Getting more than a C++

Interactive designers must start to reappraise their knowledge of computers and programming if they’re to avoid sinking into a mire of mediocrity, says Peter Hall.

If the lifestyles of my peers at design studios in New York’s SoHo are anything to go by, business is gushing down Silicon Alley. So much so, that swimming against the current is becoming quite a challenge. Young interactive design groups set up with aspirations as artistic as their names – Funny Garbage, Razorfish, Avalanche – are being sucked along by the ferocious demands of the market. The blame can be pinned partly on the versatility of the interactive medium. Corporations once happy to throw a digital billboard up into cyberspace are now looking for ever more complex on-line communications networks, requiring a technically challenging level of information design. The young design groups have little option but to meet those needs, hauling staff and equipment on board as they thunder downstream.

Outside a party at the American Institute of Graphic Arts gallery, a friend – the founding partner of one of these groups – lamented over a cigarette that the demands of the company had largely brought about the demise of much of his uncommissioned work and the recent departure of his girlfriend. Perhaps it’s a distinctly Nineties relationship that demands of its participants “love me, love my job”.

Unwilling to be beaten by convention, some of the groups have made efforts to accommodate their right brain activities with “alternative” company sites, such as the Razorfish Subnetwork and the Avalanche “Border equals zero” project, where staff can freely upload experimental work. Projects on the latter range from an interactive kitty-petting page, where cartoon cats respond to the caress of the cursor by writhing in ecstacy, to a spoof on the automated phone messages that greet callers to technical support numbers. But by contrast, the money-paying work seems to have become increasingly organisational in nature. Projects that once called for creative innovation now call for sophisticated database management skills, such that the departments of large companies can simply and efficiently upload information into the relevant parts of the group website.

Less inspiring still is the way in which Net creativity swiftly becomes subordinate to the born-again marketing zeal of the new media. Net advertising – only conceived a couple of years ago – has established a pricing infrastructure modelled on the system for buying magazine and newspaper space. Avalanche recently found that its efforts to introduce circular ads to match the look and feel of a site came a cropper on these new rocks of Web convention. Its client ditched the idea when it realised that its space-selling and buying customers were all geared up to a system based on rectangular ads.

Much has been said about the redundancy of the two-dimensional page paradigm that rules the Web interface. It’s cumbersome and inappropriate to a dynamic, flexible medium. But we’re stuck with it, simply because it came first. One school of thought has it that the entire design profession has become a slave to the dictate of such technological convention. Dr David Gelerneter, a computer scientist at Yale University, waging a campaign against dull computer hardware and overbearing graphics, argues that “over the last decade, designers have allowed technology to bully aesthetics, to lead it around by the nose”. Over at the revered Massachusetts Institute of Technology, another computer scientist, John Maeda, argues that at the root is the problem that designers do not understand how the machines they use work. The result is a profession increasingly ruled by software upgrades, cumbersome applications and the “Photoshop guru mentality,” where, says Maeda, “the first person in line for the upgrade gets the design award”. Using his knowledge of programming languages like C and Java, Maeda has set out to demonstrate that interactivity needn’t mean clickable pages and print needn’t mean layered, blended and filtered techno-effects. Check out his nifty little promotions for the Japanese cosmetics company Shiseido, at if you can. They seem to dig deep into the structure of the language and pull out some original ideas.

A knowledge of programming and how computers work would better equip designers to paddle against the tide of convention. The best way to persuade a client against using another banner ad, bevelled button, clickable page or sci-fi blend is to demonstrate an alternative. Perhaps it’s time to get to know those nerdy engineers on the other side of the wall.

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