How to untangle the Web
First published in Blueprint magazine (UK), December 1996. Re-published for a #TypeTuesday event I’m speaking at entitled ‘Web 1.0: the baby and the bathwater’, which is hosted by Eye magazine on the evening of Tuesday 1 September at the St Bride Foundation in Fleet Street
The Web is changing the way designers design
Design in new media is currently undergoing a transformation even more profound than that caused by the introduction of desktop publishing. And while it won’t kill their business, existing design studios would do well to take note.
So what are the characteristics of good Web design? As a medium the Web fulfils similar functions to any other medium: entertainment, story telling and the communication of information, hence design for the Web at its roots requires a similar approach to print or time-based media. However the nature of the Internet does bring specific issues to bear. As a medium it is very technology driven and designers need to understand the implications of this from the business perspective of a client as well as from a production point of view. As a medium that delivers information instantly around the world, a Web site’s user interface is significant. In effect a Web site is more like a piece of software than a magazine, and therefore requires a richer syntax than most print work. James Stevens of Obsolete, one of the most dynamic new media production companies, considers Web site design to be closer to writing than to conventional design, but the presentation of text must be dynamic and engaging to retain the reader’s interest.
The studio of Obsolete is in Clink Street, near London Bridge, in a typical warehouse conversion crammed with offices also housing record companies and the Backspace multimedia gallery. Apart from the founders everyone is freelance — programmers (‘the geeks’) work from home, often with jobs happening on a 24-hour rotation. There are contacts with the US software companies producing the newest ‘bleeding edge’ technologies, and streams of clients — often American — anxious to cash in on some London attitude and avoid West Coast costs. But the culture is laid-back and unpressured, with room for experimentation and new ideas.
A Web site, however it has been designed, will appear differently to each user. Designers have to learn to deal with and exploit this
Another consideration for new media designers is that the users’ experience of the Web depends upon the speed of their computer, modem and Internet connection, their software and the size and colour richness of their monitor. Thus a Web site, however it has been designed, will appear differently to each user. While other media such as television have this characteristic, it does not have such significant implications. Designers have to learn to deal with and exploit this, by getting used to a certain loss of control and concentrating on the essence and not the detail of the communication. Conversely, designers coming to the Web from television or film have to adapt to the lack of audio-visual richness that the Web currently allows.
Old companies, old baggage — James Stevens of Obsolete describing the tendency of traditional design companies to impose their existing design models
The technology-driven nature of the Web has created very different dynamics in companies which are involved in new media from those in ‘old media’. ‘Old companies, old baggage,’ says Stevens, describing the tendency of traditional design companies to impose their existing design models, such as for print magazines or time-based media, onto the Web. And this is often true of clients. However, most designers — and particularly young designers — generally ‘get the idea’ of the Web better than their clients, which leads towards design studios, rather than the clients, becoming the focus for new and exciting developments in online projects.
What fast-moving consumer goods need is their own editorially driven product — John Wilmott of Online Magic
Designers’ involvement in editorial is another noticeable development precipitated by the Web. The Web has tremendous potential as a consumer medium, ‘but no one is going to go online to find out about Smarties’, says John Wilmott of Online Magic, one of the UK’s biggest Web design and production houses. ‘What fast-moving consumer goods need is their own editorially driven product.’ This sentiment is leading some design studios to establish Web sites of general or niche interest that could become vehicles for sponsorship, support advertising or marketing for their own culture. In a similar vein, WebMedia piloted MovieWeb, an online film service, and Widescreen, a magazine, whereas Hard Media, which has published G-Spot in print since 1991, is planning an online sister publication, intended as ‘one of the coolest sites in the UK, the G-Spot of the world — a place that advertisers would want to be’. (New York’s Razorfish pioneered this area with the showcase Bluedot, a loosely structured house Webzine showing photography, see Blueprint 128.)
Meanwhile other consumer companies are demanding editorial products that focus on their consumers’ interests. Web site designers Online Magic employ full-time journalists to edit their Web sites for Channel 4 and Boots, as do MetaDesign for Audi. Designers are also having to learn from their clients about brand management in order to hone their Web site designs into positive brand extensions of the companies they represent. Sometimes it is personal projects that uncover new potential for Web sites. James Stevens’ interest in underground and independent film-making led him to explore ways of delivering film shorts online and create spaces for film-makers to present their work; this project may never be commercial but is made possible by the success of Obsolete’s other work.
The banner ad is dead — James Stevens of Obsolete
In the advertising game there is another twist for design studios. ‘Getting it’ also extends to knowing how consumers use the Web and what sites are used by different advertising markets. ‘The banner ad is dead,’ claims Stevens, who has helped pioneer the ‘blip-vert’ for Levi’s, one of Obsolete’s major clients. These are adverts which ‘make your computer do something you didn’t know it could’, by tempting users with ‘magpie pieces’ to flip into the advertisers’ ‘experience’ and back again. In the future Obsolete are likely to be involved in the selling and placement of advertising for clients, a role in print usually played by specialised agencies.
Since the Apple Macintosh turned graphic design upside down in the late 1980s, designers have needed to understand technology to get the results they wanted. Not only are the tools for the Web at the primitive level of early desktop publishing, but it is not even clear what they should be doing. As a result more studios are getting involved in developing bespoke software and are being approached by existing software companies for advice on new features and tools. For example, not only did WebMedia customise the database that runs MovieWeb, but they are considering marketing it. Obsolete are working closely with the UK-based developers of the Zeus Web server, and host what they claim is the fastest Web site in Europe, while Online Magic often develops the ‘backend systems’ for Web sites designed by other studios. It seems necessity in new media design is often the mother of invention.
Successful studios are expanding fast and often looking to outside investment to allow this — Maurice Saatchi’s Megalomedia recently took a 10 per cent stake in WebMedia. Because of the scale of many Web projects they are also developing alliances with PR companies and advertising agencies, and collaborating with other design studios, often at the client’s insistence. Getting a company onto the Web has also led studios into related businesses. One element of the WebMedia group offers Web site programming and hosting services, while NetNames registers Internet domain names and WebContent develops products like MovieWeb. Obsolete have set up Backspace on the ground floor of their building as a resources and promotion for people working in the audio and visual arts.
Obsolete claim to have ‘only ever done five pitches, and three of them were paid’
Additionally the current scarcity of good studios combined with designers’ dominance of Web developments has given them great bargaining power with clients. Obsolete claim to have ‘only ever done five pitches, and three of them were paid’. Stevens argues that they have proved themselves enough times already and even demands payment in advance. Although Web design has spawned more cowboys than desktop publishing, clients are becoming better informed about the medium and the value of working with the right studio.
‘the US follows the UK’ in matters of pop culture — Hard Media
The future of new media design in the UK seems bright. To start with English is the majority language of the Web, so studios in the UK have a headstart in working with mainland European companies with a worldwide presence. Add to this the fact that postwar British pop culture has always been a marketable commodity and the worldwide nature of the Web makes British studios extremely seductive to companies anxious to reach niche markets. As Hard Media are anxious to point out, ‘the US follows the UK’ in matters of pop culture. James Stevens observes that ‘British culture makes the most of restraint and can most effectively express American prudishness’.
Also Britain’s art school system has long fostered a strength in two-dimensional and packaging design which has still not been replicated (even in its present state) in the US — and if British schools can adapt to new media, they will enable the rapid maturation of the industry and overcome its seeming hesitancy regarding information design.
Web sites noted in this article [most will no longer be online]:
Online Magic: www.onlinemagic.com/online/
Hard Media: www.hardnet.co.uk
Channel 4: www.channel4.com