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Issue № 102

The Declination of Independence

by , , Published in State of the Web, Graphic Design, Usability

The year 2000 came and went. Where did design go? As sad as it sounds, not terribly far. It was a year of trendiness, inspiration, imitation, and the imitation of inspired trendiness. What we can take away from the past year in digital design is the knowledge that the new medium is still deep in its early discovery phase.

Y2K (for lack of a shorter term) was going to change everything. Flying cars, artificial intelligence, talking toasters – this was our supposed fate. So where’s our Jetsons lifestyle? Maybe Y3K would have been a more practical projection!

It’s 11 p.m. Does your Mom know where you are?

The web is now recognized as a permanent fixture in our society. It’s now a medium for designers, technologists, and shoppers alike. The term “web designer” no longer carries such ominous tones to our non-technical friends, but rather shows that we are a legitimate workforce: part of the “cutting edge” of our information society. You can now tell mom and dad you’re a web designer, and they have some vague notion of what that means. They still have no clue how you can spend a solid 18 hours sitting in front of a computer working, but one miracle at a time, right?

Y2K provided an era where technology would be felt everywhere (including Wall Street) and in everything (like your favorite *cough* WAP enabled cell phone). It was prophesied that a new millennium meant that a new (digital) lifestyle would follow. Indeed, technology was touted as a catalyst for social betterment, a liberator from the inefficiencies of the physical world.

Design in your face

Sooner or later, this technology and supposed lifestyle would need a face, and the task of creating that face trickled down to the design community.

As designers and technologists, we have embraced the web wholeheartedly and are committed to taking it to higher levels of sophistication, visualization, and interaction. We have gladly accepted the challenge of building a face for the glorious new technologies bestowed upon us.

Unfortunately, our attempts have remained relatively shallow. In some ways it makes sense that a smooth, pixellated, techno-style interface should be mapped to our new technologies. But you still have to wonder what other forms our technological face could have taken had we thought a little more progressively.

This is not to say that we have failed at every attempt in visualizing the bits of data into memorable and unique experiences. Innovative technologies, interaction techniques, and visual styles have emerged that challenge the medium and have created new insights into what is possible. We now need to go beyond the building blocks, and complete the foundation of our medium.

A poster child among us

The phrase “Shockwave Flash” became the designer’s poster child in Y2K. Anyone who called him/herself a designer seemed to be touting Flash’s wonderful solutions to clients (“How about a Flash intro! That would be cool!!”). Flash not only became more accepted as a robust delivery platform, it also sported an install-base unparalleled by any comparable browser plug-in. This meant that in Y2K, more people had access to Flash content than ever before. However, with some good comes some bad (more on that later). Higher bandwidth in the domestic market also greatly aided in Flash’s acceptance and the acceptance of larger file sizes overall.

For web designers, Flash is a household name, but at least one study has found that most uses of Flash on the web do not consider the three most important aspects of an interactive experience: graphic design, content, and usability. Combine this misuse with an obsession to fit into the trends of design, and we have ourselves a cornucopia of websites caught at the fork in the road. The nearest street sign reads: “This way to aesthetic trendiness,” and “That way to a usable interface.”

Flash in the pan?

Does this mean all sites using Flash were unsuccessful? Heck no! Y2K in review produced some designers and web agencies that have realized Flash is only part of a toolkit and not the only tool required to build a successful website. This wisdom has allowed for some of the most innovative uses of the web medium we have ever seen – truly trendsetting projects that break through the mediocrity.

The trendsetters behind these projects understand that Flash, DHTML, JavaScript, etc., are merely tools, and that solid ideas and concepts are what drive experiences. These pioneers of our industry are leading us in the belief that without an idea, there is no product. Similarly, if the idea isn’t yours, then the product brings nothing new to the table, and you fall into the trap of a trend.

Further to this point, these designers and agencies have paved a new road that has influenced design on the net in Y2K and beyond. They have done this by using Flash along with a mix of dynamic content and the programming languages that we used to build sites before Flash was around. It’s no mystery that the best sites use the right technology for the right job – not the latest technology for every job.

Trends worth following

These sites not only obey the fundamentals, but also have spawned off similar sites exploiting the trends created by the originals. We are not saying that these examples laid down the law. We all know that pure originality is not common, and is often not the best way to approach things that involve somewhat ritualistic activities (like using the web).

It’s not always good to invent your own set of icons for your site and decide that the “x” button will be the open window feature. Nor is it a great idea to create pop-up windows for every page of your site. Fitting into an accepted framework for communication while pushing the frontier is a noble challenge, and these sites do it with style.

We have identified 15 sites broken into three categories (design portals, design resources, and design shrines) that spearheaded some of the trends, innovations, and inspiration of Y2K.

Where innovation meets imitation

Design Portals

01. K10K
Now one of the largest sources of information and inspiration for the design community, K10K gives to the design community what the 10 o’clock news gives to television. Housed in a cute and pixel-style interface, K10K refuses to give up in its quest for hourly visitation from all its followers. For those who like to stay up-to-speed, but hate to put effort into getting there, bookmark this site and visit any time you need your design fix.

02. Surfstation
All personal involvement aside, Surfstation is K10K gone section-crazy. From articles on music, to interviews with today’s hottest designers, Surfstation never lets up on the content side of things. It’s all conveyed with an extremely hard-edged, in-your-face aesthetic, making Surfstation among the rulers of design portals currently on the market.

03. Shift
Once the king (or queen as it were) in the design community, Shift was among the first major online design magazines to bless our monitors. Still hanging around with some of the biggest names in the community, Shift brings in content and style from its own perspective. The Japanese-based design site has history and reputation on its side, and also continues to put out amazing offline merchandise, such as the Gasbook series and the IMG SRC 100 book. There’s always something worth checking out at Shift, making its place on this list more required than selected.

04. Praystation
There’s something to be said about a calendar as an interface. The true translation of things happening gradually over time, Praystation shows how giving your all over several months can begin to add up to more than even its creator could have imagined. Needless to say that enthusiasm converts to the end-users rather easily. You can never guess when/what to expect from Joshua, but you know it will be noteworthy and fun to take in. The sheer amount of “content” in his collection alone gives it enough merit to be among the top sites in our medium.

05. Holodeck 73
The simpler take on getting the word out seems to be the mantra over at Holodeck. Manned by a single designer, and always updated with variations on a theme, H73 works best as the quick reference to new and fresh content on the net. It’s amazing that after all the redesigning and revisiting that has gone into this site, all the content still fits on one page. There’s something to be said about keeping information simple, and H73 says it well.

Resources

01. Adobe
The software companies making the programs we use to create most of our work have finally realized it’s not product info their customers seek, but rather, content! Forget putting your products at the center of your online experience. We already KNOW why we love your software. Show us what can be done with it, and what others are doing. That is the hint that Adobe took when creating its new site. With designer spotlights, tips and tricks, reviews, etc., Adobe has upped the ante on what graphical software websites should be about.

02. Macromedia
Sequentially, Macromedia appeared to have jumped ship along with Adobe, and moved away from the software-centric content foundation. With Shockwave on its side, Macromedia’s site is able to reach into the use of Flash in a proprietary manner. When you’re the creator of the technology your viewers have learned to design with, it’s important to set the standard. Macromedia – as a company and a website – achieves this well. With simple, smooth animation and interaction throughout, Macromedia ranks among the top informative and immersive commercial sites online today.

03. Download
Every tool imaginable – along with every shareware program created by man – is available for you to download at Download.com. Okay, so they don’t have EVERY bit of required software in the designer’s toolkit, but it sure seems like it. And really, didn’t you all pay for your copies of Photoshop anyway?

04. Google
You type in keywords, it spits out more information than you can shake a stick at. Google took a simple idea and improved on it – provide a search tool for the non-technical folks that also satisfies the gear-heads among us. It’s a content gold mine for designers and programmers alike. Even the way Google presents its results lets you know their developers thought about the end user before they started pounding code. Ugly but extremely usable.

05. Ebay
Everyone knows about Ebay. The world’s largest auction lives online, and has everything you would ever need. The absurd, the hard-to-find, the new and cool: all of it lives (for purchase) in this ominous domain. Design-wise, it is purely ugly (just like Google), which hasn’t seemed to slow it down any. While you won’t find inspiration in its visual presentation, you just might in all the amazing stuff it has to offer, from melted doll heads to fine Scandanavian furnishings.

Design Shrines

01. Kioken
A little bit Tokyo, a little bit New York City. Kioken has laid enough influence upon the community to build an amphitheater. From color use to new ways of interacting with content, Kioken has pushed the boundary between personal and commercial just enough for others to follow. They may not have invented the click-and-drag interface, but they did revolutionize the boundary between what clients will and will not pay for. Their own client list is also worthy of great industry envy, and each new launch is a major undertaking. They most assuredly take themselves seriously, and it shows.

02. Yigal Azrouel
Is it just a coincidence that you can rearrange the second name in the title and get a slang spelling of Arousal (Arouzel)? At any rate, the mixture of subtle color-shifts, cute and finicky line work, and next-level interactivity place this fashion site high on our list of contenders. Something about a nicely shot photograph just leaves enough resonance to affect the rest of the page it resides on. It might not be a site you visit on a daily basis, but that doesn’t stop this domain from being branded into your creative mind.

03. Mono Crafts
Okay, we all have come to know and love the Mono Crafts site. It’s a great blend of design, functionality, and interface toy. Whether or not you leave this site with a message on global warming is irrelevant. The best thing you can take away from this experience is the “how did they do that” factor. You might also leave with a satisfaction of being rewarded by the interface for the time you spent interacting with it.

04. Gmunk
Bradley Grosh is what we like to call an overachiever. One look at the level of involvement evident in each of his projects shows you that he doesn’t stop until he’s gone too far. Let it be noted that he also refuses to trim the excess fat off the meat of his concepts. For that we honor and enjoy each and every gram of the Gmunk experience, unconditionally.

05. Designgraphik
Another overachiever has to be Mike Young, the man behind the man at Vir2l in Washington D.C. Now in its “Phourth” iteration, Designgraphik continues to shift farther and farther from the idea of a navigational interface. If the scale of the current version’s layouts weren’t so grand, we might wonder why this stuff isn’t animating more. The projects this time around come off as wall-hanging artworks with scattered movements laid on top of them. Whatever the classification, Mike’s work is nose-bleeding-edge, high caliber, and eye-soothing for those looking for inspiration.

Honorably mentionable trendworthy observations

Swooshes; running-man logotypes; 45-degree angles, molecule-like logos; ultra-generic fonts (which can look good if you get them just right); dynamic drop-down menus (à la Microsoft); full screen colored gradients; horizontal scrolling (Kioken, Bionic Arts, etc.); undersized screen fonts (K10K); use of the phrase “Customer Experience” ; Jakob Nielsen; omitting vowels (as in: “i cnt rd ths txt wtht th dmn vwls…r myb ts rdbl ftr ll?” ... and the list goes on.

These elements can be effective in design, when used correctly. However, when they are used on countless sites, without regard to appropriateness, they start to lose their luster in a way that muddies the original intent (which in all cases is to deliver information, not hide it). This is what we saw a lot of in Y2K –  overuse to the point of shamelessness.

Breaking up is hard to do

The most overused trends in Y2K can be counted on two hands. The sheer velocity at which the web changes doesn’t allow a trend to last long. For a trend to last more than a few months – or years, for that matter – is rare. One thing is certain: just like trends in the fashion and music industries, trends and imitation in web design will proliferate and cycle through yet another year.

Hopefully, in the remainder of 2001, we will start to see more unique styles like those of Evil-Pupil and the graceful motion graphics of Metaphrenie become a standard for a new style of presentation: one that incorporates video as well as text and animation. Along with a strong drive for the aesthetic, we expect to see the “talk of usability” become the “walk of usability,” in which developers build notably usable products that look like they’ve come from the hands of an artist and engineer rather than from the murky waters of business development. We can expect that the cowboys and wranglers on the web will wrestle with these new challenges and again push the frontier further out.

It’s the choice to use a certain technique or look because it’s appropriate, rather than because it’s cool or edgy, that defines many of the great sites we have mentioned here. Their concepts are clear, unique, and backed up by great content and an easy-to-use interface. We hope to see 2001 bring forward many more mind-blowing projects that solve problems and entertain us while using these sound principals.

To all the trendsetters: “We salute you!” Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

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