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Gemma Copeland

From pages to performances

 —  From pages to performances

This is one of the posts I wrote for the Core Languages blog last semester, as part of a course at Central Saint Martens that introduced graphic design students to the digital design mindset.

What is unique about digital design as a medium? How can we approach design for screens in a way that is natively digital, rather than an appropriation of print design?

In this essay, Cory Arcangel suggests that the term “web performance” is more appropriate for describing the digital medium than “web page”:

The term that really drives me up the wall, though, is web page. Page connotes something stable, unchanging, and definite. A book page exists. A book page is. A web page, on the other hand, is a vastly more complicated structure. It is a set of instructions blasted from a server farm across the globe through fiber-optic cables, then interpreted by a computer’s hypertext transfer protocol browser and displayed by a light-emitting-diode screen. All this, by the way, is happening in real time—reconstituted at each millisecond through a unique and contingent tangle of systems—and is supported by the constant churn of the power grid, itself (incredibly) still commonly powered by burning coal. So instead of web page, I’d prefer the term web performance, which would remind us that this information is both immediate and ephemeral. In a sense, it is thousands of coal-powered virtual Rube Goldberg machines — lined up from end to end — that power our Facebook Paper apps on our iPhones.

Animation of an antenna transmitting radio waves, showing the electric field lines

A Dao of Web Design by John Allsopp is a great starting point for graphic designers learning about the digital design mindset. It was published in 2000 but it’s still very relevant today.

When a new medium borrows from an existing one, some of what it borrows makes sense, but much of the borrowing is thoughtless, “ritual,” and often constrains the new medium. Over time, the new medium develops its own conventions, throwing off existing conventions that don’t make sense.

He speaks about how designing for the web is all about moving away from the conventions of print design, letting go of control and embracing a more flexible, adaptable and systems-based approach.

Firstly, think about what your pages do, not what they look like. Let your design flow from the services which they will provide to your users, rather than from some overarching idea of what you want pages to look like. Let form follow function, rather than trying to take a particular design and make it “work.”

He argues that the unpredictability and mutability of the web is a feature, not a bug. Adaptable websites are also more accessible to a wide range of users – people can change the website to suit their own particular needs. A great example of this is the Poetic Computation Reader by Taeyoon Choi.

In this interview for Creative Independent, Luna Maurer of Moniker describes their process-driven approach to design and technology:

We focus on the process rather than on the end product. Or you could say the final product is evolving. In fact, the process and the end product is ideally the same thing: a changing and evolving work. It correlates to the time in which we live and to the media that we use. Technology allows us to go beyond the approach of traditional media, where you print a flyer or sheet of paper. We try to make use of technology and especially react to the technology that surrounds us. It’s exciting to us to include the audience, or the visitors to the site, in order to create something that’s not standing still. It’s a truer way to react to the time that we live in.

Many of Moniker’s projects would be better characterised as performances than websites. The web just happens to be the most appropriate frame for documenting and sharing these performances. In fact, many of their projects, particularly the Conditional Design ones, aren’t necessarily computer-based at all — they’re just a set of rules or processes in need of an audience (or participants).

Linked By Air are another studio that really embraces designing for flux. In this essay Change Over Time, they explain how their interest in change influences their working processes and outputs.

When we design a website or an exhibition, we want it to go places we didn’t imagine after we “release” it, and this, more than the supposed wisdom of crowds, is the reason for our interest in distributed authorship. Even though change is the most natural and ubiquitous condition in the universe, we’re fascinated by it, and we try to embed an acknowledgement of this condition into our working process, and into the software and designs we develop.

In Designing in Liquid Times: Generative Graphic Design in an Age of Uncertainty, Marlies Peeters gives an overview of different artists and designers that take a more open and fluid approach to their work (sometimes termed generative, relational or process-driven design).

What ties all these examples together is the concept of emergence: the idea that the system efficiently achieves what could not have been achieved by any of its individual agents alone.

An animation of Conway's Game of Life, a cellular automaton and zero player game that demonstrates emergence

Designing for screens instead of printed material might seem daunting or frustrating at first. It’s important stop trying to apply to same principles as print design, and instead explore the idiosyncracies and strengths of digital digital as an inherently fluid and participatory medium. The exciting thing about digital design is that you can introduce a range of different inputs that will lead you to unexpected places. The most powerful example of this is participatory design, where the audience plays a direct part in creating the end result.

Brian Eno talks about this approach in his essay Composers as Gardeners:

What this means, really, is a rethinking of one’s own position as a creator. You stop thinking of yourself as me, the controller, you the audience, and you start thinking of all of us as the audience, all of us as people enjoying the garden together.