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.

15 thoughts on “Unsung Heroes of Web and Interaction Design: Derek Powazek

  1. Hell yes. Derek is a founding father of the creative, collaborative web, and everything he’s produced online has made the web a better, more delightful place. With Fray and JPG magazine Derek helped bring folks’ creative output, personal stories and photos, to a broader audience — people like me, who got excited by the web because of its potential as a playground for creativity and creation. (This was before Google was clogged with spam and splogs and we had to “like” a million things before we could view an ad-soaked page.)

    Now with Cute-Fight, Derek’s making the web that much cuter and fun, and I’m thankful for that.

    I’m so, so glad that we have people like Derek (and like yourself, Jeffrey) because these people work so hard to make the web the sort of place I’d like to live, and they do it with whimsy, heart, and passion.

    And Derek’s wife Heather Powazek Champ deserves a hearty shoutout, too, dammit, because she’s worked so hard to make the web a kinder, more thoughtful, more community-driven place.

    Thank you for this post. It made me remember the good things of the web, put a smile on my face, and encouraged me to get back to the craft of building a better type of website.

  2. And he’s one hell of a public speaker. He gave a fantastic closing keynote on communities at a conference I worked on a few years ago. Great person, and great to deal with.

  3. When I saw {fray}, I finally “got” the web. I fell in love …with {fray} and with the web.

    If it weren’t for Derek Powazek, I might never have ended up doing what I do today.

    Thank you, Derek.

  4. There’s no doubt that Derek Powazek is one of the “Unsung Heroes of the Web.” His post on SEO still stands out as one of my favorite things I’ve read on the web…maybe ever. To me, what has always made Derek great is his desire to always work on things that he is passionate about and in turn enable others to share their passions on the web. {fray}, JPG and now Cute-fight…they all have two things in common: passion and Derek Powazek.

  5. All the above is true. But this seems like a good place as any to record one of the best questions I’ve ever seen asked.

    I met Derek at a FOO camp a few years ago. It’s the only time we have ever hung out, including one of my favorite moments of casually kicking a ball back and forth across a field while we both talking with our wives on the phone.

    There was an astronaut there, someone who actually spent time on the space shuttle. Hell yes I’m going to listen to what he has to say.

    Derek asked him one of the most fun, insightful, and odd questions I’ve ever heard, about his time on the space shuttle.

    “What did it smell like?”

  6. Derek’s work had a huge impact on me. I changed the
    way I performed live to include the “audience” in the shows.
    He and Heather Champ are great examples of
    people with integrity whose work makes a huge impact but don’t necessarily spend much (if any) time on self-promotion.
    I’m lucky to have been able to work with Derek and to know him. He and Heather probably know more about the web and community than anyone else I know.

    Here’s to cute-fight.com and to success and recognition for Derek. It’s well-desered and long overdue and I’m thrilled you posted this Jeffrey.

  7. Fray! Hard to imagine I was 16 and living in Michigan when it came out. I think I found it a few years later but remember loving it in high school and college.

    More and more I am learning how these early examples shaped my view of the web, content and community.

  8. I lurked around the fringes of {fray}; never contributing, but letting its influence wash over me. I guess I was more of a Mirror Project guy. I did however once go to some sort of {fray} meet-up in Bennington, Vermont. I love reminiscing about the Web’s days of yore, which is like yesterday in human years. It humbles me to realize how big an influence people like Derek Powazek, Heather Champ, Jason Santa Maria, Eric Meyer, John Allsopp, and yourself have had in shaping my voice, such as it is. Thank you!

  9. My experience with the Internet and a whole community of people wouldn’t have happened if Derek and I hadn’t met. I was lucky enough to have a story published in {fray} in 1998 — a far more personal story than I would dare to put on the web today: http://fray.com/criminal/geographic/

    Thank you, Derek for your creativity and drive.

  10. We see farther because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Mr. Powazek is one of the tallest. (or at least the longest inseam). Thank you sir for not just thinking outside the box but setting it on fire and drop-kicking it down the stairs.

  11. Derek was a big influence on me as well, not just with Fray but with his work at hotwired and at…a pre-Fray web magazine he started whose name I’m unable to recall. Along with Yoshi Sodeoka and the designers at Word Magazine, he’s always stood out in my mind as one of the pioneers of early interaction design on the web.

Comments are closed.