representation in Communication Arts from 2001-2007

Here is the same information framed in numbers: out of 276 total projects, there are 223 websites; of these, 195 — an 87.44% representation — are built in Flash. Of the remaining 26 HTML or hybrid sites, only two are built with web standards, and neither validates.

The companies with the biggest budgets are rewarded. The are a few independent websites (such as the fly guy) and a few nods toward HTML (Veer), but every annual is teeming with HyperGlobalMegaCorp-type companies (Nike, for instance, appears every year, multiple times) that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on balls-out Flash sites.

What really annoys me are the websites that should never have been built in Flash. The Red Cross’ 911 Legacy, represented in the 2007 edition, is particularly sad. it holds reams of great content, good design, and positive messages — and it’s all locked behind a wall of Flash. (Go ahead, look at the source code. It’s so sad they could make a chick flick out of it.)

It’s not unexpected that CA is honoring beautiful but completely inaccessible work. But it’s disappointing that the surge of standards awareness and a renewed passion for accessibility and fundamental usability is completely disregarded by the industry’s leaders. Seven years after the battle cry, and I’ve yet to find evidence of its influence in the professional awards arena.

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commentary + criticism

miguel ripoll

wrote the following on Tuesday September 25, 2007

CA still allow and promote other views: they featured my website for the UC Berkeley as one of their Sites of the Week (and reviewed it in the Illustration Annual) – and that site was as standards-compliant as it can get!. Plus this very week they have featured and interview with me ranting about the very issue you so rightly point out (

Tom H

wrote the following on Wednesday September 26, 2007

Thank you for writing this!

It’s been getting to me ever since people started falling over themselves for the Aardman website.

I thought good design was measured on how appropriate it was, how good it was at communicating; this doesn’t seem to apply to the web for these people. All that matters is ‘cool’, and the only people who matter is them, who cares if the website can’t be used by the people it’s ‘designed’ for.

It’s not all bad though; accessible, usable Flash can be made – it’s just never a priority for some reason.

PS. Nice choice of colours for your diagrams :D


wrote the following on Wednesday September 26, 2007

A large problem with this is the judges. Either they have Flash developers judging or print designers. Print designers don’t understand the nuances of HTML, and that the method of coding is often integral to reaching the appropriate audience.

I’ve had this same complaint with the ADDY awards who also basically ignore HTML sites, and award sites which never should’ve been Flash to begin with. Would they reward a brochure that someone accidentally printed in RGB? I think not.

Nathan Bowers

wrote the following on Wednesday September 26, 2007

This is the problem with architecture mentioned in “How Buildings Learn” by Stewart Brand.

Big budget buildings are built to photograph well and win awards. How the buildings function for their occupants over time is a much lower priority.

Guillaume Stricher

wrote the following on Thursday September 27, 2007

The Flash problem is so deadly simple:
It has no semantic structure.


wrote the following on Monday October 1, 2007

As someone who was previously a Flash designer, I’ve since realized that despite what CommArts might want to tell us, the true future of the web is web standards.

People will eventually figure it out…those who embrace sooner are just that much smarter than everyone else.


wrote the following on Monday January 7, 2008

Just to follow up on this article, the 2008 Advertising Annual published two reader letters addressing this very issue, and neither was kind. It seems others view the issue with as much indifference and lack of respect as me, which is a shame, because all of their other annuals are so good.

Chris Kinsman

wrote the following on Wednesday December 3, 2008

I was also very upset upon noticing the ungodly amount of websites awarded to Flash applicants. My main argument is that they are allowing a single piece of proprietary technology account for the best websites. The web was built initially as a propietary model, but what makes it liberating is that it was opened up and made accessible to everyone. Flash sites shut down this concept.