Summer 1998

Serious doodling

Working in the crash-prone pre-history of multimedia, Post Tool has a brand of graphic design that is closer to televsion

The two founders of Post Tool are not sure whether the term “graphic design” properly describes what they are doing – and they don’t care much either, coming from different parts of the creative spectrum. Gigi Biederman was trained as an artist and art historian at Skidmore College, NY, and studied environmental design at Parsons School of Design in Paris. And “Texan Lebanese” David Karam studied music and computer sciences at the University of Texas, Austin. They met when both were updating their knowledge of graphic design, taking advanced courses at the California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco, where they are still based. “We kind of got enough information to integrate with what we already had a sense of,” says Biederman, shrugging off the subject. “Besides, I don’t think we’re considered as being a traditional graphic design studio.”

Yet what they make is graphic without a doubt: from sternly organised combinations of black and white photography and text to cheerful digital drawings of comic book characters, their work is all about vividly expressed content. And it is about new ways of transmitting it. Although they profess a love for the tactile qualities of print, most of Post Tool’s work never leaves the electronic environment. It is distributed through videos, diskettes, CD-ROMs and the World Wide Web, to reappear on the same kind of screens it was made on.

Post Tool began in 1993 as a team that could provide a rare combination of programming virtuosity and content structure for clients in California’s music and multimedia businesses. For Warner Records’ Reprise label they made their first interactive designs: IPKs, interactive press kits – small programmes announcing a new record in short soundbites, quick clips of every song on the album and information about the product. They were sent out to reviewers and radio and TV stations on floppy disks and proved to be a very successful means of getting attention. “It duplicated itself like crazy,” says Karam. “You would send it to someone in New York and three days later someone from Australia would call you, saying ‘hey, I saw this nice little thing . . .’ “

The interaction was simple at first, with a menu-oriented navigation, “to which we added some things for the edge, to show what the medium can be.” But they wanted more out of the format, says Karam: “The menus felt a little dumb, and not adding to the experience. A menu is for selecting something you know you want to see, but if you just want to have the experience, you want a method of delivery that is more integrated with the information, not a menu . . . So in some cases we decided, for instance, to get rid of clicking. Instead, there are invisible barriers.” When you pass an onscreen element with the mousepoint it is implied that it will trigger information, or some kind of event . . .

In these cases, Post Tool was mainly designing the experience, while much of the visual material came from existing artwork. The interactive press kits helped them to develop their ideas about onscreen navigation. Biederman: “What is the role of the screen? Is it a viewfinder, a camera, something to look at, or something to interact with?”

It turned out to be all of those, and more. True to their name, Post Tool’s aesthetic is in many ways beyond technology, in the sense that they blend tools and content into seamless onscreen events that exist as naturally within their technological universe as a book does in the tangible world – if your computer can swallow it, that is. For instance, accessing their website without Java and Shockwave installed would seriously impair the experience of such playful little things as the “Terbo Tool,” a Shockwave “doodling” engine with which you can draw colourful patterns and figures to the beat of an adjustable soundtrack, while the little programme searches the Web for fragments of text that it displays.

Actually, “doodling” may be considered a keyword of sorts in Post Tool’s design philosophy. Variations of the programme, that enables you to “fool around” with assorted bits of information on the screen, pop up in quite a few of Karam’s and Biederman’s works. Basically, these tools empower the user to destroy the information and its intended and designed structure and turn it into purely decorative bands of “empty signs.” If this sounds too postmodern for you, consider the fact that in real life, attention spans are limited and people resort to doodling, anyway, after a certain amount of serious reading. By in some cases adding this merrily destructive interface to the content, Post Tool acknowledges the different levels of perception at work in absorbing information. This intention, formulated in their mission statement as “to recreate the free flow of associations of the unconscious mind,” is also apparent when they offer different ways of accessing or arranging the same material. In the IPK for Faith No More’s album King For A Day, Fool For A Lifetime, Post Tool offered the basic information – about the album, the group members, the group’s biography and tour dates – in four alternative versions. One version was perfectly readable – if you cared to figure out the interface, which allowed the user to drag and drop the transparent heap of texts and images, and to click and change them for further viewing. Another section mixed a series of QuickTime images from performances on a looped chorus from one of their songs – which made it something quite close to a video clip. And there was the “doodle” screen that invited the user to “click and drag the mouse around to make some art” with the group’s name and the members’ portraits.

Post Tool’s experiments with ways of accessing information and the associated onscreen navigation come from a deep fascination with the computer – not simply as a tool, but as a medium. How do we perceive this electronic world? How do we “handle” the “objects” that appear on the screen? In trying to find as many ways as possible to point, grab, trigger, manipulate and interact with things on screen, the virtual reality that is contained within the computer becomes more and more tangible. Many of Post Tool’s devices function as instruments to raise the user’s consciousness of the physical properties of virtual forms, as much as they might at times be somewhat elaborate ways of accessing information.

“Playing around” with information this way also addresses the problem of balancing the computer’s obvious flaws with entertaining extras that are exclusive to this medium. “It’s hard to hold the attention of someone behind a computer,” admits Gigi Biederman. “It takes time, it’s slow, it’s hard to read . . . all that can make it repellent to sit down and stick a CD-ROM into the thing – let alone access a website. It’s a huge problem. To at least compensate for that, we try to look at the computer as something else than just a place to get text based information. Neither of us likes to read off a computer, so we try to enhance the experience through sound, through imagery, through added events – that’s our main inspiration. I can’t wait for the day the Web functions at last! That will take another, uh, five years?”

There is something paradoxical about this strategy to counteract technology’s strenuous aspects with more technology, conceptually daring as it might be. Even in Post Tool’s own studio, one can encounter situations where Karam, trying to access his own website, exclaims after some frantic clicking: “. . . why does this bomb each time I… okay, we’ll just use the CD-ROM.” In a sense, Post Tool works in the pre-history of multimedia, and its founders are aware of that when they are experimenting with technology and software that would crash all but the more recent high-speed computers. And Karam will certainly contradict anyone who maintains that we are anywhere near a mature insight of what the new interactive media are about: “Now they say that people have explored the idea of interface design, and that because there have been established some conventions, you could say ‘that’s an interface designer, because he’s doing x,y, and z.’ But in my opinion there has been no exploration of interface design to speak of, and by the time people really start to figure it out it will be a totally different profession.”

Nonetheless, they refuse to be scared by the future. And it is not just the megabyte-consuming applications they are after either. Post Tool’s interest in technology and software lies in the ways it can (or might) enable them – and the viewer – to “experience” information in more ways than the traditional unilateral manner. The capricious “doodling” programmes are witness to that, but so is a more sedate interface such as that of Saigon On Wheels, a photojournalistic essay by Ed Kashi on this Vietnamese city becoming infested with modern traffic, mostly motor bikes.

“Here,” says Karam, “the screen becomes a space for cropped information.” It serves as a window, or a viewfinder that only shows part of the material behind it: a photo, a caption and a fragment of text. Clicking any of these parts results in an elegant movement that brings it into full view. Thus the viewer is moving “sheets” of photos and texts across the screen and on top of each other, much like moving them on a small table that leaves no room to arrange them alongside each other. Or, one might add, the viewer experiences a dynamic way of balancing texts and images that is quite the opposite of the serene stasis that results from a similar to-ing and fro-ing on the drawing board of a designer of photo books before it is fixed in print. “We’re thinking in terms of physical properties a lot,” says Biederman. “With real things, everything is tactile and functions that way, so why would information and navigation be separated on screen?”

Why indeed? In the “experiments” section of their CD-ROM portfolio the navigation coincides completely with the information. It turns the main screen into a digital playground that comes to life as soon as the viewer uses their imagination and starts to click away. When clicked, the blue bands sound like a kind of xylophone. Double-clicking anywhere erases one of the bands and puts a bunny or another funny form in its place: one can type remarks and the programme answers. Nothing really “informational” happens, apart from the idea that an interface can be plain fun to play with. And one has to use one’s imagination – there is for instance no Quit button. “To quit this section,” Karam reveals, “you have to tell the computer: ‘Bye.’”

However, Post Tool’s work is not all about interactivity. They see no harm in using the interactive media to present little stories or events that ask nothing more of the viewer than passive attention. “We wondered what the computer could be as a painting, or a TV,” says Biederman, “something to look at or experience passively, which could create the kind of mesmerising presence of a piece of art in a gallery.” Talking about “Cardinal Directions,” a mysteriously spiralling carousel of words they made for a show at Limn Gallery, San Francisco, Karam adds: “The interaction here is restricted to arriving at the thing and leaving it. Some of the decisions we made in structuring it come from working with interactive media, but this time we fixed the interaction and made something you cannot mess with. It mixes logical and fantastic things, information and fluff, thinking and emotion . . . we are fascinated by the nature of a thing like this, although it is hard to make something like it for any purpose . . .”

But maybe the medium in itself is purpose enough. Alongside their design work for clients, Karam and Biederman want to use the media of CD-ROM, the Web and video to present their own content and, with it, reflect on the nature of things digital, be they their doodling engines, animated cartoon characters or online games or stories. The Web is a perfect channel for that, and consequently Post Tool use their website not as a place to show off their work for clients, but more like their own “e-zine.” The “Playpage” features the “Terbo Tool,” and the site offers entertaining features such as “Post News – brought to you by Neosporin” [a headache treatment]; an account of eight artists who collect found photography; a programme that generates random selections of photos with texts; and a spoken story. Karam: “Bedtime Stories uses the idea that one of the best ways of using the Web is streaming audio. This is one screen and ten minutes of reading . . .”

The content of the site – and the way it should ideally evolve – is more reminiscent of a television channel, with its sandwiching of serious content and entertainment, than of a “traditional” promotional website. That is obviously reflected in the name of this “server in love”. “We have this fascination with the Web as a medium akin to TV,” says Karam. “The computer is a new medium, and so we call these things ‘Post TV.’” And Biederman explains: “Television is a reference, it’s one of those new media that people at the start didn’t really know what to do with it, and it has developed quite a bit since. There are a lot of similarities between the way multimedia is developing and the history of television. This is such a new medium, you can’t help but get your inspiration from popular sources, from television, advertising, street culture . . . But we also look to traditional thought on colour and sound, for instance. And the computer, as light-projecting medium, has a beautiful way of showing colour in imagery. You can’t beat that.”

David Karam has mixed feelings about the TV reference, but they may be the very reasons to take the medium seriously: “I have to parody the thing in some way or another, because it’s there all the time – you’ve got to make fun of it. And it’s super informational – you cannot say it is not! It’s the way everybody communicates; you’re cool because you’re wearing the shoes that we all saw on TV. You gotta take account of this because that’s the way people communicate, and it is very strong. So we need to take a stance with respect to that, and if we’re working with this new medium, we should take a stance on what this could be, this Post TV. So it should have a little bit of the stupidity we had before, because that’s kind of entertaining, it should be like art, it should be super intellectual – and in some ways it is all that right now, but we want to take a stand on that, and be part of how it develops . . .”

With a background in designing interactive (and sometimes less interactive) “experiences” on CD-ROM, the Web felt like a setback at first. But the medium of CD-ROM became obsolete overnight, Karam explains: “It just died flat out. It became this entertainment medium for games and stuff, and encyclopedias. All our CD-ROM jobs just stopped at a certain moment and the Web became real popular.”

Their first endeavour, in 1994, was Atlas, an online magazine of photography, multimedia, design and illustration, initiated by Oliver Laude and designed in association with Atlas’s “senior designer” Amy Franceschini. It carried stories, portfolios and Post Tool’s showcase which consisted of stills and downloadable Director movies – Macromedia’s Shockwave had not yet arrived to deal with those on the Web.

Now, Post Tool is not only Web-savvy but recognised as a design studio that demonstrates a high level of sophistication and subtlety when it comes to integrating code with content, programming virtuosity with a highly individual poetics of associative imagery. Ultimately, Post Tool strives at making the technological environment feel as natural as nature itself. Or, as its mission statement puts it: “Our ambitions are to create beyond the realm of the computer screen. To explore interactive 3D spaces designed to enjoy, to explore and to free the mind.”

“We try to integrate the content with the programming,” Gigi Biederman explains. “This goes with the idea that every ‘object’ in a cyber environment should have a property and a meaning, so there is a poetic connection. I think David’s programming is incredibly poetic, conceptually. He sees the numbers in a poetic way. Being one that makes the programming and the artwork, he can develop code that makes a gesture that has a specific artistic effect. And that is very different from giving it to a programmer and saying: ‘Make it arc.’”

David Karam: “I get a kick out of it, I feel that I’m really figuring things out when I am programming . . . But it’s not just the code. I am interested in ‘automatic design,’ in artificial intelligence, in language interpretation, in video games . . . These are all interesting studies, not just in terms of the programming, but in terms of what they do for your thinking. And I like the aesthetic-mechanical combination. If I didn’t do that I would tinker with machines or fix cars.”