Spring 1992

When media worlds collide

All the pundits agree – the arrival of full-scale multimedia is only a matter of time. But what is it actually supposed to do? William Owen reports

Hypertext is the communication media’s equivalent of cold fusion. It is one of those fuzzy notions which exist in the realm of pure thought and which – if only the theory could be given practical expression – is expected to have massive potential for information design in as yet unknown and unimagined applications.

The word was dreamed up in the 1960s by computer pioneer Ted Nelson to describe a method of linking data in an automated network. In his grandiose scheme this database contained all of the written knowledge in the world. But Nelson’s definition is conceptually outdated, because it understands recorded knowledge in terms of text alone, overlooking the graphic possibility of digital reproduction of still or moving images.

Hypertext, therefore, is a misnomer. Its future role is as a mechanism through which film, video and sound will converge with print within the computer in one big medium. In software circles this super-medium has come to be known as ‘hypermedia’, but ‘multimedia’ shows signs of becoming the popular general term.

In the meantime, nobody knows what the medium is actually supposed to do. Most Macintosh users have a copy of Hypercard, Apple’s version of hypermedia, on their computer. Few have realised that this playful little toy, this glorified address book with a paint program attached, has the potential to become their own prototype media lab, a personal visible language workshop in which it is possible to experiment with new information frameworks in which data is cross-referenced in a web of parallel and serial strands. Hypercard introduces a new dimension to graphic and information design – time. And it creates the possibility of an entirely new typography in which words move, jump, flicker, tremble, grow, blur, vanish and, if absolutely necessary, explode.

Hypercard has probably fallen foul of its designers’ desire to make the unfamiliar familiar by simulating the physical world. The writers of the software chose to represent the system as a stack of record cards, linking it inextricably in people’s minds with a database, which it is not. It is a kit of parts, a ‘software erector set’, with which its users can create their own information systems – catalogues, magazines or encyclopaedias – uninhibited by conventional definitions such as word processor, paint program, database, spreadsheet or DTP. Hypercard is all those things, existing within a kind of alternative system software.

This imperfect vision of a future in which the computer is the medium has naturally succumbed to the paper fetishism universal in the graphic design profession. We use dynamic and interactive computers to design static monologues printed on crackling sheets of paper: inked, embossed, gilded, varnished, textured, tactile, aromatic, bleached wood pulp. Beautiful stuff, which will not disappear. But there will also be alternatives which offer less sensual and more cerebral properties, which are nonetheless ‘real’. Only when screens are used to define images destined for paper do they offer an unrealistic representation. Designers who work with interactive desktop publishing see in digital type new qualities of depth, animation and dynamism which do not translate onto paper. Within multimedia these and other more intriguing properties can be explored.

Multimedia is perhaps the best described as a hybrid of cinema and print, although it has two important aspects which neither of these models offer, one of which leads to the other. The information has no physical substance and as a result it is mutable, can be constantly updated and may be interactive. The ‘reader’ can contribute to or alter the information and so can the ‘writer’ by providing constant updates by remote or physical data transfer. Multimedia also offers an infinity of structural possibilities in terms of the way that the information is arranged. It could be organised as a sequence of pages, as in a book; alternatively, each ‘page’ or ‘screen’ might offer pages, or a multiple choice of routes, allowing the reader to go off at tangents or to browse at random.

Working models exist. Philips has recently launched its CD-I interactive disk player, which connects to a conventional television. CD-I gives users limited control over graphics and text stored on optical disks, but is currently limited by the low resolution of the television screen when it comes to reproducing large quantities of text. Similar systems have been developed for business graphics by Microsoft and for games and entertainment by Commodore.

A far more sophisticated working example is the Micro Gallery in the new Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London. Its structure – essentially that of an encyclopaedia – is based on four categories or chapters: ‘picture types’, which contains a colour library of all of the works on display in the collection; ‘artists’, with a short biography and often a portrait of each; an ‘historical atlas’ of European art since the fifteenth century; and a ‘general reference’ section, containing information on movements and themes.

The weakness of the encyclopaedia approach is its brevity. Themes have to be compact enough to fit into the space of a single screen. The definition of ‘Renaissance’, for instance, is reduced to just 80 words, making this a database for the casual visitor rather than the serious student. On the other hand, historical width is provided by excellent cross-referencing, which enables the viewer to move across categories by pointing at highlighted words on the touch-sensitive screen. In addition, most pages have a layered structure, allowing the user to delve to whatever depth is required. Key words and names are emboldened to indicate that they are ‘hot text’ – when pointed to a pop-up window gives an elaboration of a theme or a pocket biography. This layer has fundamental implications for information design, where the quantity of data shown at one time is critical, but it can be distracting if over-used. A balance needs to be struck if information overload is to be avoided.

The Micro Gallery is interactive. Its most useful feature is a map of the main galleries which the viewer can amend to highlight the location of paintings, thus creating an itinerary which can be printed out together with any pages accessed. The gallery makes the most of the flexible information structures offered by multimedia and it realises much of the medium’s graphic potential in its combination of text, photography and maps. Its typography, however, is entirely conventional. It has not been adapted to accommodate either the limitations of screen resolution, or the possibilities of dynamic digital typography.

In fact, anyone with a Macintosh can make excursions into the possibilities of animated typography, even without recourse to Hypercard’s sophisticated scripting language, Hypertalk. Emigre Graphics’s ‘Signs of Type’ stack, designed by Zuzana Licko, shows that you do not need to be a computer programmer to experiment with this new form of cinema.

The stack is an animated essay on legibility and digital typography, together with a font catalogue. Characters dissolve and reappear, move around the screen, tilt from roman to italics, and shade away from black to grey. The stack appears to be the result of clever programming – it isn’t. It is a succession of ‘cheats’ using the command resources already available in Hypercard, together with the natural ‘flickbook’ type animation provided by rapid transitions from one screen to another.

Licko makes clever use of reverse animation (the implosion effect, in which letters are gradually painted out and then the sequence is re-ordered back-to-front to give the appearance of characters growing out of space) and a further layer of animation is provided by the ‘visual effect’ commands included within Hypercard. Licko has attached them to the ‘buttons’ which the viewer pushes to move through the stack. There is, in fact, only one short sequence of customised animation in the whole stack – a moving photo of Emigre magazine. Everything else is done with the tools provided in the kit, together with some intelligent structuring of the ‘cards’ of the stack.

Hypercard is in many respects still just a toy, because it is constrained by current screen technology and it belongs to a medium that you cannot push through letter-boxes – yet. So why play with it? And why animate type? For that matter, why make type bold or italic, large or small? The answer is, of course, to provide emphasis and direction. Animated digital typography has the potential to offer a wealth of far more subtle, delicate methods with which to direct the reader through paths of text than has ever been available in print. These possibilities, allied with the extraordinary structural arrangements of information available within multimedia, and the addition of sound and moving pictures, suggest we could be on the brink of one big medium and, ultimately, one big design discipline.

First published in Eye no. 6 vol. 2, 1992

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