Self-Promotion is Distasteful

They say I should tell you a story. I like stories. I used to think that the web was a place for stories. Here I’ll attempt to share a little of mine.

Though to avoid the inelegance of constant first-person pronouns, allow me to frame this story within my take on the evolution from static design through motion, interaction and narrative.

Get on With It

My name is Shaw. I grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne in Australia. It was a pretty nice place with trees and houses and that seething mass just beyond the surface. Your average middle-class neighbourhood.

We were perhaps the last generation to have the words “Graphic Design” written on our graduation certificates, even though Actionscript, After Effects and nascent CSS had already pushed our education beyond the traditional bounds of the term. Yet that solid foundation in structure, hierarchy, typographic principles and visual acuity continues to inform.

Like so many, I despised the Flash authoring environment and the horror of rarely-skippable ‘intro’ sequences it wrought across the web through the early 2000s. Yet the notion of introducing motion into a static visual hierarchy was a revelation, and this or AE is where most of us first sensed it.

Early Enthusiasm

For a giddy few years myself and my peers approached the internet as though it was some kind of mildly disabled cinema. A place for narrative and exploration, where the form could become the content. Although an awfully naïve notion with absolutely obnoxious results, a part of me misses those days.

We thought that the visitor expected, even desired the obfuscation involved in a potentially multi-linear narrative experience. That a visit to a website was an end in itself, an adventure to be swept away by. Multimedia! Though pragmatism swiftly crushed this wishful will-to-narrative of the more imaginative early ‘web designers’.

Our present internet is primarily a utilitarian space, and the notion of designing for it and its offspring of ‘apps’ has been rapidly refined. Clumsy nomenclature aside, the now-widespread idea of making something which people enjoy using is an evolution in the history of design as glorious as it is obvious.

Digital Narratives

We might suggest that the choice of logo, colour palette, typography and animations form a kind of narrative though this calendar app or that corporate site. These are important considerations as long as they flow without impeding the pragmatic concerns of functionality.

But we both know it’s not the same as reading a book or watching a film. Digital narrative, in the true sense of the word, now resides in video games. This is where we come for our potentially multi-linear narratives, where the act of participation is an end in itself.

Yet the lessons learnt from roughly two decades of web design’s painful adolescence seem forgotten all too often within the interfaces surrounding the narrative of even the most well-constructed games. Embarrassingly, many mobile games manage to avoid the most obvious mistakes thanks to their development frameworks encouraging certain design patterns – those born of the hard-won victories in modern digital usability.

Further Movement

So graphic design has lead me here. I still relish the simple, perhaps traditional pleasures of perfecting the curves of an ampersand or creating some album art for a work of music. Of making videos or writing some flowery prose. But code, motion and interactivity are the horizons of potential.

The blunt practical needs of designing for the web bring up tantalizing decisions about structure, flow and expectations. The relatively young field of touch-based devices adds the promise of novel ways to guide that flow. And gaming interfaces afford the closest proximity to actual narrative capacity in the history of screen-based interaction.

So much promise. They say it would be inelegant to end this introduction with a predictable joke about enjoying long walks on the beach.

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Published 2015-08-07 under Personal, History

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