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Two Challenges to "Traditional" Interactive Designers

at 9:00 am

It's interesting that I still find myself having print-to-web discussions with designers today, designers who are struggling to adapt their practice to include "interactive" work—by which they mean designing websites (and maybe doing a little markup too) for the most part. But meanwhile, two other technological shifts are posing significant future challenges for those designers who are comfortably practicing on the web. They are content portability and the "internet of things." Missing them will eventually make today's interactive designers as "traditional" as yesterday's print designers.

I'll keep this brief since I've mentioned both in plenty of other places recently…

 

1. Content Portability

What do I mean by content portability? Essentially, this is an idea that content can easily move from one context to another, made possible by applications designed to do just that, but also devices created to extend the content experience beyond the desk, and finally, better, more flexible markup.

One particular application I have in mind is Readabiliy. It's a web application and extension that enables you to save a webpage to read later, then replaces that webpage's original template with a more minimal, reading-focused and ad-free version. The idea is to enable a better reading environment, which I think—insofar as it's a nod to how design does enable or inhibit legibility and focus depending upon how it is handled—is a good thing. But in advocating for reading (I've been thinking of Readability, as well as things like Safari's "Reader" setting, as "reading advocacy" tools), Readability challenges the very core idea of design, questioning the extent to which design is needed to create or preserve meaning. If any piece of content can be stripped and ported from its original setting to something like Readability without losing any necessary information, then perhaps design is irrelevant. Of course, I don't really believe that.

Back in July, I wrote this in my Print column:

"This has ostensibly been a courtesy to readers—to enable them to focus their attention on written content—but at a cost to design. When the designer Jeffrey Zeldman recently referred to Arc90's Readability 2.0 application as "disruptive," this was, in part, what he had in mind. The responsive-design movement has begun to broaden our thinking to include how content visually adapts to its context, whether that’s a desktop, a cell phone, or something else. But that level of control ends when the content is completely stripped, as it is with apps like Readability. If content has no inherent design, what then for designers? I'm not ready to answer, nor am I ready to concede that the question is relevant to all forms of content, but the vulnerability exposed by this trend is very real."

After thinking it over some more for a few months, I wrote an article for Smashing Magazine that was my attempt to step back even further and examine the relationship between design and meaning. I spent a good bit of the piece comparing how webpages and books fared in the porting experience; webpages, from their original templates to reading advocacy tools, and books, from their printed form to translation by e-readers. It occurred to me that many subtle design attributes carry a great deal of meaning, and if not considered before the content is ported, can easily be lost or overlooked. In fact, the books I chose (one was The Stars My Destination, which I reviewed in a post back in August) as examples contained many examples—things like unique formatting, text and imagery hybrids, and even visual poetry—that were either completely botched by e-reader formats, left out entirely, or in best-case scenarios, made into images that sat beneath text in simple block layouts. I concluded:

"Dwelling on the mostly minor differences between how these articles appear may seem overly picky. After all, it’s not like you can’t read them. But even the minor differences — whether a substitution of typography, a change in color or an omission of imagery — are meaningful to the designers who created the original environments in which these articles exist. In my experience, I’ve known plenty of developers who take a casual attitude to implementing designs, but I’ve never met a single designer who doesn’t consider even the smallest detail sacrosanct.

There is also an irony here worth noting. Tools like Readability — and I’m focusing on it mainly because it does reading advocacy the best — are very well designed. They speak the designer’s language by paying attention to details that usually only those who have worked with typography would consciously recognize. The rest of us just see the page and know that it looks beautiful and feels good to read. Designers recognize in Readability an appreciation of white space, proportion, typography and other essentials that are typically considered luxuries on the Web.

That’s why they are so excited about it. Nevertheless, elegant as it may be, Readability substitutes the deliberately unique design of an article with a one-size-fits-all boilerplate aesthetic. While I’m confident in the integrity and best intentions of Readability, I also question the dynamic that it potentially establishes: by adeptly harnessing the seductive power of good design, it attracts the very people who its functionality ultimately undermines.

What to do?"

To sum it all up, content portability is both the result of technological shifts as well as cultural ones. On the technology side, we have the capabilities to extend content consumption beyond the desk and couch. On the cultural side, we have the desire to do so. But what it does is challenge the notion of design as an essential attribute of the content experience, as well as what the object of design is. In some cases, it's the content, but the portability experience so far has also shown that in many other cases, it's the container.

 

2. The Internet of Things

If today's web is about us, the web of tomorrow will be about our stuff. Not just our individual possessions, but bigger things, like our homes, our cities, our entire infrastructure. But in the meantime, the names we choose for these future possibilities rarely seem adequate. The internet of things, for example, sounds cute, but implies an unlikely separation from the existing internet as well as the world around it. Russell Davies has suggested a slightly modified alternative: the internet with things. With that adjustment, I think he's getting a bit closer. But any name we choose will limit the scope of what we imagine. Sometimes that's helpful, but in this case, I think that the names underestimate what this next step for the internet could be.

Beyond just indexing things, the future could see the role of web evolve into something far more profound, something it has yet to accomplish: making the transition from a cultural artifact to a civilizational tool that enriches the physical world with virtual systems, rather than simply projecting images amidst us.

This is an entirely new side to interactivity, one that, by networking intelligent objects, will expand the possibilities for interaction and immersive environments. But more importantly, it will do so by pushing beyond the visual. Designing the unseen is a major leap that designers of all varieties will need to make quite soon.

There is, of course, so much more to all of this. More than just one post can contain. Follow a few of the links to dig in more…

In the meantime, what are your thoughts on these two trends?





Comments

Al Wasco | February 3, 2012 12:17 PM
Good point about how apps like Readability completely disrupt the world of design. I use it every now and then to clarify a website where readbility and legibility have lost out to poorly thought-out visual design.

If we as designers take this challenge seriously it means we have to step up our game in terms of focusing on design that works for the user/reader. If we keep those priorities at the top of the list we'll reduce the liklihood that in frustration someone will click on Readability to make sense of our site.

We talked about this in my recent Web Publishing 1 class: the job of designers now is to create information spaces for people to explore rather than to present information in a fixed visual form. If we can get our heads around this (something I struggle with constantly), we have an exciting challenge ahead. If we resist it, we will become irrelevant.

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