|Title:||The Contested Surface of the Baroque Website|
|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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The Contested Surface of the Baroque Website
vol. 4, no. 1, Spring 2004
|Article Type:||Web Project|
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The Contested Surface of the Baroque Website
The Contested Surface of the Baroque Website draws upon an ethnographic study in an effort to contextualize and describe the role of experimental web designers in contemporary digital visual culture. In order to understand this virtual community, it is imperative to first understand graphic designers as effective agents in cultural production. Web designers, I argue, expand the definitions of graphic design and may inexorably change traditional design practices and professional communal structures. This study provides evidence of creative discourse that at times runs counter to commercial media manufacture and the complex relationships between media production and consumption. By looking at the community's online community sites and the experimental web designs themselves, we can expose the conservative and progressive influences on web-based cultural production. The baroque website is thus a dialectical surface upon which the struggle to define contemporary visual computer-mediated communication occurs.
Digital technologies have become a crucial component of contemporary cultural production. Everywhere we look we find the spectacle of computer-generated imagery and three-dimensional forms. Yet the constant flow of light entering our eyes is more often than not a reflection of surfaces designed to seduce us into purchasing something or, in the least, to grab our attention momentarily. The visual materials that saturate our physical world and the virtual worlds we inhabit online are now almost certainly fabricated on desktop computers. Our contemporary visual culture is, therefore, made possible by a handful of technologically savvy, creative production specialists: graphic designers, web developers, and television producers to name a few. Graphic designers, in particular, have become an interface between corporate structures and the general populace (Helfand 9; Lasn 10; Soar 571). The designer often acts as cultural intermediary skillfully using technology and a "specific attunement to the swirl of values and tastes within culture" (Soar 571) to "articulate [...] the realms of production and consumption" within a society (570).
If we give any thought to the designed surfaces that surround us then we generally tend to view the work of designers in a convenient binary opposition to more progressive, grassroots cultural production. To many, the work of professional designers often represents a closed dialogue between intermediaries. In this model, large-scale projects with wide audiences are only achieved with corporate financing and are, more often than not, solely intended for commercial purposes. Grassroots graphic design, then, is produced on limited budgets, viewed by smaller audiences, and may have been created for a number purposes including a designer's or artist's personal expression.
Matthew Soar, in a recent article, began a project to problematize the oversimplified view of the designer as corporate lackey. Soar looks to the publication of the First Things First 2000 manifesto, which appeared simultaneously in a number of design-related periodicals in the fall of 1999, as evidence of a much more complex relationship between the corporate world and design-oriented cultural intermediaries. The manifesto decries the continued production of an overwhelming, vapid corporate visual culture and the thrust of the document is the call for designers to set limits and priorities in order to move the profession away from work that serves only to persuade for commercial purposes towards more lasting, socially responsible projects.
FTF 2000 is a redrafting of an earlier First Things First Manifesto published in 1964. Rick Poyner, in his brief history of the FTF, remarks that when author Ken Garland published the original manifesto Britain was at the height of an economic boom (54) and that Garland used it to denounce the designers' role in establishing the new affluent society while neglecting a certain idealism and consideration for social concerns.
Proving to be an effective crucius, the more recent manifesto has and continues to spur dialogue within the design community. Reactions on the part of those most entrenched in the system of production vary surprisingly. While there is an understanding of the need for critical evaluation of the practices of contemporary graphic design, there is also an intense desire not to 'rock the boat' for fear it may jeopardize the comfortable and profitable relationship many designers maintain with their corporate clientele.
Several key design personalities, such as Milton Glaser who is best known for his 'I (heart) NY' logo, weighed in on the topic of cultural change within the profession with both support and concern that document would prove to be too divisive (Soar 575).
Glaser's position is mirrored by others who understand the complexity of navigating the corporate system to earn a living while maintaining an ethical approach to their design practice. But Glaser and other's understanding is balanced by the scorn of others, like designer Paula Scher—arguably one of the pre-eminent women in professional graphic design today—who saw the document as elitist (575). A meta-reading of subsequent responses by lesser-known designers in the design magazine Émigré, also provides evidence of the thought, shared amongst some, that design is not a political activity and that contemporary society is politically and socially without need of critical evaluation—especially on part of the designer.
Regardless, the manifesto allows one to view the design profession as something more fluid and multi-faceted.
Through the dialogues that ensued in design circles regarding the message of the manifesto, it has become evident the profession is more diverse, in terms of the varying political perspectives maintained by its members, than often thought. One could see the community of graphic designers as a microcosm of broader society—complete with vibrant progressive and socially active factions—yet uniquely positioned within our visual culture. In providing an ethnography of professional graphic designers, Soar begins to construct a view of our global cultural economy and designers as its privileged producers in order to create a more critical discourse about the graphic design profession. Soar's project, however, fails to outline external pressures on graphic design profession, especially those cultivated by technological advances, that have inexorably altered the practice and perhaps enabled, at times, those progressive voices to emerge en masse through alternative technological venues.
This essay is a review of online web design community spaces and individual websites created by experimental web designers. Through this review, I am able to recognize Soar's construct of the habitus and the role of the graphic designer in relation to it as more dynamic entities that expand and contract in response to the impact of other cultural influences and new technologies. I maintain that developments within computer-mediated communication, in particular the World Wide Web, have enabled networks of creative producers who generate alternative models of cultural economy and methods of creative production. Ultimately digital technologies, I argue, bring to the habitus an embedded cultural system that is based on anarcho-communism rather than the structures of traditional capitalism.
[author's note: Soar's project deploys Pierre Bourdieu's notion of the habitus, a complex set of social interactions and expressions that stratify society. Through the production of tastes as embodied in physical or virtual artifacts, cultural intermediaries define the variables that, in turn, constitute the social arena in which all members of a society interact. The habitus is fluid and, I would maintain, a site of much cultural and socio-political struggle.]
Experimental web designers, then, become subtly influential players within the whole community of cultural intermediaries. By using community spaces to share technical information, code, and visual styles, these designers are creating an alternative cultural economy.
Technological changes have, to a degree, enabled these changes in the habitus. The desktop computing technology designers used to push past a ubiquitous Modernist aesthetic during the 1980s has evolved and allowed not only for wide-spread low-cost professional, spectacular graphics but, with advances in telecommunications tools and infrastructure, also for an expansion of facile computer-mediated visual communication. The same technologies, of course, also now facilitate corporate appropriation, co-optation, alteration, consumption, digestion, and regurgitation of the visual languages produced by bleeding edge designers.
Communities of designers, often working outside of corporate media production, use the web to share ideas and to explore the expression afforded by new media. Although it is not unusual for this more exploratory work to be used in or co-opted for commercial purposes, I maintain there exists a tenuous relationship between the experimental design community and mainstream profit-making entities. This is due in part to the fact that designers maintain a host of creative community sites that are unparalleled in older commercial design networks.
One key example is the design-related portal, a website that contains a host of theme-based links and discussion spaces, wherein viewers and participants can share programming code, design techniques, visual resources, links to inspirational web sites, and information about the web design profession in general. Portal sites are communal gathering spaces and departure points for a myriad of personal and professional websites.
The sites often highlighted on portals are experimental work that does not fit comfortably within the realm of corporate production and are evidence of dialogue between professional and novice centered around the exchange of ideas. This dialogue cultivates a chaotic interconnectedness between production and consumption. The resulting avant-garde productions highlight the experimental or baroque webpage as a site where the battle over contemporary aesthetic production as representation of ideology and cultural economy is played out.
Deconstructing Graphic Design
The American Institute of Graphic Arts defines the practice of graphic design as "a creative process that combines art and technology to communicate ideas." Traditionally designers have used photographs, typographic elements, and painted or drawn artwork as communication tools. These elements were manually arranged on layout boards to be later photographed and printed. Typesetting and layout, once tedious tasks, are greatly facilitated by the use of digital tools as are the transmission and printing of composed design files.
The same technologies that assist the practical aspects of the graphic design profession, by 1990, had also forced a serious re-evaluation of the function of the graphic designer as is substantiated in the critical writings of the period. Critical design writing from the early and mid-90s included a multitude of discussions about the role of the designer as author and the effect of technology-driven aesthetics. Spurred, perhaps, by the work of the French post-modern theorists and in reaction to deconstructivist designers following technology-defined approaches to visual design (evident in the work of the Cranbrook School, Émigré magazine, April Greiman, and David Carson), design critics and writers began to question the position of the individual designer's visual statements within the context of the cultural landscape of the habitus. For instance, a sampling of writing throughout the 90s reveals a plethora of concerns: Some authors questioned the legibility of much avant-garde design (Vienne 9) while other's celebrated the aesthetic freedom explored by those designers (Helfand 49; Keedy 27; Licko 46); some reviewed deconstruction and the democratization of typography design (Kinross 18; Lupton and Miller 3); also examined were themes directly relating to authorship and the role of the designer's monograph (Poyner 245; Rock 237).
Needless to say, the range of topics and approaches all share a similar post-structuralist theoretical grounding and are, in part, the result of technical forces at play throughout the profession.
Yet, to many younger, technology-oriented designers on the fringe of the graphic design profession throughout the 1990s, the critical analyses seemed to be evidence of the traditional practice's struggle to incorporate the rapidly expanding vocation of web design.
By 1995 a vast number of designers exploring new media as a novel mode of visual communication began to find a market for their expertise. Their experience using desktop publishing tools, perhaps throughout the entirety of their lives, had become a sophisticated method of creative expression. It is not surprising, then, that their experimentations quickly translated into a set of skills, that, when combined with their expansive knowledge of a myriad of novel technology-savvy, sub-cultural groups, put them in high demand by a businesses ready to colonize cyberspace. The traditional design-centered habitus had to grow to incorporate this new web design constituency. When publication of the First Things First 2000 happened in late 1999, the web designer's bias and disposition-based on exploration, sharing, and globally networked community—had been so thoroughly digested and absorbed that the discussion had shifted from an intellectualized review of internal motivations and aesthetic practices towards a more outward look at the profession's ethical practices and position within the global visual culture.
[author's note: I am not implying here that the graphic design profession was wholly without those traits brought in by web designers nor am I suggesting that the entire network of web designers was progressive. In fact there is a rich history of activism among graphic designers. See Crimp and Rolston's AIDS Demographics (Bay Press), McQuiston's Graphic Agitation (Phaidon), and Poyer's Obey the Giant (August/Birkhauser).]
Ironically by that time, however, any progressive ideological underpinnings and the autonomy of the web design community came under scrutiny. A battle that seemingly came to a close - the struggle between the graphic modernism and post-modern aesthetics - would flare up again, only this time the battlefield was the web page.
By the late 1990s the experimental web designers, a subset of the larger web design community, had begun to build a culture around the development of idiosyncratic visual languages for human-computer interaction via the visual web browser and had become a substantial contributor to the rapid growth of the World Wide Web. Influenced by host of computer media that came before the web, many designers strove to find unique visual representations for the data contained on their web pages and to push the web's proverbial technical and aesthetic envelopes. The relatively unexplored realm of graphic design for the web prompted a flurry of experimentation. For example, the first mass-market visual web browser did not become widely used until late 1994. Nonetheless a year later the visual browser had become a common interface to the Internet, early visual web design tools (akin to the word processor) had been developed, and new avenues of exploration (such as the Virtual Reality Modeling Language or VRML - which would allow percipients to interact with data as three-dimensional representation) began to propagate. The evolution of experimental interfaces also happened quite rapidly.
Steven Johnson, in Interface Culture, remarks that the growing subculture of avant-garde web designers and their "flair for novelty" would push the art of interface design forward (224). Johnson, writing in the mid-90s, realized avant-garde designers were potentially a strong cultural force. Johnson promoted the idea that interface design would, perhaps, become a respected art form and earn the same serious critical attention as a more established art practice. Lev Manovich supports Johnson's assertions regarding the importance of interface design, by saying:
When you use the Internet, everything you access - texts, music, video, navigable spaces - passes through the interface of the browser and then, in turn, the interface of the [Operating System]. (64)
Manovich explains that the interface becomes "a filter for all culture." (64) Johnson, like Manovich, was quick to realize was that the computer interface had become a significant and unique source of cultural representation (Johnson).
This new genre of design initially garnered much critical attention and excitement. However more exploratory and baroque interface designs arguably still have yet to find mass appeal as an art form. While the art community has embraced Net art, and it is common to find experimental design work on more art-oriented portal sites, the graphic design community, who no doubt saw the growing importance of the web design profession in general, may have had a more difficult time appreciating and incorporating avant-garde design efforts. Discussions regarding expressive qualities of contemporary graphic design and designer autonomy prompted by the work of the Deconstructivists, waning in the late nineties, may have also somehow negatively influenced a general perception of the work of web designers . The theoretical grounding was not focused on the liberating technological influences, including the networked nature of the web design community. Needless to say, as exposure to web design became quite common, both enthusiasm and hesitancy was expressed on the part of the more established graphic design community.
While prescient graphic designers saw the web as a logical extension and a valuable new addition to the profession, the practice of web design seemed to remain a somewhat foreign entity for the graphic design community.
The skills maintained by primarily a younger group of avant-garde designers may have seemed somewhat exotic or awkward to those entrenched in more traditional methods and technologies. Many younger designers, who may not have had a strong grounding in conventional practices or an interest in graphic design history or in contemporary graphic design in general, operated outside the well-known networks and design communities which did nothing to endear them to professional designers. More importantly, those who maintained even a modicum of understanding about the technical aspects of computer-mediated communication and some practical design experience became quite valuable to a growing contingent of business interests that saw the World Wide Web as a potentially massive, virtual marketplace.
One could argue that it is at this point when design educators and practitioners accepted the legitimacy of the profession. It is also the point when the experimental web design community, which ironically had yet to become a truly globally amalgamated group, was at its most powerful .
[author's note: This is not to say that experimental designers weren't using the technology to communicate with one another and to develop community networks. The design portal, a derivative of the earlier BBS (online Bulletin Board Services), I believe foments the growth of a vibrant communal structure that provides for much more open and truly global networking. Portals, however, did not become a common virtual gathering place for the community until the late nineties.]
Initially the e-commerce boom, the period of growing economic activity centered around the development of the commercial Internet and prior to the development of web design standards, allowed for a large number of web-based graphic designers, some more professionally trained than others, to create with very few limitations imposed by their patrons. The new digital tools and modes of communication fostered a certain need for exploration of the unique combinations of visual, textual, and interactive elements that characterize web-based design. During this time, corporate design houses did not maintain many people on staff who were capable of producing web pages in-house; thus a whole new design industry came to fruition. While many traditional graphic designers struggled to define their creative niche in the growing digital arena, some within the broader web design community understood the unique position of the first generation web designers and felt empowered. Some had come to believe that their services were so much in demand that they could pick and choose their clientele while others felt empowered enough to actually "fire" or let go their corporate clients (Cloninger, par. 3). To some it may have seemed that modernist hierarchies had given way to a more chaotic, postmodern visual polyglossia.
It is also interesting to note that a few of these early web designers have also remarked upon the skepticism preserved by many of their clients within the early years of their work regarding the role of the web in the larger cultural and economic landscape. The novelty of the visual browser and the fact that much of the technology seemed to sprout from within the realm of exclusory scientific or academic communities added to a certain hesitancy of many corporate managers. Increased corporate interest in the technology as potential marketing tool and the popular press mirroring corporate excitement were arguably both concurrent with and complicit in the rise in the World Wide Web's popularity. It was the venture capitalists' focus on the cyber-marketplace (and their money, for that matter) that pushed the web designer into a significant role as cultural intermediary. Younger designers, who may not have had the benefit of formal design training or much working experience, suddenly found themselves in demand and in a lucrative design profession sustained by a creative freedom unparalleled in recent history. The exploration of web design, which for many was fuelled not by profit but by creative passion, had become a source of income.
By 1997 even the amateur designer could maintain a cadre of clients and earn a living doing web design. Although many high-profile corporate projects quickly became the domain of a growing professional web design community complete with the first generation of well-trained art school and university graduates whose sole focus was new media, there were many opportunities for designers of all skill levels and training to explore web design and earn a modest living.
But that underlying passion to create and desire to explore fuelled a realm of web design practice that seemed to have its own rules and cultural trajectory. The young profession needed amateur and experimental designers to establish the definition of its limits and structures. Amateur and experimental designers alike brought with them a rich collection of visual resources such as video games and an interest in special-effects filmmaking, for instance. They also brought an understanding of the technology lacking in traditional graphic design circles. Amateur designers, especially younger members, also had the time and energy to explore the nuances of design for web pages.
[author's note: In my interviews with experimental web designers, the median age at which most began to produce electronic media—not specifically web pages—was about 10 years of age. Most expressed a general level of comfort in transferring focus from, say, simple programming or creating graphics with image manipulation tools, such as Adobe's Photoshop, to the design of web media.]
It has been explained to me numerous times by community members that exploration was an essential motivation of the early web designer. The community structures were well suited to support the sharing of ideas and design innovation. These structures—design portals and collectives—allowed the novice and expert to interact and anyone could advance the visual dialogue. Many, perhaps, found this an easier professional entree than that offered by traditional graphic design groups.
The open dialogue provided a more efficient means of advancing, cataloguing, and distributing knowledge. Given digital tools with seemingly limitless capabilities, both the well-trained and novice users found a desire to explore aesthetics not only for personal expression but also, perhaps, for alternative ways to use elements worn thin by traditional graphic design, television, and the publishing industries. These explorations took many forms and often offered a challenge not only to the designer but the user as well.
Understanding the Baroque Interface: Towards a Definition of Eye Candy
The experimental web design community is made up of both amateur and professional designers who endeavor to create web-based projects (web pages, web-based interactive media including web-based applications, e-zines or other online productions such as short films, animations or motion graphics) that explore the unique attributes of computer-mediated communication and digital aesthetics. These digital productions then become cultural capital and can help the designer garner a reputation while advancing the aesthetic and technical bodies of knowledge shared by the group.
Sometimes that exploration takes the form of code written to produce a visual effect or to enhance some sort of communicative property of the technology—in essence enhancing the computer-mediated interactivity.
In other projects the exploration may be entirely an aesthetic experience with limited interactive qualities. Regardless, these experimental endeavors often work to differentiate the practice of web design from that of traditional two dimensional graphic design.
One key aspect of web design is an added temporal dimension. Web sites and other web-based projects are composed of a number of screens that can be perused in a plethora of ways.
The act of traveling through a site, then, defines a third dimension.
The incorporation of other time-based presentation material, such as animations or even music, further delineates the web from print media.
Experimental web pages can be a complex fusion of typographical and image elements and are language and visual structures crafted into a more or less unique interactive experience. Interactivity can take many forms, passive viewing of elements, community discussions, navigation, user-altered visual displays, and/or gameplay.
Some experimental projects, or what I call "eye candy" typify a mode of visual design that is produced to evoke a more visceral reaction from the viewer than most common web pages.
[author's note: eye candy is sometimes used to signify something lacking in more profound intellectual significance. Among many members of the study community the term has come to signify something skillfully crafted to be visually arresting thus it maintains a more positive connotation.]
To understand eye candy one must place the work in the context of fairly recent developments in computer-mediated communication. The history of eye candy parallels the recent evolution of the WWW. The development of the hypertext markup language (HTML), essentially the language used to construct web pages when networked computers talk with each other, subsequent markup languages and, of course, the visual web browser, advanced significantly throughout the 1990s, thus allowing for more visual communication.
Prior to the advent of that network of shared protocols and hypermedia we know as the World Wide Web and Mosaic (an early precursor to the Netscape Navigator browser), networked computer communication happened via command-line or more textual interfaces. To navigate and communicate the user first had to master a multitude of esoteric textual commands or interact with networked information from a series of menu-driven textual pages. The experience of interacting with other network users was therefore filtered through a textual interface.
At times an effort was made to produce a graphical representation from textual elements. ASCII art, for example, illustrates the efforts to stretch a textual medium to allow for more visual speech (Danet 194). ASCII art is constructed through use of ASCII characters (the alphanumeric and additional characters required for some standardized networked computer communication). Rows of ASCII type are aligned together to produce a visual representation or abstract image (194). Sometimes words are used to compose an image or characters will be "overstriked" to produce sophisticated images of almost photographic quality. ASCII art goes back to teletype computer and one of the earliest of human-computer interfaces: text on paper or card.
[author's note: The composition of images through words makes a conceptual linkage from ASCII art to other projects wherein artists and designers have sought to explore the materiality of text such as in Dadaist and Futurist visual poetry.]
It is an example of how prior to the web, or the graphical user interface for that matter, there was a need for more visual interfaces. More importantly it highlights the desire of the communicator to produce something that evokes in the user a reaction to both the technology and the image. The playfulness of computer-created imagery, as seen in the example of ASCII art, seems a natural product of the remediation through digital tools (Bolter and Grusin 46). That same type of playfulness is a significant characteristic underlying experimental webpage aesthetics.
HTML, standardized image formats, and the visual browser facilitated the incorporation and play of image and text on the webpage. Through the use of additional layout tools such as visual webpage editors and simple coding languages more sophisticated constructions quickly began to proliferate. Sophisticated visual tools also allowed designers to create more easily very complex web page interfaces that did not depend solely on the written word and the aesthetic structures (such as the grid) as key design features. Therefore, as the tools have evolved so have the skill sets of web-based designers.
Developing a sophisticated understanding of the seemingly endless potential of the tools and the ease with which images, fonts, and code can be shared online have allowed designers to generate complex, visually rich productions that draw from a vast number of historical references and visual styles or through experimentation with code. These productions not only play with the temporality of users' interactions but also are a mélange of historical styles and aesthetic approaches.
Again that playfulness, evidenced in many visual designs wherein the historical reference is stripped away, can be concocted to express a sentiment, to garner a reaction, or, in the least, begin to define a sort of experience for the percipient and also contribute to the work sometimes being labeled eye candy. More frequently, however, it is that display of the designer's technical knowledge and artistic talents at the expense of substantive content that gives it the label. For some designers the need to explore form is so overwhelming that it outweighs the need to provide a traditional narrative or thesis within the work and at times redefines even the interactive nature of the project. As Johnson tells us, however, the interface has it own attributes - in the same way that television and movie storytelling differ from that of the written novel.
Narrative gives way to more experiential and immediate interactivity. Sometimes the experimental designers, in their search for new ways of creating different experiences for their sites' visitors, create complex interfaces at the expense of user-friendliness.
Difficult interfaces wherein users are forced to seek out a hyperlink through a pile of complex imagery, for example, produced a conundrum for corporate entities eager for Internet audience share. Earlier designers maintained unheard of amounts of creative autonomy, as corporate management was unsure of new media's virtues and values. Desperate to attract the hip Internet surfer, American business and venture capitalists threw money at firms who could fabricate a web-based public face that told visitors that their companies were not only seemingly on-board with the "information revolution" but that they were also leaders in defining the new online experience. The experimental designer seemed particularly attuned to the nuances of a quickly evolving youth-oriented cyber-culture.
As the Internet boom reached crescendo in the late nineties, however, many corporate web sites proclaiming to be cutting-edge came under scrutiny and changed to reflect a new concerted effort to contain and manage the user experience. The early skeptics, some who believed that the web could not usurp traditional media in terms of profitability, saw the baroque web site as expensive marketing flourish. Web site designs came under scrutiny because, as one could argue, big business saw the Internet solely as a marketing and sales tool and did not understood the essence of computer-mediated culture.
Many websites did not bring in the desired profits. Unable to grasp why desired profits were so elusive, companies, investors, and venture capitalists looked to a number of sources to blame. The experimental web designer, both professional and amateur alike, become the center of attention. It is at this point when usability begins to garner the attention of corporate media managers.
Usability is the study of a user's experience interacting with a "Web site, a software application, or any user-operated device" (usability.gov, "basics"). As an offshoot of human factors studies, usability concerns a web user's ease and efficiency of use, the site's memorability, the user's error frequency and severity, and subjective satisfaction (usability.gov, "basics").
The usability professional, frequently called a Usability Engineer, often tests a number of different users on tasks pertaining to the content of a web page. A simple method of testing may only require observers to monitor the users' movements through a series of pre-designed tasks and may not even require the users to be on a computer but instead be using paper mock-ups of the website. More complex testing may involve the use of advanced technologies such as those that monitor where exactly the user's eyes have traveled on a page or may require video and audio recording of the usability testing sessions.
Unlike the more academic work by human factors researchers or by industrial psychologists, usability testing often requires nothing more than a few observers, 5 or more recruited test users, a computer, and a dedicated space. After multiple subjects have worked through the tasks, the usability experts are able to find areas of a design that continually hamper completion of those certain tasks. These troublesome areas become the focal point of redesign efforts (Nielsen, "Usability 101" par. 8).
Jakob Nielsen, a corporate consultant and usability researcher, started to apply these simple testing measures to a myriad of sites and subsequently reviewed well-known commercial web destinations ("Failure"). Nielsen's vitriolic attacks on a number of high-profile web site failures raised awareness of his usability techniques among the broader corporate design world, and Nielsen's testing methodology, in conjunction with the collapse of the so-called e-commerce bubble, quickly brought an end to the unbridled financing of more baroque website design. Nielsen's high consultancy fees and negative impression of much of the web (even to the point of declaring that 90% of web sites were fundamentally unusable) became the focal point of much ire on the part of the experimental web design community.
[author's note: It is important to remark at this point that in recent interviews (carried out in 2003) with over 150 experimental web designers that roughly 97% felt usability was an important factor in web design. A common sentiment shared was that certain types of web sites needed certain types of usability. This more nuanced reading of usability is interesting in regards to earlier findings. Interviews performed two years earlier found many designers somewhat more resistant to usability efforts. Regardless, the experimental web design community has steadily maintained its dislike of Jakob Nielsen with a vast majority of those interviewed (both in 2001 and 2003) expressing dislike of Nielsen and his approach to web design, in general. Commonly re-iterated among those interviewed were the sentiments that Nielsen represented an extreme point of view. Others in the community have explained that Nielsen's efforts to discredit their work comes off as a way of pandering to a corporate clientele. Still others simply continue to maintain the un-explicated, puerile stance that Nielsen is an idiot.]
Many web designers felt that design experimentation was suddenly sacrificed to the more staid, formulaic, but ultimately extremely usable style of website design. Nielsen's brand of website layout and navigation, I argue, quickly became the tried and true shorthand for the American corporate web presence. More avant-garde web design needed to be watered down with elements from Nielsen's formula or applied only to the personal page or online portfolio. Certain corporate websites that promote lifestyles, or their "forward thinking" practices and products, or those that cater to younger audiences may now deviate from Nielsen's prescriptions but unrestrained design exploration has, in short, become the providence of the smaller, personal sites and, in some ways, has been forced to the margins of the WWW.
Usability's reign was, for quite a while, primarily an American phenomenon. Until recently, European and Asian designers openly questioned and ridiculed the strict "form follows function" aesthetic. Extreme graphic modernism, it was claimed, threatened to usurp the creative development spreading throughout the wired world (Wigley 122). Exploratory and spectacular web constructions have continued to grace a myriad of professional web productions throughout many parts of the world.
Alas, globalization and the ubiquitous presence of American corporate power have forced a shift in the international web design aesthetics towards a usability-centric model or, in the least, one that mirrors a more modernist approach to design. Newer technologies have, however, allowed for a minor resurgence of eye candy experimentation among professional circles. One such technology, Macromedia Flash, allows for the simple creation of complex, dynamic interface designs and animations that are extremely compact allowing for fast transmissions over networks such as phone lines. Unlike the traditional page, which requires the designer to have knowledge of several applications, Flash centralizes tasks and adds a layer of complexity by allowing the designer to use a simple programming language, called ''action script'', that can be used to easily create intricate interfaces while delivering finite control of individual design elements to the designer.
As the use of Flash became more common, the application quickly became the target of Nielsen's cutting criticism. In an article on a site dedicated to his usability philosophy, Nielsen proclaimed that Flash was "99% bad" ("Flash"). By making such bold pronouncements, Nielsen had struck again at the heart of the experimental web design community. The very pivotal piece of technology that had provided the web-based designer freedom from a tyranny of awkward visual design tools was being discredited as nothing more than a masturbatory tool for the untamed designer.
Designers began to circulate satirical animations, pictures, written articles, other criticisms aimed at Nielsen that continue to proliferate to this day.
[author's note: Many of the subjects interviewed explained that the backlash against Nielsen has happened through the community's inherent expressive avenues and is intended only for those within closed networks. While it is common to hear the efforts to deride Nielsen classified as immature and inconsequential, others feel that Nielsen is a focal point for their indignation towards the corporate take-over of the web.]
While some experimental designers have found some benefit in Nielsen's criticism and subsequently incorporated elements of his methodology into their practice, others, understanding that their primary audience is other cutting-edge designers, continue to work with little regard to usability. Regardless, it is clear that corporate interests and Nielsen forced a reconfiguration of the design community and a re-evaluation of their practice. A certain Cartesian split emerged breaking web site design into two distinct components: usability/information architecture and graphic design. The former being a more masculine, left brain, rational enterprise and the latter being more feminine, right brain, and emotional or intuitive (Cloninger, par. 10). Cloninger, a design critic, who had centered himself in the debate, was left to remark that: "designers are from Venus and usability experts are from Mars" (par. 10).
Nielsen's comments aren't without some foundation however. The amateur designer with very little formal training in long-established visual communication practices has been prone to producing interfaces that suffer in overall design at the expense of the website's ease-of-use sometimes to the detriment of the site itself. Even designers accustomed to exploring difficult interfaces have remarked that they sometimes lose patience with obtuse or hidden navigation schemas.
[author's note: In the earlier days of the web, certain technologies did not work well with varying versions of browsers thus web sites sometimes did not function as intended by the designer. An effort to produce web design standards and to incorporate technologies such as Flash, which works identically on all browsers, have aided the designer in producing sites that function well on a myriad of different machines. Completely unusable sites are hard to come by today. Regardless, the influence of usability and a recent trend in more austere interfaces have also facilitated the ease-of-use apparent in many contemporary cutting edge designs yet may be evidence of the growth of more conservative mindset within the community or of wide-spread design standardization.]
One can imagine many online services and applications that need sophisticated but ultimately very usable interfaces and design. A web interface for the recording, sharing, and storing of medical records should be as straight forward as possible, for instance.
But tools such as Flash, again, allow the designer to push the boundaries of web-design and to explore possible iterations of much more complicated and sophisticated interfaces and web applications . More importantly those experimentations, which some may see as seemingly haphazard design follies, become ways of extending our visual vocabulary or, in the least, are providing alternatives to the commercial web interface.
Experimental web interfaces are perhaps best thought of as cultural interfaces that exorcise the commercial model. With that in mind, what some may find most offensive in Nielsen's unabashed commentary is his insistence on an ever-lasting design methodology that is, for all intents and purposes, unwittingly based on a modern model of graphic design as servant of the written word, information as commodity, and the website visitor as commercial customer.
Nielsen's website, the epitome of his preferred aesthetic, is almost completely without images. Among web designers there is a common understanding that users tend to scan through web pages seeking out desired information using iconography to move the eye or, in the least, break up the text. Audiences often print larger blocks of texts instead of reading them on screen. Nielsen has remarked on this in his usability guidelines yet tends to break his own rules. This includes the example of his use of the ubiquitous blue underline hyperlink that Nielsen tells us is not the optimal color for a hyperlink - a point often cited by anti-Nielsen factions. Needless to say, Nielsen pares down the user's experience to a very staid interaction with text.
Regardless of any contradictions, many in the professional web-design community have come around, at least partially, to Nielsen's position on the need for testing and more usable sites.
For the more avant-garde within the larger web design community, Nielsen perhaps represents the corporate take-over and destruction of a virtual garden of Eden. In many ways Nielsen is a figurehead - a symbol of big business' fundamental misunderstanding of the unique qualities of online environments and the potential of expressive design. To many he represents corporate America's interference in the evolution of what many designers felt was a grassroots, communal effort to expand the development of the visual web as cultural artifact.
The collapse of the Internet boom re-affirmed those who felt that, as one of my subjects iterated, in order for the evolution of the web to continue it first needed to collapse under all of the corporate hype. Yet, as one designer remarked, Nielsen's prescriptions have become common sense and usability is now an integral part of professional practice. This subject lamented the fact that his more baroque designs are now relegated primarily to his private, personal practice. Many in the experimental web design community have shared the sentiment.
The dot-com shakedown, however, took its toll on the web design community at a time when many were frantically trying to defend themselves from or to adapt to criticism. Many independent designers found themselves unemployed and turned to the online design communities to share their work, information about jobs, and to continue the practice of exploration regardless of whether design was their primary profession.
The community of eye candy designers has evolved into a rich mix of personalities and visual styles. Many designers, who practice in a number of design-related professions, maintain somewhat mundane paying jobs during the day yet create extravagant personal work in their off time. Corporate clients often pay the bills but require a more water-down design sensibility whereas the passionate, more creative work happens in private community circles. The chasm between the web site tectonics and expression, the result of a growing influence of usability experts, has fractured the practice of the baroque web site designer. More importantly, however, is fact that the Eye Candy vs. Usability debate has inexorably situated a struggle over of the socio-political structure of computer-mediated communication upon the lowly web site surface.
Rhetoric and Structures of Design
Transactional vs. Experimentational
The difficulty syncratizing usability and expressive, experimental design underscores many implicit political struggles. Yet, with a few exceptions, the political underpinnings of visual design often get subsumed in the more academic and rationalized discourses regarding rhetoric. Often these discussions unwittingly privilege the written word and by default more modern approaches to graphic design. In contrast, a fairly recent article in the journal Computers and Composition by Patricia Sullivan discusses safe visual rhetorics for web-based designs. In the article, Sullivan defines the two camps of web design as the transactional and the experimentational. A transactional mode of web design adheres to a modernist, primarily print-based style of design whereas the experimentational group revels more in postmodernist play while relying heavily on multimedia to create experiential designs.
Sullivan's article does a good job of indirectly framing the expression versus usability debates for a traditionally academic audience and her writing is an important step towards bridging two distinct cultures-traditional literary culture and that of the visceral visual communicators. Yet it is outside the purview of Sullivan's article to really explore the possible political motivations apparent in certain design decisions.
Positioning the Community
Sullivan does, however, briefly allude to the cultural foundations of each camp and their respective complexities. Using her framework, we can begin to outline the postmodernist position of the eye candy group, such as we are doing in this essay, and then, by default, the position of the usability group in opposition. This provides evidence that the eye candy community is essentially a decentralized, dynamic, and, to a degree, diverse group. The usability group, then, comes to represent a staid, hegemonic, corporate entity that has been controlled by the white male. Jakob Nielsen's pseudo-scientific modernist methodology may not be the entire reason why corporate America follows him so religiously. It may also have to do with the fact that Nielsen mirrors a significant number of corporate managers: white, middle-aged, and male.
[author's note: Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics I was able to conclude that people of color make up only less than 10 percent of internet developers (designers, engineers, writers, producers, etc.). In contrast, the experimental design community is slightly more diverse at nearly 20 percent of the community being of color.]
Following Hans Magnus Enzenberger's Constituents of a Theory of the Media, we can begin to further delineate the modern and postmodern ideologies. Enzenberger outlines the repressive and emancipatory uses of media. Centralized controlled media, passive consumerism, depoliticization, production by specialists, and control by property owners are indicators of repressive media use yet all highlight the thrust of the corporate modernist agenda. The avant-garde community follows an emanicipatory use of the media where receivers are transmitters, there is decentralized control, spontaneous interaction and peer-moderated feedback, collective production, and social control by self-organization.
Eye Candy, Commodity, and Use Value
As the prime sites of communal dialogue and knowledge transfer, portals catering to experimental web designers provide a social space where participants have created the social structure and are using the network to share their work and their expertise with their community. What results is a free exchange of ideas and, in some instances, a design that is produced through alternative models of traditional the graphic design practice. For instance, in one exercise, called Photoshop Tennis, designers are given a basic image that they manipulate to their liking before passing it along to another to augment and alter. After a series of manipulations the project is displayed. This type of work is not unlike the Dadaist's exquisite corpse where the unobserved political structures work to define the visual design.
Ultimately, this and other visual experimentations work their way into both personal and, perhaps, into professional web productions that are in turn shared with the community thus generating a type of complex visual discourse. But always beyond the work itself are, again, the structures of community that foster an exchange of knowledge and visual product. Portals emphasize the fact that experimental sites do not exist solely as entities for their creators' own pleasure but are instead a sort of calling card and, in some instances, a method of injecting oneself into the broader discussions happening in the both the professional and personal realms of design. But to call these sites calling cards obfuscates a greater value. The sites become a cultural adhesive, sometimes a manifesto, and a sort of commodity. The term commodity is problematic, however. As Peter Lunenfeld explains:
In the Capital's seminal essay on the fetishism of commodities, Marx discusses the distortion of social relations brought about by the tendency under capitalism to emphasize the "exchange value" of the commodity over its "use value." Commodity production impels the development of social relationships among producers. But for Marx, this relationship becomes obscured with the fetishism of commodities—wherein the relationship between producers is taken metonymically as the relationship between commodities. (5)
Lunenfeld continues a critique of Internet-based exchange when he remarks that Marx's model of based on the commerce of goods is now supplanted by one based on the commerce of tools (Lunenfeld 5). But, it is apparent in the experimental design community that one of the computer's most unique attribute is that it has use-value allowing the consumer to be a producer as well.
The Gift Economy
Eye candy culture (if you will allow me this term) maintains an exchange-relationship that more closely resembles a gift-economy. This electronic gift economy consists of individuals sharing information "without the expectation of any direct, immediate quid pro quo" (Kollock 220). Peter Kollock explains the distinction between gifts and commodities: "...gifts are exchanged between individuals who are part of an ongoing interdependent relationship" (221). Lunenfeld explains that many technocultures thrive on what he terms commodity camaraderie and are, to a degree, a derivation of the high-tech gift economy of hacker culture. Hacker culture, he goes on to explain, is in turn a derivation of an exchange model maintained in the academy where one's research is publicly disseminated to support and extend not only the discipline specific knowledge-base but the researcher's own reputation as well.
Richard Barbrook has come to a similar conclusion regarding the high tech gift economy. In tracing the open-source movement and file sharing, Barbrook concludes that the net is a vivid example of network-based anarcho-communism albeit one financed by corporate monies (par. 18). The Janus-like nature of the web is apparent in the working practice and private design exploration of the experimental web designer.
As the cycle of corporate co-optation and absorption of avant-garde design continues, it is easy to assume that commercialization of the web will subsume or force farther to the margins experimental design work. But what does not factor well into that equation is the fact that web sites are often a chaotic mixture of cultural artifacts, methods of interactivity, and representations of socio-political structures.
Regardless, traditional graphic design practice has been inexorably changed by technologies embedded with the ideologies of their creators. The experimental typography of 1980s and 90s was due in part to the low-cost of desktop computing technology and the freedoms allowed by the new digital tools. Similarly, web design and networked community-building are inexorably changing graphic design by promoting a sort of visual discourse between professional and novice and the rapid sharing of ideas, media, and even programming code.
As our networked society places more emphasis on our interactions with technology, the interface becomes of greater importance and our web-based interface designers are, like graphic designers before them, placed into the influential role as cultural intermediary.
Returning to Matthew Soar's project, it is important for us to understand the role of designers and, now, the communal systems that support their practice in the hope that we can promote the production of more progressive exchanges throughout our constructed digital landscape.
Gregory Turner-Rahman is an interdisciplinary doctoral candidate at Washington State University. His research focuses on the visual culture of new media and online creative communities. Also informing his research is the other half of his chimerical vitae: a position as Graphic/Interface Designer and Consultant at the Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology at WSU. In this capacity, he not only works with teams developing online learning tools and applications for higher education but also assists faculty grappling with issues pertaining to visual learning modalities and new technologies in the classroom. He can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Chris Bruno, Zsolt Dreher, Julio Ferro, Joao Estevao Andrade des Friatas, Diane Miller, Ricardo Sousa provided images that appear in this project. They are all members of a free, international image exchange community called Stock.Xchng. I am grateful for their kindness in allowing me to use their work.
Additional images were produced by Aneesa Gabriella Turner-Rahman and myself.