Spring 1996

Go in at the top and redefine the project

What is the graphic designer’s role in production for the internet and how are studios changing?

New York-based designer Jessica Helfand was recently approached by a client to pitch for a Web site they were creating. She obliged and delivered a document that included references to books on the subject. At their next meeting the client presented a series of Web pages he had produced himself. Some enthusiastic reading and a couple hours in front of a PC and he had become a Web page designer.

Production for online is very different from production for print, and the rapid growth in electronic media is having a major impact on the way design studios are conceived, staffed and organised. For instance, the cost of Web space is minimal so there is no economic limit on the amount of “product” to be designer; the more interactive the medium, the larger the job, as every time the user is given a choice more pages have to be produced; software tools are still primitive, making this work laborious. But in a medium where information is updated frequently and published instantly, clients do not necessarily want to bring designers for every change, preferring to rely on their own, often considerable in-house publishing and IT skills to do the job.

While Avalanche, a 30-strong new media design studio in New York, designed and produced NBC Web site and have continued to be involved with hands-on designs despite their regularity with which the site is updated, production on the Discovery Channel Online site, which Helfand’s company was instrumental in creating, is now in the hands of the client. Helfand sees this as no bad thing. “Web sites are so involved, they eat up design and make innovative thinking impossible,” she says. “Physical distance from a project overcomes this and yields emotional distance.” Helfand is now in the process of scaling back her studio to create “a little, conceptual Media Lab” which will provide clients with a template for a Web site in the form of a single designed screen accompanied by an in-depth proposal rather than endless completed pages. This was the strategy for her work on word.com, a Wed-based magazine which has been developed by veteran of digital media Jamie Levy into one of the most inventive sites of its kind.

The role of the designer may even stretch to dictating the form a project takes in the case of clients driven by a desire to keep up with new technology but with little understanding of interactive media. “We help clients to find the appropriate medium for their interactive projects, whether it’s the Web, CD-ROM, or some hybrid format,” says Andrew Zolli at Siegel & Gale. “Designers should enter a company at the highest level and if necessary redefine the project,” argues Helfand, who spends more time consulting the New York Times business section than the new media publications.

Studios dealing with design for interactive media require staff with different skills than print-oriented studios. Craig Kanarick and Jeff Dachis, founders of New York-based design company Razorfish, have backgrounds in computer science and marketing respectively; Kanarick went on to study at Muriel Cooper’s Visible Language Workshop at MIT’s Media Lab. “None of our designers comes from print,” he says. “Dynamic digital design is as different from traditional graphic design as it is from industrial design.” Avalanche take staff from a variety of design backgrounds and find that new staff without technical skills pick them up quickly. Both companies are having difficulty recruiting fast enough to keep up with their workload.

While online is obviously a major break from print, designers should not lose their sense of perspective. Many of the questions that have to be addressed when dealing with an online project are familiar: Is the chosen medium appropriate? What is the client trying to say? Who are the audience? Others are more specific to electronic media: How technically competent and design-aware is the client? Will they be able to maintain the product? What hardware and software will most users have? Doris Mitsch at Hal Riney Partners was involved in designing the site for Saturn Cars, a make aimed at budget-conscious families – the sort of people who might use America OnLine Web browser as the lowest common denominator.

Designers need to provide Web sites with a logical structure, with an organisational schema for each page and a navigation strategy between and within those pages. What might users want to do on a given page? Where might they want to go? Do they understand what kind of information or service is offered? How will they get feedback to indicate what they have done? Corporate identity and design manager Lori Neumann claims that users on the IBM site are never more than three-clicks away from product information. Peter Seidler at Avalanche produces plans of the site structure and interactivity, though he recognises the limitations of any two-dimensional representation of a digital product, preferring to think of sites as “clouds” of data. Sites should be designed for easy updating and designers need to supply extensive documentation along the lines of a corporate identity manual to allow those with this responsibility to keep the site consistent in function. According to Neumann, this is achieved at IBM, across multiple divisions and countries, by means of extensive style sheets, guidelines and examples as well as standard icons, an image library and tools to automate processes such as masthead creation.

At a visual level, sites work best if they have consistent and rich visual language. Seidler argues for developing conceptual treatments – playful for the toy store FAO Schwartz, or encouraging users to reach out and touch the company for the record label Electra, around which Avalanche have created a culture and community. “If clients don’t already have an understanding of the important of community on the Web we try to educate them,” he says. “We work hard to incorporate interaction and involvement in every site we produce.” But the success of any approach will be determined to some extent by the responsiveness of the technology in operation. The large graphics use by many studios to control the appearance of a site are not necessarily the best solution given that the decreasing cost of modems and computers means that the growth in the online world recently has been around limited bandwidth. In Designers’ Guide to the Internet, Zender, Fine and Albertson cite a two-month trial by Sun Microsystems to improve the button design on their Web pages: button usage increased fourfold after the redesign. John Plunkett of HotWired readily acknowledges that its aesthetic “was, is, and always will be controlled by transmission speed.”

Technology plays a particularly significant role because of the immaturity online. According to Zolli, beta testing for Internet software companies has become a process of “seeding the product” with a view to having exemplary sites already using the technology at the time of its launch. As a result, designers tend to rush to use new products before they appear on general release. Zolli suggests that sites should be “designed forward” : the design of current sites should anticipate future developments which can be seamlessly integrated at the appropriate time. Designers are also learning to work with programmers: at HotWired “engineers” outnumber designers three to one.

Online offers tremendous opportunities for designers. Success requires a combination of confidence that their traditional analytical skills can be redeployed, and openness to learning from other, often seemingly unrelated disciplines. Exciting developments are taking place and designers who take the plunge stand to make great gains – and demonstrate to their clients once again that they are worth the fee.

First published in Eye no. 20 vol. 5, 1996

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.