New media is still evolving – and design hasn’t missed out

James Souttar ancient@urizen.demon.co.uk

In Yolanda Zappaterra’s article Net Profits (DW 29 August), Nucleus’ Peter Matthews is quoted as saying: “New media was the biggest opportunity that design ever missed.”

Apart from the obvious quibble that many of us didn’t actually miss it, this assertion begs to be questioned. Has the window of opportunity now closed? In that case, these media must be most unlike the others we are familiar with – it took at least four centuries for “design” to colonise print (WA Dwiggins is usually considered to be the first person to be described as a “graphic designer”), and several decades for designers to see the prospects in television.

Are new media really sufficiently mature for us to start drawing conclusions already? My inclinations tell me the opposite – that we are only just beginning to get to grips with them. It is only just starting to dawn on many organisations that their website is an important expression of their corporate identity. Or that the communications they project electronically need to be at least as carefully crafted – as communications – as any they are used to projecting by other media. The more these realisations grow, the more they will be inclined to look towards those who understand these issues for advice.

Then there is the consideration that, as these new media continue to evolve, we are only just beginning to acquire the tools necessary to carry out our trade. Until very recently typography on the Web was effectively nonexistent, especially when you needed to take account of narrow bandwidth and a low common denominator of software/hardware.

For those of us schooled to believe in the importance of the formal aspect of a message, these constraints meant that we could scarcely begin to exercise our skills. As technologies emerge to help us overcome these problems, we are at last able to put clear blue water between “design” and mere “implementation”.

But what is the big hurry? A study of previous technological revolutions shows that any new medium takes decades – centuries even – to establish itself.

At this early stage we have little understanding of where digital media may be taking us, and can only speculate as to what their opportunities will be. And anyone who has worked in this industry over the last few years should know by now that those who are quickest off the mark are rarely those who survive the distance.

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