When was the last time you tried to find a government form on the Internet? For me, it was a few months back, trying to track down an absentee ballot. I was amazed at the labyrinth of independent sites I had to visit before I found what I was looking for. Bringing the web presence of an entire government under one roof is a Sisyphean task, and the UK is one of the only countries that's managed to do it, with Gov.uk, a one-stop-web-shop that launched earlier this year.
Today, at a ceremony in London, the site was named the 2013 Best Design of the Year by the Design Museum, beating out 99 shortlisted buildings, inventions, and cars for the honour It's the first website to ever win the six-year-old title, too — which illustrates just how remarkable the achievement really is.
Here's what makes it so deceivingly special.
Why does a straightforward, cut-and-dry website deserve the award? Because of that straightforwardness, actually. "There were thousands of websites, and we folded them into Gov.uk to make just one," says Ben Terrett, head of design at the UK's Government Digital Service, in a Dezeen-produced video. "Booking a prison stay should be as easy as booking a driver's license test."
Government websites have a radically different use case than, say, a tech blog. As Terrett notes, most people visit a .gov site once or twice a year — if that. So designing a dynamic, fresh interface is irrelevant — rather, the idea was to make the user experience as simple and static as possible.
There's only one typeface on Gov.uk, and a somber colour palette of black and white gradients and classic blue links. There are no Pinterest logos, no blog content, and precious few images. "You shouldn't come to the website and say 'wow, look at the graphic design!,'" Terrett says. "You should come to the website to find out what the minimum wage is."
Terrett describes Gov.uk as an attempt to bring web design up to speed with technology like Glass, where the user interfacer all but disappears. "We haven't achieved that yet with most web interfaces, [where] you can still see the graphic design," he says. "But technology will change, and we'll get past that."
The Government Design Service deals with everything from creating IT standards in the UK to developing David Cameron's infamous iPad app. It's quietly leading the way for other countries attempting to get their unwieldy online presences up to digital snuff — in fact, it's even put the Gov.uk code on GitHub. So theoretically, every country — or state, or company — could adopt the same award-winning standards.
Of course, there's probably no such thing as a "best design" of the past 365 days. Design can refer to almost anything made by human hands, and attempting to whittle all of that down to a single winning project is a massively simplistic way to couch its scope. Still, considering the wealth of glitzy awards programs out there, this is a thoughtful move on the part of the Design Museum. It would've been easy to give this award to the prettiest object. Instead, it went to the simplest.