Webdesign changed

I have been doing HTML pages since 1994 when xMosaic 1.0 hit the FTP servers worldwide. The only really radical changes to webdesign for a very very long time had been a) JavaScript, b) tables and c) frames. I hesitate to include CSS, because it was kind of buggy and browser specific for a long time. There have been many other smaller things around but these I would not consider seriously because those brought only few advatages while the payoff was huge: you needed Plug-Ins or it was not working on any browser. Flash might be a small exception, because that worked well across browsers, but Flash itself was very useful for eye candy, little games and ads – not so much for content delivery or web apps (it broke the URL scheme so searching didn’t work and it hadn’t the performance required for user interfaces).

But in the last two years things have changed dramatically.


Got widely adopted pretty cleanly by anyone (but Microsoft). It actually took a long time to get CSS to be able to replace the TABLE-based templates designers used to trick layouts. But now it’s there. There are still some problems, but generally one could rightfully say that design with CSS is a viable path. (Having said that I admit that my own page here does still use tables. It’s on my ToDo list for month now!)

The XmlHttpRequest object (XHR/AJAX)

XHR is a browser native technology that allows to depart from the traditional interaction model of the web with an request/response cycle the user could physically experience (causing wait states after each click). In fact, I did something like this in 1998 with a frame that had a width of 0 (which essentially made it invisible). The visible page would reload the hidden frame and recieve a new JavaScript there which in turn manipulated parts of the content in the visible frame. From a user perspective this was pretty much like what AJAX is now. I didn’t do enough with that (it was IE-specific), but I speculate, that it had similar implications to the web design of a page. But AJAX is a far more elegant and quicker way to send and recieve data from the server without reloading.

JavaScript & DOM

Got more reliable in the last years. This is a big necessitiy for the DHTML stuff required to have dynamic pages (potentially using XHR). Because all this was flaky in the past designers did not consider designing much for “dynamic layout” and an interactive web interface. Thus it didn’t become a widespread practice. Good JavaScript skills were a plus for web designers and web developers. This probably is going to change: you need to know JavaScript.


The Standardized Vector Graphics format has been around for a long time now. It had also some cross-plattform issues to solve in the first implementations. Now SVG is going to be supported directly from the browser and it might be good to replace Flash where ever it is not necessary to author content but to have simple scripts that output the required XML data.

Web services and APIs

It has become somewhat of a habit for web application developers to offer programmable/hackable interfaces to their service logic. So other developers could build on that resource. In other words: if your web application does not offer an API it might not be interoperable enough to withstand competitors that do. Think of a Learning Management System that needs to be integrated into a larger Service Oriented Intranet. No API – no go! Well, sort of… / I remember a project once where we could have used a clever indexing system to automatically create category trees. It would have taken me few hours to attach our weblog system to that logic. But there was no API and the developers of the indexing system couldn’t care less about that (they were focussing on their indexing logic). End of the story: they have a system few people use and we don’t have automatic categorization yet.

The Canvas object (new!)

The upcomding Firefox/Mozilla releases (like Safari) will support a canvas object. Canvas objects can be used to create simple graphics with JavaScript within the client. It might remedy the problem to dynamically generating images on the server.

Greasemonkey (new!)

Right now Greasemonkey is rather exotic: It is a way to inject third party JavaScript applications into pages. A Greasemonkey script for instance could enhance the web application of a vendor with new functionality (for instance integrating Google Maps into Flickr wihtout having the need for a special provision or allowance by Flickr for that). This had been done before. But the technique used was to proxy pages and have the proxy server simply patching the HTML page to the needs of the service. ThirdVoice was once a way to stick little yellow notes to pages and make those visible to all other visitors of that page that used ThirdVoice. This technological design never really hooked people a lot because it required to call pages through a proxy server (and thus delaying the responses). I am not quite sure if that will spread out. There may be security concerns inhibiting users to install the Greasemonkey extension. But as a concept it is really a glue for “Web 2.0” applications.

If you think about these technologies, you’ll easily recognize the potential. It raises the bar for students and educators, because the possibilities are endless. People were staring at Google Maps and thinking this must have been very dificult to implement. But truth is, that it is not as complex as it seems. Actually these technologies straighten out disordered things from the past and add options for developers and designers at the same time. Things become possible that haven’t even been considered before.

It might seem so much easier to simply do the “rich interfaces” directly in Flash. But then you depart from HTML completely. With AJAX you can just add as much dynamic to an ordinary web page as needed. Flipping things here, getting rid of a reload there, save states without submitting a form, etc etc.

Essentially it will turn “web design” into “interaction design” thus the notion of “web design” might diminish one day. If you see a book in the store titled “web design”, you might think: “Oh, that is old stuff, I need the new ones…”

Scapegoat 1.0 Pro

I am reading John Maeda’s Simplicity-Weblog from time to time – especially because I offered a seminar about this topic a while ago. Most of the posts of John are typical day-in-day out observations of a designer sensible for the details: sometimes I feel he can make an article out of anything (which tends to be a boring read of interesting thoughts, so enough beef to be worth it).

But his post about a MIT meeting about a proposal for developing a super-new-conflict-info-visualizing-and-planning-tool for the US government is just hilarious:

In the same way that VisiCalc was the so-called “killer app” that heralded the concept of a spreadsheet and ignited the business computing boom, I figure that another software system that is waiting to be launched as another “killer app” would be called Scapegoat 1.0. This system would be positioned to run on a normal desktop computer with 512Mb of RAM, average graphics card, standard networking, and so forth. Its purpose would be to be shift the blame away from yourself in any political fallout situation to another targeted faction with point-and-click ease. It could be used in a purely defensive manner (the so-called “Lite” version), and the Professional Edition could ship with preemptive and offensive capabilities. A service contract add-on option would be available where you could have access to real lobbyists.


NextD dive-in

I am busy doing things that I can’t learn anything from right now (which is always kind of hard work!). But I am trying to catch up with what is going on at the NextD initiative (I wrote about that before).

NextD is currently a spot where designers are thinking about »design thinking«.

An example quote from Dan Saffer:

Designing isn’t about choosing between multiple options, it’s about creating those options.

I really need to take some notes over there… For now I only have a chance to subscribe to their mailing-lists and collect some links over at del.icio.us.

Design education reconsidered

Colleen Taugher is speaking out what many (me too) are propagating for a long time now:

It is clear that the most exciting design professionals work in complex, multi-disciplinary, dispersed teams in order to develop innovative solutions to some of modern life’s slipperiest problems. While design students will still need some old-school training in basic visual communication and in the “what” and “how” of their discipline, they clearly need a new set of skills. Knowing when “the red is really working with the blue” is no longer going to cut it. Can you facilitate multi-disciplinary teams so that no one gets into turf wars and everyone understands what is going on? Can you work in a dispersed environment? Can you push your team to come up with innovative solutions to abstract problems? Can you understand the problem from multiple perspectives (technical, business, social, communicative)? How do you teach these leadership skills to students?

Design blogs @ Technorati

Technorati is running a new »Blog finder« feature: You can find weblogs that cover a certain topic. I looked for »Design« and I got the usual suspects but also some (to me) unknown gems – like Drawn, a blog about illustrators. This blog doesn’t even list (I guess there is an issue with the tagging here).

I browsed through the first 50 blogs (sorted by “Most auhtority”) and wondered it would be a nice idea to set up a 5-day workshop with these people with just one goal: figure out how to make these 5-days a productive time. Simply put these people together in a large room and see what happens…

If I’d had the money for this I’d do this right away – maybe even just to learn if that was a good idea at all… 😉

Pace, Timing and Rhythm in Information Architecture

Andrew Dillon in December 2004 joined the group of thinkers that question simplistic approaches to effiiciency of communication that ask for speed instead of pace:

Is there a temporal aspect to interaction that we should acknowledge? Surely there is a pace that leads to the best fit for each of us between tool and task, between goal and accomplishment, between resource and purpose. Sometimes making it faster just works against making it better, and I am not sure where this insight finds resonance in information architecture or systems design. The rhythm of interaction is partly set by the underlying design choices and that makes it matter of IA for me. Pace, timing and rhythm; there’s a whole world of information architecture yet to be done.

The Appeal Manifesto

The KDE project has issued a short list of things the’re aiming for in a future release of Linux desktop. Interestingly the first item on their list is »breathtaking beauty«:

Breathtaking Beauty

  • putting an emphasis on the form and style of software in addition to the function of it
  • creating visually impactful interfaces that support usability

To me it seems the KDE project is not only trying to improve the look & feel of KDE – they want to include design in their strategy. Finally they need to help Linux to get a competitive user experience.

It is a good sign. But we should never forget the spirit of the early 1970ies where user interface design was about inventing interaction patterns – and not so much about selecting preferable color schemes. There have been very few inventions recently (but a lot of tiny ones to be fair).

This morning I was thinking about people trying to hack MacOS X to run on ordinary PC hardware and what Apple might do about it. What would I do if I’d be Steve Jobs? What could be arguments against OS X non-Apple hardware?

Suddenly I was thinking of a list (I love lists) of things Apple has introduced as industry firsts throughout their history of products. It would be a very long list. Apples brand value number on has always been to be ahead of time. Having control over hardware and software has always made it possible to design their products from A to Z. I think Apple has good reason to keep their OS exclusive.

Anyway: This design quality Apple has been able to establish and keep up over the years is a real challenge for other standard user interfaces like KDE or Windows. KDE also needs to come up with an answer to the Next generation Windows (codenamed Vista).

Music video milestones

I am glad to see music video creators running formal experiments and pushing styles forward. Here are some:

  • The video of Agenda Suicide by The Faint
  • the former reminds me a lot of the song Remind Me by Röyksopp
  • also a must see is Let Forever Be by Chemical Brother (directed by Michael Gondry)
  • Facing That Void by General Electrics features stop motion and marionettes
  • World On Fire by Sarah McLachlan’s features text info (usual cynic comments about music business apply)

There are several more examples I remember but I can’t recall the title or band names…

A real good source for seeing VFX experiments is the Stash DVD Magazine.

[some links courtesy of The Last Minute video blog]

NextD journal

I just came across the NextD site – an organisation located in New York – with some interesting interviews – the latest with Richard Saul Wurman.

NextDesign Leadership Institute was created as an experiment in innovation acceleration. We wondered if it might be possible for a small team of practicing designers to help speed the rate of adaptation, by graduate design education, to the radical events unfolding at the leading edge of the marketplace, that are impacting design leadership today. We optimistically guessed that it might be possible and if it wasn’t, finding out seemed like interesting research! To undertake that experiment, we created the NextD initiative and the NextDesign Leadership Institute.

In the »mindscape« section they offer some introduction about what has changed for designers in the 21st century. The Flash slideshow resonates a lot of things that inspired me to compare the “classic” and the “novel” way in design education two days ago. Most documents have been created by GK VanPatter (e.g. a comment about PhD education in design: »What matters?«). He has been recently interviewed by Peter J. Bogaards.

New semester: Information Mapping 2

I decided to repeat a seminar from a couple of years ago: Information Mapping. This time I want to suggest two optional research topics that I think might be very intersting to work upon: the first is “60 years Hiroshima” and the second is “Deforestation“.

I got interested in the Hiroshima topic last year when I accdidentally crossed a website of the “Children of the Manhatten Project”. It kicked of a long web research that really totally amazed me.

The Deforestation topic is a tribute to two things: a) the famous Knowledge Navigator video by Apple and b) the software EarthBrowser which I recently obtained and which was improved with stunning high-res images of the earth surface. Here is are two samples – the second shows a zoom to the center of the first view:

Anyway I am convinced that both topics serve perfectly as context for exploring data visualization and information mapping experiments. Generally I am not sticking to topics like these, if students want to work on things to explore that have more appeal to them.

The course starts on March, 23rd. See course weblog.

The End of Usability Culture

Dirk Kneymeyer published an article about the “fruits” of a usability discourse ending up in uninspired designs:

The yang to our present yin is a dearth of mainstream creativity, visual differentiation, and sense of active design. For example, the financial services industry spends a tremendous amount of money on Web sites, having moved a large percentage of their overall transactions online for both business and consumer activities. Compared to a few years ago, their Web products are very usable and obviously reflect a great deal of research, feedback and testing. But, looking at their home pages, can anyone tell the difference between three major financial institutions?

I had a discussion with Peter Baumgartner last Sunday about the notion of »interface« applied to educational technology – and I used a tea spoon as an example to explain the possible complexity of design decision that leads to so many different types of spoons. He asked why there are actually new spoon-designs created nowadays and I said, that in part design is about creating difference. A different spoon allows a spoon to become part of a self-descriptive process: we create identity by the way we engage the world and use artefacts to conduct actions and communicate with them. The problem with “consumerism” is that it needs to seduce people to think that consuming products is the best and easiest way to create external descriptors for ourselves (thus difference): you are what you buy. But possessing things is not a value in itself – especially if these things have a limited lifetime. So marketing has shifted from “product values” to “product experience” and product are enriched with the ability to constitute a life style and an identity. I have already commented on the idea of experience and consumerism here.

We love to make distinctive decisions about big issues and tiny issues alike (to value details is a way to live consciously). So to complain about a usability culture that generates similarity is non-sense, because it is a declared goal of usability engineering to identify usage standards and to actively create similarity to better serve the ideals of efficiency, learnability, reliability and satisfaction. But as a collegue once said: “I’ve never met an usability engineer who designed something.”.

The difference between usability and design is not so much a difference in regard to their goals (creating better user experience) but that usability does not focus on the synthesis of form at all. Secondly these two have roots in different scientifical and empirical traditions. This “rootedness” is what I think Kneymeyer is regarding as “culture”. My personal opinion is that designers are not well advised to simply ignore this strong alliance of usability engineering with the traditional scientific culture. The more benefitial approach to answer the attack on design as “un-empirical and un-scientific art” would be to establish a solid reasoning for an alternative understanding of design. This could be extremely difficult to achieve, but the retreat to “experience” (resp. “experience design”) as a higher category just shifts the “battle” from engineering to psychology.

Kneymeyer continues:

Design is more than just aesthetics. It is a sensibility that is often visionary and is about seeing beyond the surface. Design skills are getting mainstream attention and a current business buzzword is “innovation.” Anticipating the central importance of design as the lever for competitive advantage, Stanford University is investing in the creation of a pioneering design school. A new trend is beginning, away from the analytical bent of the researcher and toward the creative nature of the designer.

There is also a follow-up article: The End of Usability Culture Redux

Digital Difference

Cinematography nowadays almost is unthinkable without computers. I like this story of Kerry Conran trying to render a complex video composition of the upcoming movie Sky Captain in 1994 on a Apple Mac IIsi. After four years (and some hardware upgrades later) he finished six minutes of his feature film. Today it has become not only possible to apply these complex effects without effort but also to do so with high definition material (with a Kona card). In other words: it took ten years until technology was able to suffice Conrans vision.

Design + Knowledge Destruction

Rosan Chow reflects on work by Alain Findeli. She wants to help characterize design activity by projecting a fringe view on the relation between design activity and knowledge, scientific or non-scientific.

To me, the essence of design activity lies in the ontological realm and how it affects the way we are that is different than how science or for that matter other activities do. To assert that design activity destroys knowledge redirects our attention to the important and unique role design activity plays in this world in relation to science and other creative human activities. It pushes us to think hard about the contributions that design activity should be able of making.

There is a german translation available by Wolfgang Jonas.

Simplicity (cont.)

Finally there is some movement on the weblog of the “simplicity” seminar. And some very good items popped up already.

For instance some explanatory animations by Nigel Holmes which look pretty much like the things we did in the “density” seminar. And also I learned that John Maeda at MIT started an experimental research project called “Simplicity” (I wonder who will fund such research here in Germany). Interesting as well: “Simplicity – Nine Theses” that have been presented at the equally named forum in September 1994 of the International Design Forum Ulm and Ulm School of Design Foundation.

Substance of Style

Virginia Postrel is the author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. She also writes the “Economic Scene” column for the New York Times and maintains the Dynamist blog. In her presentation at SXSW Interactive, Postrel discussed the importance of aesthetics, how design comes into play, the role of expertise, and why people respond the way they do to aesthetically pleasing people, places, and things.

Quote from a partial presentation transcript:

We’re experiencing a rise in the value of aesthetics. I don’t mean the philosophy of art. I mean communicating through the senses. Aesthetics is not narrative. It’s pre-rational. Not irrational, pre-rational. As a designer, if you try to create aesthetic affects, you will go through some cognitive process. Ellen Dissanayake, author of Homo Aestheticus looked at art as making something special — “emotionally gratifying and more than strictly necessary.”

Well, I agree on the pre-rational part. What I don’t agree on the conclusion that the value of aesthetics is fundamentally a gate to meaningful consumerism.