15 Questions for Lance Arthur

15 Minutes trades quips with Lance Arthur, master of glassdog.com, and friend to humankind.

Lance Arthur, writer/designer
"Write your own damn book."

1. For the uninitiated, explain what you do.

Professionally, I'm a WebJOAT. I just made that term up, feel free to meme it at will. Web for Web, where I live, and JOAT for Jack Of All Trades. My employer, Database Technologies, allows me to run free and naked with my personal projects in the empty spaces between working on Intranets, designing interfaces, chatting up clients about why they want to be on the Web - which is probably the most important part of the job since most of the clients want to be on the Web but they don't know why, precisely. And then I do whatever else is called for and they pay me for that. Which even I have a hard time believing some days.
          Around the sanctum santorum of the Web, though, I suppose what I do is rant about crap, explain how I design pages, meaning I don't explain how you should design I merely explain how I design and leave the decision up to you whether you think I'm doing it right or not. I goof around with HTML, trying to break it or bend it very, very far. I investigate content formatting techniques and bandwidth squeezing to varying degrees of success. I don't usually have a very clear idea of what I'm doing as I'm doing it. I think that's the safest way to progress through life. Most of that is done through my personal outlet, glassdog. I have free reign to do as I please there and, so far, it's worked out pretty good for me.

2. You consider yourself a writer, and you certainly are one. But I reckon your work's fame is due to the interface design.

That's true, and it used to bother me. I mean, I'd write up all this . . . whatever it is and put it out there for people to read, or at least browse through. And I thought it was pretty good, then again the thing about a personal site is all you really need to do is please yourself when it comes down to it. I mean, I liked what I was writing, I amuse me.
          So, anyway, I was also always interested in design, in the design of things. I paid attention to it. I always thought it was important, and I knew that I'd pick up a book based on its cover and read the endflap and it may be a piece of crap but I picked it up, which is one step further than most books get. So many of them never even get picked up, and I knew I wanted people to pick up my Web pages so I did put a lot of effort into making the presentation important, to stand out from the crowd. I guess I erred on the side of presentation, though, since the writing part is pretty much never mentioned. I figure, though, that people who come back do so for the content, not the design. The design is the irritating flashing light in your peripheral vision that makes you look over, but it's the contents of the sale bin that make you return to see what's new.
          Plus I get paid for my designs, I've never made squat for a word I've written. Who am I to whine about it at this point?

3. You go to extraordinary lengths to control the presentation at Glassdog. In many ways, you seem to take HTML where it's never gone before.

It's always funny, and I mean ha-ha funny as well as weird-ass funny, to hear what someone else gets from the 'Dog. To me, of course, it's very simple. The construction of it, the organization, the navigation. I've been living with it for over two years now through its various incarnations and I know where everything is. It all seems natural. And I tend to forget that people who've never been there have no idea what's there. I mean, they have no expectations other than a site should do something, it should have a purpose or a goal. It should sell something, even if that's someone's life or their work or their interests.
          And some people get very confused and frustrated because glassdog doesn't do anything. There's no ads, there's no clear path to follow, it doesn't lead you anywhere or try to convince you of something or even teach you anything. It just sits there and you can explore or leave and it doesn't seem to care. I occasionally get emails like, "it's very pretty and funny but... what's it there for?"
          When I read those sorts of things I feel that I've succeeded because from the outset I made a concerted effort to not meet expectations, to not explain anything. So many of our experiences in life have been form-fitted and pre-formatted to be easy to swallow and unchallenging.
          I'm not going to sit here and state that glassdog defines new paradigms or subverts the social norm, clearly it doesn't. But I never wanted to be predictable and I wanted visitors to sit up and pay attention, and I think my heavy-handed attempt at engulfing the audience whole reflects that desire. I use the tools not necessarily in the way they were meant to be used, but I don't think I'm corrupting them either. And I don't pretend that this interface could be used on any other site. It fits my goal, so it's successful.

4. I prefer Glassdog 7 and suspect you do too. But I wonder if the general public misses the buttons and 3-D elements.

This is the first entirely successful interface I think I've created. I'm very satisfied with it, not only how it looks but how it works. I've put a lot of burden on the visitor, unfortunately. You don't get the full effect without a recent browser, you have to have JavaScript support, there is no text version, there's no frameless interface. The only reason for the latter is I'm lazy. It's a personal site and I feel a certain freedom not to do things I would normally say were requisite of any Web site. I'm a B advocate of Web For All, I don't think a fast connection or millions of colors on a big screen or even a GUI interface should be absolutely necessary to see a page. All of which might seem contradictory to what happens at Glassdog. But again, this is my personal site and I'm experimenting. In Web construction, you have to answer to your client first. I'm my client here and I know what I want.
          I did get a lot of people who wrote to ask to bring the "rubber buttons" back. There was a comfort level established and I knew that would happen when I integrated them. Now that remote controls come with just about every electronic device around, we're all used to seeing little black buttons and we know that we press them to make something happen. Plus that navigational element - which was totally separate in design from the interface on the rest of the site - had great big text labels that floated under the buttons so it was eminently clear what happened when you pressed one. There, again, I had met my goal. I wanted a navigation element that did not appear on the left side of the page and I wanted it to be fun to use so visitors would be more likely to use it and, therefore, see more of the site and I wanted to integrate the familiarity of an everyday device, the remote control, into a Web site.
          When I started to design the current interface, I wanted a totally integrated appearance and I wanted it to be able to stretch to fit any screen. I needed the navigation to be instinctive but I wanted it to integrate. I also didn't want it to be only situated along a single edge. Color schemes as navigation devices are nothing new, it was merely the simplest method of achieving my goal without resorting to text labels all over the place. In this case, aesthetics took precedence over usability. I might strike a better balance someday, but that's why I have the 'Dog. To figure it all out in public.

5. Explain your purpose in creating Soulflare.

It was initially just another section at Glassdog. Collaborative sites dedicated to writing were proliferating at the time. Every week, another site was debuting asking for people to write something down and send it in, induced no doubt by the success and quality of Derek Powazek's {the fray} and Alex Massie's 'afterDinner'. I wanted a site dedicated not to words but to images, and what I really wanted was to see a reflection of the quality and impetus behind the collaborative writing sites at Soulflare. To clarify, those sites were very Webcentric, presenting stories in new ways specific to the capabilities of this medium. That was my goal with Soulflare.
          After opening the section at Glassdog, it was apparent that the size of the files would quickly outstrip what I was allowed to place on the server of my IPP at the time. So it was either start dumping other sections of the 'Dog or have Soulflare set sail on its own somewhere else. I bought the URL and started an online museum dedicated to digital art. I invited several artist friends to submit new works for the debut last August and to my great happiness both Francis Fiddlehead and Bård Edlund said yes. I gathered more works as the months passed and the site now features an international collection of artists.

6. How do you choose your collaborators at Soulflare and, to a lesser extent, Glassdog?

You mean I have lessor collaborators at Glassdog, or you're interested less in them?
          I don't, they choose me. I have an "open door policy," to use a management cliché , regarding submissions of work at either site. People either send me email with attachments or point me at a URL. I am a lot more lenient about art than I am about writing. I have more confidence that I know poor writing than that I recognize bad art.

7. When you redesign a much-honored site like Glassdog or Soulflare, are you exhilarated or nervous? Do you feel free or frightened?

Not any more. I used to preview new designs to a few people to get feedback, but I discovered that by the time I had them ready enough to show anyone, I was too married to them to be able to alter them much. Part of that process was to have different people try to break the interface on different platforms, and for that it remains a handy tool. But the other reason I was doing it, to gauge audience reaction, was mostly an exercise in futility because even if there was something they disliked - the color scheme, for example, or even a specific image like the posterized dog on the current interface - I had grown too comfortable with it to change it.
          I'm always excited when I put up a new design. I'm currently working on GD8 and I've gone through four iterations already and all I've really got so far is a new logo I sorta like.
          Usually a new design is a reaction to something, either rejecting what I had just done and trying to go in another direction altogether or fighting the Web mainstream, when a proliferation of sameness seems to appear all at once.
          For a while you couldn't escape black pages, but now there's all sorts of colors and I can't tell you how happy that makes me! There's the left-edge navigation paradigm and I'd like to see more people break that. Whenever one starts to see too much of one thing, it's time to do something else. I don't like the idea of rules out here. I mean, guidelines are fine but hard-and-fast "never, ever do this" sort of statements set my teeth on edge.
          The Web is so young! I'm gratified that the flood of My Way Or The Highway Web design manuals seems to have trickled out. You know the ones I mean. For a while there was a string of pontificating interactive design gurus all proclaiming that they held the secret to Web design. They were like diet books. "Only use black and red!" "Don't use horizontal rules!" "Lots of white space is the only way!" "No one likes icons!" "High protein, low carbos!" And so on ad nauseum. I mean, intercourse that! Learn the basics, figure out what the tags do, how they work together, then write your own damn book!

8. Why did you say Soulflare was a failure after you looked at theremediproject.com?

One of my main goals, no, the main goal at Soulflare was to invite artists to stretch out here on the Web and use this medium as the canvas. While I enjoy a pretty Photoshop picture or Bryce rendering as much as the next geek, I wanted to see what would come out if I opened the doors and said, "Okay, look, here's this place that uses simple formatting and hyperlinks and streaming audio and all these other tools. What I want you to do is not write another page, not make another flat image that sits there, not spend hours trying to scribe pixels with a mouse. What I want you to do is make something out here. Use the tools, use the Web, use the capabilities and overcome the limitations." I didn't care about bandwidth, I didn't care about content, I cared about seeing something new.
          While Josh Ulm's site is not entirely successful in this regard, either - some of the exhibits are more like TV commercials than Web sites - it certainly reached farther and got closer to what I wanted than Soulflare. I admire the artists at my site and I've been remiss recently with updating it. There've been three artists in queue now for about two months and I'm sure by now they've either given up on me or think I was kidding. But what I wanted was something radical, something magical, something "out there." I just haven't gotten it.

9. Your mixture of pristine design and satirical, sometimes scatological humor, has to be fairly unique. I can think of no other web designer who combines these elements; in other art forms, I can only think of Frank Zappa.

There's an artist named Robert "Roller" Wilson whose work I became familiar with via a Zappa album cover, as a matter of fact. It's the "Them Or Us" LP. The cover features a tongue-lolling dog in a red velvet dress and sunglasses. It's a photo-realistic painting and I never really looked to see who did the cover art and then I happened upon a book with that same dog sitting in a highchair on the cover and discovered Wilson's work. It's very amusing and all his paintings generally feature the same cast of animals and put together, they all tell an ongoing tale of beauty pageants and visitations and disappearances in a small Southern town. He came to mind for some reason, I suppose it's the beauty and precision of his work along with the outrageous humor and seemingly non-sequitur stories.
          I think it's important to gather a wide range of creativity around you for inspiration and I've often picked up that book when I'm feeling useless. I have some Web design books, too, but they never seem to help. It's always the Wilson works or a book of photography like David LaChapelle or this great book on Los Angeles architecture and design called Free Style that spurs me to go in a different direction. You look at Frank Gehry's house and you can't help but feel creative.
          That's an interesting observation, though. I haven't really sat back and examined the relationship between presentation and content on the site. I've never been one for broad humor, personally, although I love the whole Pythonesque strain of nonsense and anger, and I know I'm hardly alone in that field.
          I tend to be an exacting and anal personality. Messes cause me no end of frustration.
          I recently got this silver-dollar sized divot on the trunk of my car when some asshole kid - I assume it was a kid, could very well have been your basic adult asshole - threw a rock at my car while I was driving. No lights were broken, no glass shattered, it doesn't affect the driveability of the car in any way but it bugs the shit out of me that I now have this imperfection to the lines of my car. I know I'll end up breaking down and paying thousands of dollars to have it fixed.
          I'm the same way with designing Web interfaces. It takes me forever to answer emails except when someone points out that a link is busted or some piece of the JavaScript is acting up under a specific set of circumstances or a color isn't dithering right or whatever. Obsessive, some people call it. I prefer to think of it as being attentive.

10. What is the AW3AS supposed to be about, and what, if anything, is the holdup there?

If anything, I am now the holdup.
          What the Academy is supposed to be about is the Web and the Web alone. It is not about other digital media such as CD-ROM production or interactive airport kiosks, it's about the Web.
          It's about taking a critical look at the state of the medium and about discussing how it works, what works best on it, who's doing the work to extend the capabilities and recognizing and honoring those people and those works, whether they be literary, design, construction, tool making or search innovation. The Web is a vast and unruly place. I don't want to be the rule maker, but I do want to recognize excellence and I want to gather the people together who feel likewise. Steve Silberman at Wired put it most succinctly; The Academy will strive for peer review of Web creativity and honor those who excel. I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist.
          Unfortunately, the task is a lot bigger and will take much longer to come to fruition than I ever imagined. When I proposed the idea - and it was never my dream to begin with, I know several people thought about this endeavor and I believe Glenn Davis investigated a formal Academy of this sort some years back - in my head it was going to be like every other Web endeavor I've undertaken. Generally, you get an idea, you build a Web site, people come, some get involved while others watched. I considered that I would never, on my own, garner much recognition from the world at large because, frankly, who the hell am I? I don't run a business, I'm not in the papers, I don't have a Webcam pointed at my bedroom, I'm not a published author, I don't have any credentials of the caliber I thought necessary to launch something like this. But no one else seemed to want to, either, so I figured, eh, what the hell? I'll give it a shot.
          Slowly, the light dawned as I realized what I had gotten myself into. I imagined that I might capably organize things and delegate other tasks but that don't work. The situation called for a leader, someone to say what flew and what crashed.
          In further discussions with Web movers and shakers, i.e. people who are on the W3C board or whose names you can mention in casual conversations among Webheads and everyone knew who you were talking about, the idea wasn't cast off but no one would commit without a much more formal organization. And then there's the question of membership qualifications, and funding, and corporate sponsorship. I realized that I was woefully underqualified for most of the tasks ahead, but I still didn't want to give up. It still seemed like a great idea and it still seemed that if I didn't do it, no one would.
          So where we stand now is we're attempting to formulate a business plan, we're looking for legal help regarding trademark and non-profit incorporation, we're attempting to formalize membership qualification criteria and member responsibilities. There is a very long road ahead and at this point there is no light at the end of the tunnel, there's just more tunnel.

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