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Web Wizards: Designers Who Define The Web

Eye, No 43, Vol 11, Spring 2002. (Article as sumbitted.)
Design Museum, London 30 November 2001–21 April 2002

 

Eye cover Issue 43 Spring 2002

Although Web design has been established well over half a decade the job of displaying, archiving and documenting design work has been slow to get off the ground. While the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis has the most extensive program addressing digital art the Design Museum’s Christian Dior Couture-sponsored Web Wizards: Designers Who Define The Web is the first large scale show addressing Web design, which it refers to as ‘one of the most dynamic areas of contemporary design’. Disappointingly the show isn’t about design.

The show features the work of five Web wizards. Joshua Davis, the David Carson of Web design who works with the New York-based Kioken studio; Yugo Nakamura, a trained civil engineer and landscape architect working in Tokyo, who brings a ‘craftsman’s approach’ to Web design; Daniel Brown, a creative technologist who until recently worked at Amaze in the UK[i]; Canadian- and US-based collaborators James Paterson and Amit Pitaru, whose work combines image, music and movement; and London-based Tomato Interactive, the most commercially-focused of the group. The other element of the show comprises a history of the digital image with around fifty landmark examples of game console and computer design, from early Ataris and Commodores to the Apple Newton MessagePad and Macintosh Plus, along with installations of vintage computer games and an elegant timeline of the digital age.

One of the curatorial issues posed by work that is wholly digital is why people need to come to a museum to experience it. One reason is that some audiences may not have access to a computer connected with the kind of high-bandwidth connection for which these exhibits are intended (though soon this reason should be unimportant). A museum can more easily present work that is intended to be shown on a scale or with sound presentation that is unavailable to most people, as is the case with Paterson and Pitaru’s pieces. Work may also be environment- or site-specific, though this isn’t the case with any of the show exhibits. A museum environment is appropriate for presenting work along with supporting material, for instance the implementations of the Tomoto Interactive’s Connected Identity for Sony as stings at the end of a number of television adverts for its products. Not least, a museum environment is also more conducive to reflection, and to interaction and discussion with others.

That it is difficult to justify the presentation of the Web Wizards show in a museum is a reflection of its restricted view of the digital world. Having ‘Web’ in the show title implies that the work may have some relationship to the concept of networks, yet all of the pieces could be (and are) experienced offline. The show is really about creativity expressed through the technologies that the Web has promoted and made accessible: HTML and Flash, but mainly Flash. Technologies aren’t prominently referenced in other Design Museum exhibits and the continued celebration of Flash in Web Wizards might lead one to conclude that Macromedia is a silent sponsor. Despite this emphasis on digital technologies much of the work in the show could have been produced using analogue techniques that pre-date the digital age. This is most noticeable with Paterson and Pitaru’s work, wonderful as it is, and is also true of Davis’s pieces (though they are untypical of his work).

The exhibit of vintage computer games and games console and computer design while fascinating is incongruous as it doesn’t use them to focus a discussion of the aesthetics or design of either the hardware or software. Web designers will need to learn a lot from games designers in the coming years, and they would do well to learn about product design too, as the computer-based Web browser is no longer the main place where we interact with interfaces.

The most remarkable aspect of Web Wizards is that despite being sub-titled ‘Designers Who Define The Web’ the only design project on show is Tomato’s Connected Identity for Sony. The rest of the work is art. At the risk of being very twentieth-century I would still assert that design involves a client with an objective, distilled into a brief to which the designer responds. I would also assert that the presentation of design solutions should illustrate the design process, show work-in-progress, allow the designer to explain how their solution answered the brief, and indicate whether the design solution was successful. The Tomato Interactive project is the only design project in the show, and while it is well presented the focus is still on the outcome rather than the process.

In an online chat hosted by Guardian Live Online and accompanying the opening of Web Wizards Josh Davis admitted as much, observing that ‘if I had to label myself I’d consider myself more of a traditional artist’. ‘That said’, Davis continued, ‘I think the show at the Design Museum was looking to collect people who were helping affect design whether we choose to call ourselves designers or not.’ So let’s address the show on these terms.

It is certainly the case that digital artists can play an important role in helping designers (and technologists and clients[ii]) to understand and get a feel for the new medium, the digital network, but even in addressing this challenge the show is lacking.

The dimension of the digital network that are new, and which we might better understand through exploration by artists, relate to physical space and geography, to time, to the context and profile of the user, and to their interaction with the network and, most importantly, with others through the network[iii]. The work of Dunne+Raby on location-specific information and mobile networks[iv] is exemplary here, and even the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, whose New Media Centre has tended to lack focus, indicated its sensitivity to these dimensions when it promoted an SMS-based art piece, ‘Surrender Control’, during its recent digital festival.

The digital network doesn’t exist in isolation from the physical world, and many of the most interesting artistic explorations taken have place at the interface between them. There are of course valuable artistic investigations within the digital realm and while the show champions the creators of the most ‘aesthetically innovative web sites of recent years’ the work presented doesn’t begin to get to grips with the real aesthetics of the digital. The curators could have learned a lot from MIT Media Lab superstar John Maeda who is extensively quoted in the show and whose core belief that ‘we are in an age when the painter doesn’t really know about paint’[v], or from his mentor, Visual Language Workshop co-founder Muriel Cooper who notes that ‘when you start talking about design in relation to computers, you’re not just talking about how information appears on the screen, you’re talking about how it’s designed into the architecture of the machine and of the language’.

Web Wizards is a stimulating and enjoyable show. It is well designed (by Studio Myerscough, with Ben Kelly consulting) and features an interesting selection of quotes from gurus old and new, including László Moholy-Nagy, MIT Media Lab chief Nicholas Negroponte, and Amaze founder Roy Stringer.

The show falls down by presenting art as design, but its lack of sensitivity to the character of the medium leads to a selection of art work that while interesting is limited in its investigations. Conflating art and design does a dis-service to designers but also to clients, who are still trying to understand how they might best employ Web design in their organisations.

While the work on show might inspire designers the mechanism by which art-driven research and innovation can effectively inform and be integrated into design practice is a questions that others will have to address.

Footnotes

[i] http://www.noodlebox.com/danielbrown/

[ii] Josh Davis: ‘the very act of building and publishing experimental work educates a client in what is possible and not’. Quote from a chat on Guardian Live Online, 30/11/01.

[iii] For instance see the Tate course Matrix: Intersections in Art and Technology session convened by Amsterdam-based media theorist Eric Kluitenberg on ‘Art and Social Networks’ which asks: ‘How have new media artists used networked Spaces such as the airwaves, the Internet and satellite networks as sites for artistic intervention?

[iv] FLIRT, a European Commission research project under the ‘IT for Mobility’ theme.

[v] ‘Painting by Numbers’ Linton Chiswick, The Independent Magazine, 00/00/00

Notes

  • A web of visions’ 3 December, 2001. “Millions of pounds have been spent on web design. But has it done any good for the casual surfer? And, come to that, is it art? BBC News Online's John Walton reports.”
  • Create Online Big Issue
  • Review: ‘Screen grab’ Rob Hinchcliffe, Blueprint, January 2002, p82

Last updated:
Nico Macdonald/Spy 2003