Unsung Heroes of Web and Interaction Design: Derek Powazek

WE TAKE the two-way web for granted today, but it wasn’t always this way, and the democratizing power of HTML wasn’t manifested overnight. Derek Powazek is one of the pioneering designers who helped bring the two-way web into being.

Informed web designers admire Derek’s now-defunct 1996 personal storytelling site {fray} as one of the first (the first?) examples of art direction on the web, and it certainly was that. Each {fray} story or set of stories was different; each had its own design and layout. Often the site made then-cutting-edge technologies part of the story—as in one tale about the theater, which was told via draggable framesets. (At the conclusion of each page, the user dragged on “theater curtains” made of Netscape frames to reveal the next page, or stage, of the story.) {fray} and Derek are justly famous for promoting true storytelling art direction on the web, in an era when most websites followed strict rules about inverted-L layouts and other now-happily-forgotten nonsense.

But while many fondly remember the site for its art directional achievements, what goes unnoticed is that {fray}, in 1996, was a massive leap forward into the two-way web we take for granted today. The democratizing web that makes everyone an author and publisher, whether on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or WordPress, thereby fulfilling Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s vision for HTML; this web we alternately joke about and fiercely defend; this web in which we spend half our lives (whether on desktop or mobile); this global town hall in which we share the most mundane details of our lives, as well as those things about which we are most passionate—this two-way web would not exist today if not for pioneering interaction designs that showed the way. And Derek Powazek’s {fray} was among the first and most important of those pioneering designs.

Now, web design had been “interactive” since Sir Tim invented HTML. Clicking blue underlined links to explore content is by definition interactive. And the first commercial websites, contrary to what the previous decade’s “Web 2.0″ evangelists would have had you believe, were not one-way communications. The Batman Forever site my first web partners and I worked on in 1995 pushed design and content out to the masses, to be sure—but the site also had discussion forums, where individuals could contribute their viewpoints. Sites before ours had sported such discussion forums; sites after ours would, too.

What Derek did with {fray}, though, took the two-way web to a whole new level. Instead of siloing content by producer (“official” web content here, “user” discussion forums there), Derek integrated the reader’s response directly into the content experience.

I don’t know if {fray} was the first site to do this, but it was the first site I saw doing it—the first site I know of that not only made the entire reading community an equal content authoring partner with the site’s own writers, designers, and developers, but also underscored the point by putting the site’s content and the readers’ content in the same place visually (and therefore conceptually). Fray.com wasn’t just about showing off Derek and his talented partners’ brilliance. It was about encouraging you to be brilliant.

Today we take embedded article/blog post comments for granted, but they wouldn’t exist without a memorable precursor like fray.com. Your blog’s comments may not owe their existence to a flash of insight you personally experienced while reading {fray}, but you can bet that the convention was grandfathered by a designer who was influenced by a designer who was influenced by it.

In the nearly two decades since {fray} debuted, Derek has worked on many things, most of them community driven. Cute-Fight is his latest. Here’s to our democratic, personal web, and to one of the champions who helped make it that way.