Category Archives: democracy

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.

The Unbearable Lightness of HTML5 – or, the priority of constituencies versus the great dictator

LET’S DIG A BIT DEEPER into the latest conflict between web developers who are passionate about the future of HTML, and the WHATWG. (See Mat Marquis in Tuesday’s A List Apart, Responsive Images and Web Standards at the Turning Point, for context, and Jeremy Keith, Secret Src in Wednesday’s adactio.com, for additional clarification.)

The WHATWG was created to serve browser makers, while its product, HTML5, was designed to serve users first, designers (authors) next, browser makers (implementors) last according to the priority of constituencies, which is one of its founding design principles.

There is a tension between this principle of HTML5 (to serve users above designers above browser makers) and the reality of who is the master: namely, browser makers – especially Google, which pays Hixie, the editor of HTML5, his salary. That’s not a knock on Hixie (or Google), it’s just the reality.

One way the tension between principle and reality plays out is in not uncommon incidents like the one we’re reacting to now. According to the priority of constituencies, designer/developer feedback should be welcomed, if not outright solicited. In principle, if there is conflict between what designer/developers advise and what browser makers advise, priority should be given to the advice of designer/developers. After all, their needs matter more according to the priority of constituencies — and designer/developers are closer to the end-user (whose needs matter most) than are browser makers.

Solicitiation of and respect for the ideas of people who actually make websites for a living is what would happen if the HTML5-making activity had been organized according to its own priority of constituencies principle; but that kind of organization (committee organization) echoes the structure of the W3C, and the WHATWG arose largely because browser makers had grown unhappy with some aspects of working within the W3C. In reality, there is one “decider” — the editor of HTML5, Ian Hickson. His decisions are final, he is under no obligation to explain his rationales, and he need not prioritize developer recommendations above a browser maker’s — nor above a sandwich maker’s, if it comes to that. By design, Hixie is a free agent according to the structure he himself created, and his browser maker end-users (masters?) like it that way.

They like it that way because stuff gets done. In a way, browser makers are not unlike web developers, eager to implement a list of requirements. We designer/developers don’t like waiting around while an indecisive client endlessly ponders project requirements, right? Well, neither do browser makers. Just like us, they have people on payroll, ready to implement what the client requires. They can’t afford to sit around twiddling their digits any more than we can. In 2007, the entire world economy nearly collapsed. It is still recovering. Don’t expect any surviving business to emulate a country club soon.

So, has this latest friction brought us to a tipping point? Will anything change?

In theory, if we are frustrated with Mr Hickson’s arbitrary dictates or feel that they are wrong, we can take our ideas and our grievances to the W3C, who work on HTML5 in parallel with the WHATWG. We should probably try that, although I tend to think things will continue to work as they do now. The only other way things could change is if Hixie wakes up one morning and decides benevolent dictator is no longer a role he wishes to play. If I were in charge of the future of the web’s markup language, with not just final cut but every cut, I’m not sure I’d have the courage to rethink my role or give some of my power away. But perhaps I underestimate myself. And perhaps Hixie will consider the experiment.

We Didn’t Stop The Fire.

OUR LIBRARY IS BURNING. Copyright extension has banished millions of books to the scrapheap. Digital permanence is a tragically laughable ideal to anyone who remembers the VHS format wars or tries to view Joshua Davis’s 1990s masterpieces on a modern computer. Digital archiving is only as permanent as the next budget cycle—as when libraries switched from microfilm to digital subscriptions and then were forced to cancel the subscriptions during the pre-recession recession. And of course, my digital work vanishes the moment I die or lose the ability to keep hosting it. If you really want to protect your family photos, take them off Flickr and your hard drive, get them on paper, and store them in an airtight box.

Though bits are forever, our medium is mortal, as all but the most naive among us know. And we accept that some of what we hold digitally dear will perish before our eyes. But it irks most especially when people or companies with more money than judgement purchase a thriving online community only to trash it when they can’t figure out how to squeeze a buck out of it. Corporate black thumb is not new to our medium: MGM watered down the Marx Bros; the Saatchis sucked the creative life and half the billings out of the ad agencies they acquired during the 1980s and beyond. But outside the digital world, some corporate purchases and marriages have worked out (think: Disney/Pixar). And with the possible exception of Flickr (better now than the day Yahoo bought it), I can’t think of any online community or publication that has improved as a result of being purchased. Whereas we can all instantly call to mind dozens of wonderful web properties that died or crawled up their own asses as a direct result of new corporate ownership.

My colleague Mandy Brown has written a moving call to arms which, knowingly or unknowingly, invokes the LOCKSS method (“Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe”) of preserving digital content by making copies of it; she encourages us all to become archivists. Even a disorganized ground-level effort such as Mandy proposes will be beneficial—indeed, the less organized, the better. And this is certainly part of the answer. (It’s also what drives my friend Tantek’s own your data efforts; my beef with T is mainly aesthetic.) So, yes, we the people can do our part to help undo the harm uncaring companies cause to our e-ecosystem.

But there is another piece of this which no one is discussing and which I now address specifically to my colleagues who create great digital content and communities:

Stop selling your stuff to corporate jerks. It never works. They always wreck what you’ve spent years making.

Don’t go for the quick payoff. You can make money maintaining your content and serving your community. It won’t be a fat fistful of cash, but that’s okay. You can keep living, keep growing your community, and, over the years, you will earn enough to be safe and comfortable. Besides, most people who get a big payoff blow the money within two years (because it’s not real to them, and because there are always professionals ready to help the rich squander their money). By contrast, if you retain ownership of your community and keep plugging away, you’ll have financial stability and manageable success, and you’ll be able to turn the content over to your juniors when the time comes to retire.

Our library is burning. We didn’t start the fire but we sure don’t have to help fan the flames. You can’t sell out if you don’t sell. Owning your content starts with you.

Crowdsourcing Dickens

As an experiment in new new media thinking, I recently crowdsourced a new new literature version of Charles Dickens’s musty old old old lit chestnut, Great Expectations—the familiar tale of Pip, Ms Havisham, the convict Magwitch, et al.

Creative excellence and spin-worthy results required a pool of 10,000 people who had never read Great Expectations. Fortunately, I had access to 10,000 recent American college graduates, so that was no problem.

To add a dab of pseudoscience and appeal obliquely to the copyleft crowd, I remixed the new work’s leading literary themes with the top 20 Google search queries, using an algorithm I found in the mens room at Penn Station.

The result was a work of pure modern genius, coming soon to an iPad near you. (Profits from the sale will be used to support Smashing Magazine’s footer and sidebar elements.)

Gone was the fusty old title. Gone were the cobwebbed wedding cake and other dare I say emo images. It was goodbye to outdated characters like Joe the blacksmith and the beautiful Estella, farewell to the love story and the whole careful parallel between that thing and that other thing.

Gone too was the tired old indictment of the Victorian class system, and by implication of all economic and social systems that separate man from his brothers in Christ, yada yada. As more than one of my young test subjects volunteered in a follow-up survey, “Heard it.”

In place of these obsolete narrative elements, the students and the prioritized Google searches created, or dare I say curated, a tale as fresh as today’s algorithmically generated headlines.

The results are summarized in the table below.

Old Great Expectations New Great Expectations
On Christmas Eve, Pip, an orphan being raised by his sister, encounters the convict Magwitch on the marshes. n/a
The convict compels Pip to steal food from his sister’s table, and a file from her husband the blacksmith’s shop. Pip thereby shares the convict’s guilt and sin—but his kindness warms the convict’s heart. Guy on girl
Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe, abuses him. Her husband loves Pip but is unable to protect him or offer him a future beyond blacksmithing. Girl on girl (multiple entries)
Pip meets Miss Havisham, an old woman abandoned on her wedding day, who sits in her decrepit house, wearing a yellowing wedding gown, her only companion the beautiful and mysterious girl Estella. Pip falls in love with Estella, but Miss Havisham has trained the girl to break men’s hearts. Guy on guy
Pip visits Miss Havisham until his apprenticeship with Joe the blacksmith begins. Pip hates being a blacksmith and worries that Estella will see him as common. Two girls, one guy
Mrs Joe suffers a heart attack that leaves her mute. A kind girl named Biddy comes to take care of Mrs Joe. After Mrs Joe’s death, Biddy and Joe will marry. Meanwhile, Pip comes into an unexpected inheritance and moves to London, where he studies with a tutor and lives with his friend Herbert. Dragons
Pip believes Miss Havisham is his benefactor and that she intends him to marry Estella, whom he still adores. Day by day, Estella grows more cruel. Pip never tells her of his love for her. Wizards
One stormy night, Pip discovers that his benefactor is not Miss Havisham but the convict Magwitch. The news crushes Pip, but he dutifully allows Magwitch to live with him—worrying, all the while, because Magwitch is a wanted man who will be hanged if discovered. Explosions
Miss Havisham repents having wasted her life and perverted Estella. She is caught in a fire. Pip heroically saves her but she later dies from her burns. Soon afterwards, Pip and Herbert try to help Magwitch escape, but Magwitch’s old enemy Compeyson—who happens to be the man who abandoned Miss Havisham at the altar—betrays Magwitch to the authorities. Magwitch and Compeyson struggle. Compeyson dies and Magwitch is taken to prison. Gunfights
Pip now realizes that Magwitch is a decent man and tries to make Magwitch’s last years happy ones. He also discovers that Magwitch is Estella’s father. Magwitch dies in prison shortly before he was to be executed. Pip tells the dying Magwitch of his love for Estella. Fistfights
Pip becomes ill and is nursed back to health by Joe, whom Pip recognizes as a good man in spite of his lack of education and “class.” Pip goes into business overseas with Herbert. Eventually he returns to England and visits Joe, who has married Biddy. They have a child named Pip. As the book ends, the middle-aged Pip makes one last visit to Miss Havisham’s house, where he discovers an older and wiser Estella. There is the implication that Pip and Estella may finally be together. Anal

Housing Works launch

We call ourselves web designers, but sometimes we are more than that. Sometimes we get to participate, in however small a way, in something much larger and more important than ourselves.

Started in 1990 by four members of ACT UP, Housing Works helps people who are homeless and have HIV or AIDS. Housing Works not only saves lives, it restores dignity, purpose, and hope to those whom society has cast aside. Happy Cog is honored and humbled to have worked with this amazing organization and to announce the relaunch of the Housing Works website, redesigned by Happy Cog.

Our thanks to Housing Works’s Christopher Sealey and his team—we bow endlessly in your direction, sir. And my thanks and commendation to the amazing people at Happy Cog who did the work:

[tags]Housing Works, AIDS, HIV, homeless, homelessness, advocacy, hope, happycog, work[/tags]

A modest proposal

It is illegal to make false claims in a TV or radio commercial unless you are running for political office.

If you’re selling toothpaste, your claims must be vetted by legal and medical professionals. But not if you’re selling a candidate.

If you’re selling a candidate, not only can you lie about his record, but more to the point, you can lie about his opponent.

These lies are seen and heard by millions, not only when they run as paid advertisements, but also when they are run again for free on 24-hour news networks hungry for controversy. And after they are run for free, they become talking points in an “unbiased” conversation that pretends there are two sides to every story, even when one side is lies. Two words: Swift Boat.

Lies, and a candidate’s embarrassing efforts to brush them aside, fill the news cycle and constitute the national discourse. And this terrifying and morally indefensible rupture from reality persists even when the country is on its knees.

If networks refuse to accept cigarette advertising, how can they readily approve dishonest political advertising? Cigarettes kill individuals, but lying political ads hurt the whole country. No democracy can afford this, let alone when the country is at war, and under existential threat from terrorists, and in economic free fall.

So here’s my idea. One that could actually work, if America’s networks remember they are Americans first, revenue seekers second.

Just as they once united to stamp out cigarette advertising, radio and TV stations and advertisers must get together and agree that false statements in political advertisements will not be tolerated. If you run a political ad that proves to be a lie, your network will pay a steep fine, and the advertiser will pay an even steeper one.

To avoid these crushing fines, networks will insist on proof of statements made in political advertisements, just as they demand proof of statements made in sugarless chewing gum commercials.

Political advertisers will not be able to lie about opponents. They will either have to attack opponents honestly, or talk about the actual issues facing the country, and how their candidate will solve those issues.

Imagine. We might hear ads about the banking crisis and how each candidate will address it.

Candidates might summarize their positions on Iraq and Afghanistan and end with links to more detailed positions on their websites.

The public might discuss the real issues facing us instead of manufactured Entertainment-Tonight-style “controversies.” People might even vote for candidates based on their resumes and positions on the issues.

It would be just like democracy.

[tags]advertising, political, political advertising, lies, TV, radio, politics, presidential[/tags]

What is Art Direction (No. 9)

Alive Day Memories - Home From Iraq

This outdoor ad, newly posted on a phone kiosk, arrested me as I strolled down Lexington Avenue last night. Its explicit content can be summarized as follows:

A young woman, facing the viewer, holds what appears to be a prosthetic arm—her own prosthetic arm, one infers. The young woman is casually dressed in a sweater and jeans. Her expression borders on neutral. Where her right arm should be, the sweater has been pinned back. The poster also contains words advertising a new HBO documentary, executive-produced by James Gandolfini, concerning the difficulties faced by a new generation of American war veterans returning home from Iraq.

That is a pictorial inventory, but the poster contains more content than I have listed. Most of that content is externally located. For this poster has been framed and shot, and its subject styled and posed, almost exactly like an American Gap ad.

Consciously or unconsciously, an American viewer will almost certainly make an uncomfortable connection between the disfigurement and sacrifice portrayed in this ad, and the upbeat quality of the Gap’s long-running, highly successful clothing slash lifestyle campaign.

That connection is content. And the non-verbal information that triggers that content in the viewer’s mind is art direction.

Wordless and full of meaning

What is the art direction saying? What is it adding to the content that is already there? Surely the sight of an attractive young woman who has lost her arm fighting in Iraq is loaded enough as an image. Surely a non-combatant, far from Iraq, safe at home, already feels plenty of complex emotions when confronted with this one veteran and at least some of the visual evidence of her sacrifice. What additional statement is being made by the art director’s decision to style this poster like a Gap ad?

Here is a possible reading:

While many Americans are well aware that their country is at war, many others are doing their best to blot that thought out of their minds. In this effort at collective amnesia they are abetted by many retail advertisers and TV programmers, including not a few TV news programmers. Ratings-wise, the war is a bummer. Sales-wise, it is a drag. America wants to shop and move on. (Interestingly, the fashion industry is the one segment of America’s consumer culture that is paying attention. The 691 pages of the new September Vogue are filled with skirts, shoes, dresses, and jackets that obviously resemble armor or in other ways clearly invoke awareness of war and warriors.)

In conceiving the way this poster would be shot and styled, the art director was not holding the Gap responsible for the war in Iraq. Nor was he or she blaming the viewer. But by carefully echoing the imagery of an ad that epitomizes our comfortably shallow consumer lifestyle, the art director does indict the complacent among us and challenge us to think about something besides our next new sweater or iPod.

The placement of type ensures that the words are the last thing we see on the poster. We absorb and are discomfited by the rich, non-verbal text for several beats before our eyes take in the explicit, written content announcing a documentary.

That is art direction. It is not art. It is not design. It is something else. It makes us feel. It makes us think. It holds up the mirror to our desires, our regrets, ourselves.

[tags]artdirection, whatisartdirection, alivedaymemories, iraq, gap, veterans, advertising, iraqwar, wariniraq, posters, thesis, antithesis, synthesis [/tags]

The Polling Place Photo Project

The Polling Place Photo Project is a nationwide experiment in citizen journalism that seeks to empower citizens to capture, post and share photographs of democracy in action. By documenting their local voting experience on November 7, voters can contribute to an archive of photographs that captures the richness and complexity of voting in America.

The Polling Place Photo Project is part of Design for Democracy, an initiative of AIGA, the professional association for design.

[tags]democracy, usa, voting, polls, AIGA, designfordemocracy[/tags]