Tired of being wired?

Digital knowledge and communication have become the holy grail for many designers, but the constant changes and mutations in this vast field make it so hard to keep up that Peter Hall wonders whether designers shouldn’t simply disconnect and stick to one

SBHD: Digital knowledge and communication have become the holy grail for many designers, but the constant changes and mutations in this vast field make it so hard to keep up that Peter Hall wonders whether designers shouldn’t simply disconnect and stick to one discipline

Should designers just concern themselves with simply being “good at their trade”, or is technology forcing us all to be multidisciplinary? It seems rather poignant that this debate should bubble up on Design Week’s letters pages just as the UK experiences the birth of Wired, the magazine that brings all professions together with the consumer to worship the ruthless god of technology.

Wired has been a phenomenal publishing success in the US, starting as a small, trendy computer magazine in 1992, breaking-even within a year, finding a backer in Cond&#233 Nast, and seeing its circulation escalate to over 100 000 in three years. Reading it has always been a little like watching all 57 or so TV channels simultaneously. As you leaf through an issue, it gallops from vibrant to innovative to ugly to trashy and back again, blazing images in its wake of overworked businessmen trying hard to look “wired”. But in editorial and sales terms, it has been perfectly positioned to ride the cusp of the wave that swept everyone up, up and away with talk of the information superhighway, first from the liberal left, and now from the Republican right.

Designers in the US have not been immune to its message. Increasingly, the younger generation of graphic designers has wired itself, and negotiated a path out of two-dimensional print work into television and multimedia. These designers’ work ranges from font design and kinetic type for TV to icons, moving images and environments on interactive promotions, CD-ROMs and online services. Their tasks are becoming less the application of visual ideas on paper than the demonstration of a strong knowledge of new fields, new tools, and a certain directorial panache.

A graphic designer is frequently no longer required to be someone with a good eye and a strong drawing hand, but someone with a good eye and an awareness of emerging digital technologies. Few would wish to cast themselves as digital wizards, but having knowledge in that area can help maintain open channels of communication with a client, and provide the edge that wins the job. Several graphic designers have grasped enough of MacroMedia Director’s complex programming language Lingo to be able to put together a good interactive self-promotion disk, only to discover that in a client’s eye this puts them in the position of multi-media consultant.

The problematic part about positioning yourself as a technology consultant, programmer, director and multidisciplinary designer is that there is too much to know, and it won’t stop changing. Consider the area of communications networks, in which almost every American designer has at least some involvement, even if it’s limited to sending e-mail and picture files through the modem. Once the files get too big, speed becomes an issue, and the designer is faced with a mesmerising array of choices for upgrading his or her communications network.

This situation is mutating constantly, as new online services and cheaper networking methods show up, along with better and easier-to-operate means of traversing the Internet. Those graphic designers who are shrewd enough to get themselves involved in the actual design of these online services are up against a whole new set of issues far removed from the relatively simple, two-dimensional world of print. For Clement Mok, whose San Francisco design group is developing the interface for The Microsoft Network (Bill Gates’ new online service scheduled for an August launch), designing an online interface is closer to architecture than graphic design. “It’s about creating new spaces and environments for people to encounter,” he says.

“Enough!” you shout back. “I’m being digital. I design fliers and posters and packaging on Adobe Photoshop and QuarkXPress. I’m good at my trade, and I know my field.” But for how long? This Autumn, Quark is to introduce Xposure, a rival to PhotoShop (and supposedly more sophisticated): while Adobe, which now also owns Aldus PageMaker (the rival to Quark XPress), is fiercely pushing its XPress to PageMaker conversion software in an effort to lure designers over. You too may have to make the decision to learn a new image-manipulation or page-layout program. And what if your client asks you to send your 50Mb artwork file via modem to his or her Berlin office that night, and you don’t have the facilities to do it? What if your choice photographer gets a digital camera and starts dumping optical disks on your doorstep instead of the old contact sheets? What if your photographers start to design things themselves?

Too many choices, and too many boundaries being broken. I wonder how anyone can write a great novel, or create a lasting work of art in this fin de siäcle techno frenzy.

Is there, in fact, a case to be made for disconnecting yourself from the wired world, with its myriad of opportunities, and sticking to one discipline, a familiar set of tools and parameters?

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