Searching for substance

Having checked out endless websites – many of which are instantly forgettable, Paul Murphy says it’s time for designers to take on editors in the battle over content

Life in the fast lane of late twentieth century culture is filled with an inescapable overload of information. There are more magazines than ever, more books, more TV channels, more films and more drive-through McDonald’s contributing to this bombardment of the senses. Add to this the culture of Wired magazine and the Internet and it’ll do your head in.

Denial has always been a good tactic. Pretend it’s not there and eventually it’ll go away. Part of the brain is designed to do just this, to filter out the constant hum of audio and visual background noise. Every time I wander into a newsagent to buy a magazine I ignore thousands of others to pick up the one that might interest me.

If only it were that easy to wade through the sludge of all the badly designed websites. But, sadly, the only way to find out what a site is like is to actually visit it. Seeing as I’m trying to make a living writing about the Internet, ignorance or denial are hardly suitable strategies in this instance. In the on-line experience of bad links and pages void of any meaning it’s easy to forget that what binds us together are the stories we tell to make sense of everything around us.

As Roland Barthes wrote: “The narratives of the world are numberless in a variety of genres, distributed among different substances.” And occasionally even in Ray Gun or on the Internet, he could have added.

While “content is king” has become the revolutionary slogan of the new media comrades, most websites still suffer from a serious deficit of compelling content. They may be the most gorgeous looking things on-screen, but what they actually deliver is slight, not a great deal more than a clickable TV test card.

The initial entry requirements to web mastery are not exactly challenging; the web page coding language html can be learned by the most inept and all the basic software tools are available freely on the Internet. But learning how to tell a story is a harder trick to master.

The digital revolution sounded so exciting back in 1992: “Hypermedia is an entirely new kind of media experience born from the marriage of TV and computer technologies. It opens up exciting possibilities for radically new ways to communicate ideas, information and entertainment,” wrote Bob Cotton and Richard Oliver in Understanding Hypermedia. Central to the excitement of this new media were the interactive possibilities of the CD-ROM. And it was all due to the malleable and infinitely accessible nature of a digital medium.

So it makes me feel a bit of a traitor to the interactive revolution to say that some of the most enjoyable digitally produced work I’ve seen recently were linear narratives at onedotzero, the first UK digital film festival held at the ICA. This was hardly old-fashioned Hollywood storytelling but there’s a real pleasure in watching a narrative unfold effortlessly in front of you. I guess that’s the couch potato in all of us.

The second surprise was that almost all the British contributions came from companies better known for their graphics work: Fuel, Andy Martin, Me Company and Tomato. As Matt Hanson, the festival’s director, points out in his programme notes: “Graphic designers, familiar with working with the tools necessary to manipulate images digitally, are the first to transfer their talents to this area.” Neither interactivity nor the multiple narrative are wrong in themselves, but surely what is most important is the story they’re there to tell.

The strength of the many independent UK web design companies is that they were formed by print designers already literate in the software and have the know-how to put together a page that looks good. To maintain that success in the face of increasing competition, these designers need to take control of the content.

As Tibor Kalman said of magazine designers in last week’s DW In Print supplement: “Unless designers make themselves responsible for content, they have no control. If the content consists of bland puff pieces, it’s the designer’s responsibility to get the editor fired.”

Now that really would be a revolution worth waiting for.

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