Charles Munat on Design

This message was posted by Charles Munat on January 9, 2002

[email protected] wrote (on another list):

"I think you will find that graphics designers still don't believe that CSS etc could provide the kind of artistic expression they are used to, and even if it does, it will take a lot to convince them. I understand that a lot of pages are data - driven, but this doesn't mean that their navigation is data- driven - one would hope, actually, that the navigation remains static to ensure rational [consistent] presentation!"


What does consistency have to do with rationality?

The problem is that such designers are dinosaurs, though they don't know it. They were trained on one (or both) of two types of media:

1. Fixed passive media, such as print media. The designer's canvas is fixed in size, material, and (to some extent) time. The designer has control over color, position, size, etc. to the limit of the available technology.

2. Relative passive media, such as television. The designer's canvas is fixed in proportion but not size. It is variable over time, but the designer has control over this. The designer also has some control over color (although black and white TVs do exist and colors vary from one set to another) and fairly good control over position.

In both instances, designers believe that they have total control over the user's experience of their "art" (more often, commerce). This is easily seen to be false.

Take a magazine ad, for example. The designer knows the exact size of the ad, and this does not vary. The designer can choose the colors and the layout of the ad with a high degree of accuracy. Type faces and sizes are fixed as well.

But this is the smallest part of my "experience." The designer cannot control the lighting in which I see this ad, the angle at which I see it, the ads or articles next to it (usually), or the stink emanating from a mixture of blown in perfume cards.

I might first see the ad *after* it has been torn out of the magazine, or I might see a photocopy of the ad, or part of the ad might be missing, or a previous viewer might have drawn an ink moustache on the sexy female model, or written comments in the margin.

The designer cannot control my mood at the time I first see her "art." She has no idea what worldly experience I will bring to my encounter with her art, what I will read into it (or fail to read from it). She does not know how her art will look ten, fifty, or one hundred years in the future (think of how we view magazine ads from the 1960s today).

The same can be said for television. What size is my TV? Is it color? Am I watching on cable or using a bad antenna? How far am I from the set? Is the sound loud, soft, or off? Do I see the commercial from beginning to end, or just part of it? What other commercials surround this one (or what commercials interrupt the program)? Am I alone, or in a crowded bar?

And what of other media?

Books come in different sizes. Users dog-ear pages, highlight passages, write comments in the margins, tear out pages. The books themselves yellow and fall apart. Reviewers and critics excerpt passages. Readers repeat lines from faulty memories.

Movies are possibly the most controlled situation, but the artist still has no control over the size or quality of the theater, what shorts or ads are shown before or after, what interruptions might occur, who or how many are in the audience, or changing cultural values over time not to mention wear and tear on the film stock itself.

Museums are also controlled, but the artist often has no control over lighting or position. Crowds may be light or heavy. Viewing angles vary and may be obstructed. I went to an Annie Liebowitz show at the Seattle Art Museum last week and it was so crowded that I didn't get the chance to really "experience" even one photo.

When a musician's songs are played on the radio, he has no control over context. What songs are played before and after? Does the dj talk over the song? Are the neighboring songs overlapped? And where am I? In the car? In the bathroom? What am I doing? Sleeping? Eating? Making love? Dying?

So the illusion of control is simply that: an illusion. But don't tell designers that!

More importantly, note the key word in the above two types of media: passive. From the comments above, it should be clear that neither is truly passive. In fact, users don't like to be passive, so they are almost always active to the greatest extent possible. A moustache drawn on a model is just one example. My brother likes to cut out ads to form collages. Adbusters often mimics other designers ads to make fun of them. I highlight passages I like in books. My parents mute all TV ads. My friend channel hops every time a commercial break occurs.

Web sites are relative *interactive* media. They are not print, although most designers think of "static" pages as print. They are not television, although many "big" corporate sites are trying hard to make them into TV (or radio). (For big corporate interests, passive viewers are best. The only activity they want from you is your hand reaching for your credit card. And if they can automate that and just suck the money out of your account as fast as you can make it, they will.)

Another thing to understand is that most designers, like most non-designers, are not very creative. Our societies do not encourage creativity. We are carefully schooled to eliminate creativity. Creative people are difficult to control. So most designers (like most non-designers) work within the orthodoxy. Changes to the orthodoxy come along only occasionally, when some truly creative individual discovers something new. The Web is no exception.

So what we need is a revolution in web site design. Or, more specifically, what we need are some revolutionary web site designers. Most of the so- called revolutionaries up until this point have actually been reactionaries. Take Dave Siegel, for example. While he had a significant effect on early web site design, most of what he did was reactionary: he tried to force web pages into the print model. We are still trying to recover from the damage he did.

We need real revolutionaries.

When television first came along, programmers would simply set up a camera and then perform in front of it as if it were another audience member. The web is at an equivalent point in its history. To most web designers, a web site is a series of "pages" (print), sounds (passive audio), or moving pictures (passive video).

Actually, a web site is data, relationships among data, and transformations that may be applied to that data. These are all abstract. For us to interact with a web site, the data/relationships/transformations must become concrete. In an ideal world, the user would have complete control over how this process of um, reification, for want of a better word, occurs.

Already we can reify (make real) this data into text or spoken words or tactile symbols (e.g., Braille). Some very primitive forms of automated translation are already possible. And some data can be converted to graphic form on the fly as well. This is only the beginning.

Imagine an immersive environment ("virtual reality"). Techies can think of the holodeck on the Enterprise. Imagine that you interact in this immersive environment with your bank. Your bank is represented by a three dimensional image of a human, complete with facial expressions, gestures, vocal intonations, etc. You can choose a representative of your liking with the appropriate cultural attributes.

Or imagine a "telephone" in which the recipient of your call sees a 3D version of you (or of a substitute). Imagine that you could call someone in a foreign country -- say a professor of history in Tanzania -- and the "telephone" would translate not only your words, but your gestures, facial expressions, dress, rate of speaking, tone, etc. into the closest equivalents in that language.

Imagine that you "wrote" a letter to the editor of the local web site. But you wrote it by speaking it to your computer. Your computer then asked you a series of questions about meta-information: What feelings were you attempting to convey? Are you angry? Sad? Did you mean this ironically? (Ideally, the computer would know you well enough after a while to extract most of this metadata automatically.)

Imagine that this data was stored with your "letter." Now a "reader" of this web site comes to it and chooses your letter. The computer might ask some questions of that reader (language, culture, age, etc.) and then render your letter in an entirely different manner, choosing the manner that is most likely to convey the same information (including meta-information) to that particular visitor.

Clearly, the Web is the stone age of real networking.

The first real step down this path to a "real" network -- a network of collaboration not control -- is the elimination of the illusion of author- control, and the introduction of a new idea: author- user collaboration. In truth, this is not so new an idea. Have a face-to-face conversation with someone else (or a group) and note how rapidly meta- information flows between participants. All speakers will make almost instantaneous changes in their delivery to accomodate new information from the recipients. And recipients give non-stop feedback while they are receiving. This, not the passive-user model, is the true model for the World Wide Web (and still more so for the Semantic Web to come).

Problem: There will be (and already is) immense resistance to this change. Partly because people naturally resist change, but more importantly because of what this change augurs.

The world is controlled, not surprisingly, by people and institutions that seek to control. Those who have control seek not only to maintain control, but also to increase it.

The sort of web I have been describing is a truly democratic web, one in which users and providers are equals in a cooperative effort. But this model is terrifying to those who control, for obvious reasons.

Over the past few centuries, as the controllers have increased their control, we have been transformed from actors in the play, to spectators. The vast majority of our non-working hours (and much of our work time as well) is now devoted to passive observation. At any given time, hundreds of millions -- nay, billions -- sit passively in front of their television sets while images, sounds, ideas are beamed into their heads.

That people do not want to be spectators is evinced by the phenomenal growth of the World Wide Web. What attracted people to the Web was (and is) the interactive aspect of it. People *want* to participate. Think talk radio. Think "town hall" style meetings. Think letters to the editor. Think America's Funniest Home Videos (we're only allowed to participate if we make fools of ourselves).

The owners of the media (and other giant corporations) and governments want to restrict the participation of the user to the greatest extent possible. They don't want you to think, they want you to do what you're told. Period.

(Please don't barrage me with email about how this isn't true. It is true. Yes, there are individual persons with varying degrees of desire to control. But I am not talking about individual actors, I am talking about the SYSTEM. The system -- corporations and governments -- seeks control.)

These owners, governors, and their representatives are STRONGLY resisting efforts to increase participation. In fact, they are trying to undo the damage already done by the Web. For a description of how this is being done and why, read Lawrence Lessig's new book, "The Future of Ideas." It is not a comprehensive critique (no one book could contain one), but it covers many key actors and mechanisms.

The desire of designers to control the experience of users is rooted in this desire of the establishment to control the masses. Overcoming this desire is going to take a true revolution. True revolutions take revolutionaries, and there is always a steep price to pay for those who foment revolutions.

The idea of accessibility is a revolutionary idea. It is anarchistic, democratic. It is based on the idea that the individual has a right to control her environment and to adapt it to her own benefit. It is based on the idea that all of us have the right to decide what is done to us or for us and how it is done, regardless of our position in the hierarchy of society.

You don't get any more revolutionary than that.

Until we as a group grasp the revolutionary nature of our charter, our efforts will amount to no more than a band-aid or a crutch.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled programming...

Sincerely, Charles F. Munat
Seattle, Washington

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