Interactive media is the new design reality. While traditional media are chewing their heads off in the search to find new ways of surviving in an electronic, always-on environment, all things digital are calmly taking over the world.
This has given interactive designers a new confidence. You can see this by looking at what happened with the 2008 D&AD Awards. Graphic design (in other words, traditional design) beat itself up over a dearth of top-notch work; a messy and public debate ensued about why graphic design wasn’t competing for the top D&AD prizes any more. But there was no self-doubt among interactive juries: just the calm confidence that they were the new rulers. Print looked tired and defeated; digital fizzed with optimism.
Of course, this is not to say that there aren’t problems and challenges in the digital domain. Two big questions loom over the scene: how do clients make money when everyone expects everything that can be delivered on a Web page to be free?; and how do designers make interactive communications as compelling as traditional communications?
If we look at the first question – the public’s expectation that if it’s viewable on a Web page it has to be free – we see that there’s a major obstacle here. We only have to look at the way iPlayer and YouTube – both free at the point of use – are changing the way we view TV. The contents of newspapers and magazines, with only a few exceptions, are now freely available online. And let’s not even think about what’s happening to the music business. The threat here is easily stated: if no one wants to pay for content, who is going to pay for the designers of content? This is a conundrum that is taxing some of the best media brains, and we can be sure that a solution will be found.
But, as more and more brand owners forsake traditional media and turn en masse to digital channels to reach their audiences, a golden opportunity for interactive designers grows bigger every day. We only have to look at the marketing press to see where the money’s going. For old school ad agencies it makes scary reading, but for digital groups, it’s happy times.
Turning to the second question – how do creative people make interactive communications as compelling as traditional communications? Today, if brand owners want to speak to lots of people, they have to do it digitally. But notice that I say, ‘speak to’ and not ‘speak at’. Speaking at people is what old media do (and then they wonder why no one’s listening). Interactive media, on the other hand, allow brand owners to have conversations with their customers, and allow them to speak to individuals. It also means that brand owners and advertisers have less control over their audiences, and that the audiences can answer back. The result is that it needs more than blinking banner ads to reach people.
To this new, media-savvy generation, two things matter: entertainment and information. This is where interactive designers – and digital systems – come in. Interactive designers certainly have the tools and skills to inform – but do they have the skills to entertain in the way, for example, that the best TV ads do? Judging by what turns up in my e-mail inbox, the answer is yes. Every day someone sends me a nugget of Internet gold – a new application, a link to YouTube, an animation, an online game, a bit of digital wizardry. It’s clear that smart designers are using their skills to create the compelling messages of the digital age – but then it’s easy to be good when you’ve got inner confidence and the certainty that you’re time is now.
Adrian Shaughnessy is a designer and writer, and runs his own consultancy, Shaughnessy Works