Ellen Pronk a Dutch artist who uses her website as a private creative diary. The site has been online since 1997, and it’s called LIEFS meaning WITH LOVE. It changes on the daily basis, and it consists of animated gifs, texts, flash applets, pictures and games. She defines it a place where to play, a diary made of images and sketch albums, showing it as a work in progress, an ever-changing and chaotic work.
Interview with Ellen Pronk, 19th of January, 2005.
by Goran Batic, Institute of Network Cultures
GB: The modern society nowadays is very often presented as a communication system, where new regime of time and presence takes place. As Max Bruinsma claims: “One great potential of the mediated society, with its open access to the infrastructures of mass communication, is that if you care enough, you can make a difference right in the centre of the discourse. Although you may not be in a position to forge radical change now, you could be part of the public debate and help change the perspective.” Is this what you had in mind when you decided to start the liefs project?
EP: There are several starting points for the lfs-project. The first public page is July 1 1997. At that time I was online for a year and a half. My online experience was role playing and some building in a text-based mud and a long and extensive e-mail conversation with a woman I got to know through her website on Scritti Politti. The reason to start a homepage was simply my own desire to get back to the work I used to do when I studied at art school. I was aware of certain utopian thoughts about the internet, I had read about computer-mediated communication (through which I discovered text-based muds). A book I read earlier in the 90's, 'Orality and literacy - The technologizing of the Word' by Walter J. Ong, impressed me with its clarity.
But at that time I didn't think far beyond my own personal situation. A later beginning was the start of presents, May 14 1999. The year before that I wasn't updating the website regularly, I worked on the ‘Homebase' project, which didn't came out as I hoped, when I look back on it. Starting 'presents' ment the discovery of the power of a daily update. That works extremely well on the internet, giving people a reason to visit regularly and generate a far away, invisible audience.
The last beginning was very recent, January 2 2005. In the years before that presents slowly became more irregular, until I finally stopped for like 10 months. In that period I worked on a redesign of the entire website. I wanted to make the old material more accessible, so I started to design the site around a database. I also did some rethinking in that time and had to ask myself whether I wanted to continue with the site or not. I was relieved to find that I hadn't lost all interest and energy to start working again. Sometimes these breaks do work out well it seems. This last time I started, I was definitely more ambitious in what I wanted to achieve. But, as a side note, it’s an ambition I don't trust entirely; I wouldn't want my work to be a means to an end. Looking back on what I’ve made so far, I like the simplest and happiest pages the best. It's hard to make that happen consciously, I sometimes feel you have to fool it by going into a different direction than you actually plan to go, and make yourself believe that as well.
GB: Your first page appeared on the 1st of July, 1997. Can you tell me what previous experience brought you to the idea of the site, and how your own practice has changed over the last decade?
There will be some new stuff as well, later on. The latest techniques I learned, php and mysql, give me the opportunity to finally make flash-games with high scores, something I want to do for a long time.
EP: Zeldman's book 'Designing with Web-standards' was the main influence on the redesign of lfs.nl. Structural mark-up, the separation of content and design are central in this approach. But I only redesigned the center hallway of lfs. The actual content I didn't touch, so yeah, it’s almost a museum, from using Adobe Pagemill, to Cyberstudio (before Adobe bought it) to finally handcoding html and php in BBEdit. I'm a firm believer that at any level of experience you can say something of interest, becoming master of a single technique never interested me that much. Maybe that prevented me of going into one direction blindly.
GB: The last decade has been a ‘wild ride’ for the Internet and web design. We are all witnesses of the quick technological innovations pace, which results in a constant need of upgrading existing software in order to access certain sites. Are there tags, kinds of coding, or culture of software that have disappeared that shouldn’t have? What remained stable?
EP: I still miss the blink-tag! That was a fun tag to have and I used it a few times in the beginning. What I also regret is the transition to MacOSX and the quartz-rendering engine, which blurs gif-images when they are enlarged. I used that a lot in the early days, and when I go and visit these pages with Safari, the main browser I use nowadays, it’s just a blurry mess. It’s not like that on Windows (yet), so now I’m in the odd position I envy windows-users for that... I don't mind it too much though, it shows how closely connected technology and its use is to time it’s conceived in.
GB: Since your site is pretty much updated on the daily basis, viewers are disappointed if they don’t find anything new. Has your work become an obligation towards the viewers, and has the style and length of your working day changed?
EP: Well, it did become an obligation. That was the reason I started working less and less over time. To make something daily is very demanding. Going back to making presents again is a bit frightening, I’m a lot more aware of the pitfalls and less naive than when I started the first time. One of the things to make it more doable is to put some more distance between myself and lfs. I really had to learn how to do that, and still am learning. Comparing the way I feel now with how I felt in 1999, it does feel remarkably similar in the fun and pleasure of making things. With a bit more control though, I hope.
GB: A rather developing Internet research field of critical cybercultural studies deals with the notion of virtual communities as actual social networks in which they both reflect society and use new ways of social interaction. By taking up your site as an example of this theory, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that your identity became digitalized, and anyone ending up there has a chance of interacting with you. Was this online persona your intention, or has it simply developed over time?
EP: A lot of the photos I put on the website in 1997 I actually made at art school in the period 1989-1990. Even earlier that that, in 1986 I got an assignment to make a self-portrait, and I ended up trying for months to make a portrait in which I could recognize myself. I never got that to that point then. When I picked up photography two years later I made some more self-portraits, thinking it would look much more like me. In the end, it didn't, I could see it was me, of course, but it didn't feel like me. It slowly developed into these almost glamorous pictures, me smiling to someone behind the camera. The reality of the photos was that there was nobody in the room with me.
This experience, where I project someone in a virtual space, works both ways. Visitors project someone, who probably looks and acts a lot like me, behind lfs.nl. I guess everyone makes his or her own little Ellen, which has bits and pieces of me in it. It’s probably not unlike the whole fame-business, in which you get all sorts of details about the lives of famous people, ranging from very formal occasions to the paparazzi shots outside a supermarket. Even with the demystification of the 'famous' lifestyle which has been going on for some time, it has a very strong appeal to most people, an appeal I feel as well, even though I question the machinery behind it. As to whether it all was my intention, it probably is, in a roundabout way.
GB: The section of your site where visitors are supposed to answer the questions has been visited many times, and up-to-date there are 620 registered answers. In that way, you work became implemented with the notion of time and presence. However, if the idea was to collect a ‘database’ of visitors’ states of being, how can you be sure that the answers are honest, and does it matter at all?
EP: I can't be sure the answers are honest. Most likely, most answers are not. But any answer tells something, even the silent, nothing ones.
Actually, the last three questions interest me most. The default is my own personal general state: a happy young girl. I'm pretty sure most, if not all, boys change the sex to 'boy'. Very few change it to 'not sure'. I once did a demographics page, http://www.lfs.nl/present/06-26-99/06-26-99.html, but there were only 55 answers in at the time. As there is no database behind it, it would be quite a lot of work to make a new demographics page.
Having said all this, I really do enjoy answers coming in. (I get an email when a new one is added.) It’s easy to spot the serious ones, and some were genuinely touching. I really do appreciate the effort some people put into it.
GB: The Internet gave a new notion of freedom of speech, and everyone is able to stay anonymous or to have multiple personalities. Do you find this aspect an advantage or disadvantage, since sometimes the source is more important than the info per se?
EP: There are two sides to this. It can be liberating getting away from old habits and develop other ways of communicating with people. It’s a relatively safe environment to experiment in, there are no immediate consequences. Then again, people can use this freedom any way they want. I don't think it’s that much different from 'real life'. People do a lot of pretence anywhere, and sometimes it’s hard to spot. In the end, I value freedom higher than safety, so I would say it’s an advantage.
GB: To follow up the previous question, could you please explain the importance of identity on the Internet? Do you expect the visitors of your site to take your identity for granted, or do you expect them to play with numerous pages of your site and draw a conclusion of their own?
EP: People do as they do, what I expect doesn't really come into it. But from the emails I get I can deduce that most people see it as a fun place full of surprises. And that’s fine by me.
GB: Regarding the numerous pages of your site, it seems to me as if you constantly try to push the limits of web design and the IE window to the extreme. In the case of your work “All Set” (24th of August, 1997), you seemed to have worked on extending the page size so much to make the viewers aware of the possibility of an endless page. In the work “Check” you stepped out of the IE window and included it in the work by assigning a physical feature of shaking. Do you see this as a simple experimentation or do you have a specific goal you are trying to reach?
EP: I'm not sure it's 'simple' experimentation. Even though I do like to analyze what I do, my work, I'm no good in working from a concept. I did have to learn this - homebase might be my, hopefully, last mistake in this. I always end up stale and tied up into too many strings when I try that. I'm much better with a light happy touch. But I can be very formal in my work, and I do like to explore and stretch boundaries.
These pages you mention were done in the early days, to me that’s exactly what they are, early days experiments.
GB: Concerning the themes of your works, I would dare to say that they are roughly summarized in the White Square movies. Human labels such as happy, sad, lonely, scared and especially single make the square humanized. Would you assign any autobiographical qualities to the White Square films you make, i.e. could they represent the status of your digitalized self? Also, could you tell us why did you stop making new episodes?
EP: Hmmm, well, yeah, the little square always did feel being me, an actor through which I can say things more easily. The idea of being a little white square rather appeals to me!
As to why I stopped, I ran out of things to say. Sometimes I think about making new stories, one day....
GB: Throughout your works, it is not hard to notice that you play with the notions such as order vs. chaos, physical vs. digital and real vs. imaginary. The quality of order vs. chaos seems to be perfect when describing your site. What future do you see for the Internet and especially web design in the next couple of years? Will it get into more order, or will simply follow the universal law of chaos and eventually cease?
EP: The universal law of chaos? That’s a bit pessimistic, don’t you think? The internet is a huge place with room for lots of different approaches. I do like the 'web-standards' way, the easy, almost not-designed way. Usability rules of course. But I'm happy to see there is a place for sites like mine, even though I strive for clarity and try to make my site more accessible, it’s the place where I rule and where I can change the rules whenever I want to.
GB: The fact that you use your images all over the place gives a very intimate quality to your works. Max Bruinsma claims that “when verbal languages fail us, we can always rely on images, al long as they are used in the ‘right way’.” However, can images on the web ever be non-ironic?
EP: Non-ironic… You mean honest, truthful, and sincere? It’s a very artificial gesture, putting images on the internet. At the same time, it can feel very close, usually you're sitting at home. I'm thinking of webcam-girls, constantly streaming their life on the internet. I doubt they are being ironic intentionally, which doesn't mean the gesture itself isn't ironic of course. It could be the other way around for me, I'm usually ironic intentionally, but maybe unintentionally I might not be. Hmm, it’s kind of hard for me to answer this question.
GB: One quality of your work I highly value is the play with pixels.
Most of your pictures are highly ‘pixeled’ that it almost seems that you try to present your own digital analysis of images. Is that quality just a style or something more?
EP: Pixels are the building blocks, the base material. So yeah, there is a lot emphasis on them. The same goes for red, green and blue, the primary colours of the internet. Coming from a print background, where cyan, magenta, yellow and black are the base colours, it was an obvious choice for me to study these elements. RGB works very different from CMYK.
GB: How much do visitors’ answers and feedback influence your work, and do you have any regrets regarding your site?
EP: The usual feedback I get is emails from people saying they like my website and had a fun time exploring it. There are of course lots more people who don't write, maybe because they don't like what I do.
Another, more indirect kind of feedback is the number of visitors the site draws, or links other people make to my website, or the page rank in Google. I do watch my stats, and it is a nice feeling to get more visitors. I do wonder, suppose I would get a lot more visitors, what that would do to my work. The sense of being watched, people expecting something; that could generate other kinds of 'presents'.
As for regrets, yeah, I do have some regrets. I went through the entire site when I built the database and also recently, when I picked my own favourites. There is a lot of doubt and confusion, and some embarrassing pages too. I'll just have to do better from now on!
Max Bruinsma is an independent designwriter, editor, critic, curator and editorial designer, and former editor of Eye, the international review of graphic design in London. He studied art-, architecture- and design history in Groningen and Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Since 1985, his critical writings have featured regularly in major Dutch art- and design journals and in a range of international design publications (a.o. Graphis, Idea, Blueprint, The AIGA Journal, Eye). Before he took over from founding editor Rick Poynor at Eye, Max was editor of the Dutch design magazine Items, published several books on (graphic and new media) design in the Netherlands, and taught at the Rietveld Academy and the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. His latest book is 'Deep Sites, intelligent innovation in contemporary webdesign', published by Thames & Hudson, in English and French editions, april 2003.
Max's shortest definition of the profession is: "Designers are cultural agents".
A guest lecturer on contemporary art and graphic design, Max has presented at numerous art academies and congresses throughout the world, including on-line courses for several design academies. Besides his work as an art- and design critic and educator, he was a music editor and program maker for VPRO, a Dutch radio and television broadcasting organisation. Max resides alternately in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Basel, Switzerland.
Interview with Max Bruinsma, 24th of December, 2004.
by Goran Batic, Institute of Network Cultures
GB: The never ending battle between 'content vs. form' still represents a major problem for designers. What would you suggest to young designers and design students as the alternative approach to this dilemma? Is there a way to escape it?
MB: When designing anything, there is no way of escaping either content or form. If there's a 'battle' between the two, then something has gone seriously wrong (as is the case with most wars ;-). Actually, I don't see the problem. Content needs form to be communicated meaningfully, form needs content to become meaningful. Within the province of design, they both represent different, but necessary and connected, levels. In my view, content should direct form (which by the way is not necessarily the same as 'form follows function'), and form should reflect content. Ideally, they are functions of each other, meaning that one 'informs' the other...
GB: The Web is often considered to be too flashy. How would you describe the condition of the web design before and after the introduction of technical innovations such as Flash, WAP and Shockwave? Is less more?
MB: Quoting myself:
"First, technology seems to have caught up with the demands designers make on the degree of manipulation and the quality of detail in their tools and presentation media. For designers, few things are as annoying as seeing a carefully orchestrated arrangement of texts and images fall apart on every other computer screen than their own.
Conversely, there is a greater awareness among designers that they are unable - and should not want - to control every aspect of design for this medium with its ever-increasing array of output devices and technologies. Rather than meticulously laying out a wealth of details, as they are used to doing, web designers increasingly concentrate on making the basic structure of a site work on any conceivable platform and compensate proactively for differences in display and bandwidth. In short, a new design strategy is developing that focuses less on formal aesthetics and more on designing the behavior of information and users."
[Deep Sites, Introduction]
In this context, less can be more in sofar the designer restrains from detailing every aspect of the way a website appears on a screen, and instead concentrates on the structural consistency behind it. Making allowance for the information to find its own form on the screen, so to speak. This focus on the structural instead of the formal aspect of design is known from editorial design in f.i.
newspapers and magazines, where large quantities of information need to be channeled into fixed formats flexibly and without much time for detailing.
To me, a simple website that performs well is much more preferable than a flashy one that crashes or takes minutes to load ;-)
GB: Internet users are known to scan web pages (instead of reading them thoroughly). Therefore, the form remains the most important feature of the design. The inexperienced user can be easily misled through manipulative design. Do you foresee a situation in which designers will manipulate users' behaviour on a large scale?
MB: Yes, but not exactly as you describe it. First of all, I think the 'scanning behavior' is triggered by the medium:
"This is an aspect of screens that distances them from writing: we are used to watch them, not read them. This is almost a cultural dictate: screens are for watching, paper is for reading. Although I admit to a slight exaggeration here, I do think I can safely state that the directly visual aspect of things on screens is generally stronger than that of things on paper. We watch TV, we read the paper. So, when I use the screen as the medium in which I write, in some respects I change from a reader into a viewer, and I become, almost by necessity, a graphic designer of my own texts."
In print, the interface is seamlessly integrated with the content and in terms of interaction, it is much simpler than on screen. This means that when one wants to integrate content and interface in a website, one has to attribute behavior to content. Preferably the kind of behavior that anticipates the visitors' behavior through the site, which means anticipate 'browsing', 'scanning', or 'zapping'.
Recognizing the importance of this, is becoming the touchstone of design for the web:
"It has been remarked repeatedly that the 'new media' promise (or threaten, depending on your viewpoint) to thoroughly mix up the established hierarchies between authors (or content providers) and recipients (or users); the two become, as hypertext pioneer Ted Nelson said, 'deeply intertwingled'. The web prompts a way of browsing that is quite different from old media, magazines included. 'Scanning' is probably the most accurate word for the average browser's behavior. The web encourages a predator's glance, processing a vast amount of fleeting information fast, before focusing on a target. Designers - and editors - who fail to recognize this pattern will most likely make confusing choices in content structure, and ultimately leave their consumers hungry for guidance and substance. Designers, in short, must deepen their knowledge of and expertise in orchestrating human response."
[Deep Sites, Introduction]
Does all of this amount to 'manipulation'? Well, yes, in the sense that the interaction designer will try and influence the visitor's scanning behavior in the direction the content wants to take. There are 'good' and 'bad' ways of doing this: helping the visitor digest the gist of the content fast (facilitating the visitor) or luring the visitor in the direction of simple sales traps (catching the visitor). As with most things good and bad, the dividing line cannot be so neatly drawn in practice as defined in theory...
GB: In your works, you often point out that the Internet is a combination of aspects and characteristics of other (older) media.
Considering the theory that technological developments are always followed by communicational change, the Internet should be considered as the ultimate source of information. But people still regard television as the best and the most reliable information source. Could you explain this paradox? And do you think the Internet is bound to take over the role of television?
MB: In sofar it can mimic television, yes. I am staying with a friend at the moment who lives on the Azores islands. She watches the Dutch news, which obviously she cannot receive as TV, through web-streams. The moment such streams are compatible with or equal to TV in terms of resolution and frame rate, television is dead as technology. What remains then is TV as 'format', as a specific way to communicate and mediate information.
As for the internet as "ultimate source of information" and TV being "the most reliable information source", this is only superficially a paradox. The main difference between the two media is _not_ the amount of information (although the internet 'wins' convincingly there), but the way this information is structured. TV represents edited information to a much deeper and more controllable extent than the internet. 'Reliable' means from official and controllable sources. We know the bias of big news organizations such as CNN or FOX (internationally), or EO and VPRO (nationally). We don't know who is the 'authority' behind www.blogspot.com/allthenewsintheworld. So the matter of reliability is not directly connected to the medium, but to the way we can check the editorial point of view behind the information communicated. Hence my statement: the more information is available, the more important are reliable filters, i.e. the more crucial the editorial selection and validating processes become. As I have said on many occasions, this condition also stresses the editorial responsibility of communication designers:
"On the web, where content and the technologies used to communicate it are so intricately ensnared, the editorial core of design acquires even more significance. The structure design brings to a site's content largely determines the visitors' experience."
[Deep Sites, Introduction]
"Obviously, the design of the interface is crucial: it delimits the gamut of visitors' actions and it represents the editorial structure of the site. In other words, it maps its meaningful uses. Reading (and writing) have, as literary scientists argue, become 'topographical', a term indicating that information resides as much in the way discrete collections of data are connected among each other as in the information contained within the data. When content is visually presented as a landscape of 'topoi' or 'sites' of information, the way an interface facilitates or determines the routes through that information and between the sites touches on more than its accessibility, or usability - the interface becomes part of its contents. Thus, the design of the interface is essential in quite literally mapping out the information's topology."
[Deep Sites, Interface]
GB: If an interface design is regarded as the designer's view on reality, how can a user ever experience it fully, since the only 'real' version of the interface design is on the designer's screen? Is this yet another reason why designers should turn to creating original concepts and not forms?
MB: Yes. BTW, interface is the designer's way of signposting paths through information (which is not entirely the same as 'reality' ;-)
It is good to realize that 'structure' is always biased, always at least in part the result of a specific point of view (f.i. am I a Nielsonist or not? Do I hold that all information is equal or not? etceteras).
GB: Since the Internet is virtually accessible to anyone, and thus the number of amateur sites is probably greater than the number of professionally designed sites, what buzz characteristics/differences should an inexperienced user watch out for?
MB: Learn to read URLs ;-)
If you're looking for information on, say, Islam, then there is a huge difference between the following (imaginary) sources, which is immediately readable from the URLs:
Another indication of 'bias' and reliability is where a specific site or page links to or is linked from. Richard Rogers has done some interesting research into that: "Preferred Placement"
GB: One of your key statements throughout your publications is that the aim of design is to cast a message in such a form that it enters into a meaningful and critical relationship with its cultural, social and informative context. However, in the wide variety of websites, how is the user supposed to decide which one to rely on? And what should the designer do in this respect?
MB: As for the user, see above. Idem for designers: their responsibility here is in principle editorial. When content and form are in concert, the information represented will show its context and bias at a glance. Making the presentation of information readable in its own right, i.e. 'coding' the presentation in a way that shows its embedded cultural context, is a design task of the first order.
GB: In this age of visual information overload, people are steadily developing a visual literacy. The language of imagery seems to be the only universal language left, and therefore the designers now direct the development of our visual culture. Considering this universal quality of the image, does it mean the less original the design is, the better?
MB: No. The less it succeeds in making its cultural references readable, the less it communicates. You can be completely original by merely reassembling existing images and codes, as DJs and VJs have convincingly demonstrated. There is an important difference between material, references, forms, and the design that binds them together.
On the web, the best way to be original is in my view to find new ways of linking existing content (adding some of your own in the meantime, of course ;-)
"Perhaps in recent years there has been too much emphasis on forms and not enough on ideas.
More important than the precise form of the end product, in that case, is the way it comes about, the mentality with which it is devised and the analysis that underlies it. It is becoming increasingly clear that, to the extent that it is legitimate to speak of originality at all, it has to be sought in the world of concepts, the world of the not yet and not first and foremost in the world of products.
It is here, in the personal interpretation of the designer, that there lies, potentially, more individuality than in any kind of 'original' formal design."
"The content and effectiveness of communication have become strongly context-dependent, not least because the audience with whom the message communicates has itself matured. In contrast to the impression created by many communication products - from advertising to news bulletins - the recipient is usually not stupid."
"In an age when contexts, references and interpretations are often more important than the raw data themselves, it may be the path leading through those data that contains the most valuable information. The true message is then: how to enter. The designer can inject his own attitude into this 'navigation' between pieces of information.
Of course, in an applied art - which is what design still is - traditional notions such as structuring and reinforcing a client's message still apply. But there are more ways of reinforcing a message than simply getting it to look different from other messages. You can also try to show the connection between messages."
Luna Maurer (1972) is a graphic/interaction designer based in the Netherlands. After completing courses at the Rietveld Academy and the Sandberg Institute she's done many different kinds of projects ranging from interactive narration to performances and fashion. Instead of seeing herself as a graphic designer she approaches her work as a designer of systems. By crystallizing structures and making systems visible she wants to purify information and communication and make them more honest. Information should be structured in such a way that the structure (or the system) creates a meaningful image. View her portfolio at www.poly-luna.com and www.poly-xelor.com
Interview with Luna Maurer, 20th of December 2004.
By Goran Batic, Institute of Network Cultures
GB: A few years ago Jeffrey Zeldman, a design theorist and a designer himself, said: “The Web used to look like a phone book. Now much of it looks like a design portfolio. In fact, it looks like the design portfolio of 20 well-known designers, whose style gets copied again and again by young designers who consider themselves disciples.” Do you agree?
LM: I definitely don’t think that I am one of those who copy. I think it is logical it happens, but off course it is horrible. It should be all about people thinking for themselves, and developing their own views and their own approaches to designing information for the Internet.
GB: Do you think that design students nowadays are mainly focused on the latest designing techniques and innovations?
LM: I can’t really tell what students work with these days. But I do know for instance that design students at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam don’t work with new media at all! Actually they turned their back to new media these last few years.
GB: Do you think that design students should know about the (visual) history of webdesign, what did the web look like ten years ago? And what does it look like now?
LM: No, I don’t think it is necessary at all to study how webdesign looked before. What is really important is to be trained to develop something yourself. Not through looking at others people’s work, but by thinking about underlying structures. From my point of view, the visual aspect of the web design is not that interesting, really. The structures are much more important. Therefore, you have to be trained in that almost architectural way of thinking. You have to recognise those structures to be dynamic images, rather than just designing certain graphics.
GB: So you think designers should focus on the originality of structure rather than the originality of form?
LM: Yes, exactly. So, in that sense it is not that related to the new techniques, like Photoshop, all kinds of filters, flash, et cetera. It about using them in a very simple way, instead of making long flash introductions, which I believe we all hate. Unless of course if you want to make movies, which is something else completely.
However, in a different way it is related to the new technology, since now the websites should be, and are going to be, more dynamic with for instance a content management system for. I think that increasingly, websites are turning away from the static HTML pages any more. This is a trend, and I think it is a very good one. Since you have the technology, you should use it, instead of designing static online brochures.
GB: I would like to focus a bit more on this notion of the trends in webdesign. We are all witnessing the quick pace of the technological development, and every year there seems to be new software, faster computers etc. For a designer, this must be ‘a dream come true’. However, most of the users do not have the newest equipment or plug-ins, and have dial-up internet connections. All of these new trends can result in websites that take a very long time to load. So, does this mean that designers should stop following the latest techniques in order to have a broader public?
LM: That naturally depends on what kind of web sites you make. There are different intentions and necessities. For instance, the website for the Nederlandse Spoorwegen mainly needs to be fast. Nevertheless, we have to make innovative things and experiment, go over the boarders of being safe, and also as a designer you have a responsibility to educate the user. Now you are talking about the bandwidth, but what you could also talk about is the way the interface is structured and designed. Just because the horizontal and the vertical menu bars are what the users have grown accustomed to, is not a good reason to keep on designing the same way. I think in that sense concerning design, we should not keep on doing what every user understands right away. Users will understand new things if they are well designed.
GB: what about the fact that a designer with a T1 connection and a huge flat screen experiences his design much different from a common net user at home does.
LM: I have just made a project where you need a bandwidth, it was an interactive narrative. We had the choice between making it much more beautiful and more advanced, that really works much more intuitive, but therefore we needed technology of the latest QuickTime player. At the end we did choose to go for the latest QuickTime player instead of using older versions, and having fewer options.
GB: But don’t you think that is sort of designing for designers?
LM: No, no, no. It is totally not! It is just that fewer people will look at it. I would rather make a beautiful project that is really good and less people will see it, than make a half as good project and have a wider public. But again, it depends on what you do. If it is a website for a bank, it is essential for everyone to see it fast.
GB: Since the introduction of innovations such as Shockwave, Flash, WAP etc. the web design completely changed. Do you think it changed to better or worse in the sense of simplicity and structure?
LM: In that sense I’d have to say it changed to worse. Because of all those possibilities things become much more complicated. But actually I can’t really remember, Flash has been there for so long, what was there before…
GB: A phone book?
LM: Yes, exactly. I definitely think all of those possibilities make you distract. But again you can look through them and use them in a very simple way. That’s what I always say, that we have to use the new systems and make them visible, rather than wrap them in design. Let’s skip that, and show the underlying systems. This is what I always preach in a way… For some people it might be useful to have these colourful flash designs, but I don’t like it that much. I think it could be better.
GB: Does this mean that designers have to make some sacrifices? If they need to make sites simpler, they can’t really go wild with their creativity.
LM: I think creativity lies in the simplicity! It is much easier to make a fancy crazy thing, than to make a simple, pure and really good design. That’s much harder. It is the same with language. It is much easier to make long and complicated sentences to explain something, rather to express the complexity in a simple way.
GB: Is that perhaps what you had in your mind when you made the website for Sandberg Institute? www.sandberg.nl For me it has a notion of simplicity of a very good structure, and you can play with it.
LM: It is a playful one. On one hand it is very simple and straight with the matrix, on the other hand you’ll be surprised by the tactile feeling. The matrix feels elastic. Most of my works deal with the similar aspects. They play with these two parallel realities: the digital world, and the physical. These two worlds mix and intertwine so much in our daily lives, that we can’t always distinguish them any more, and live half digital half physical. In that sense, this website comments on that. You can also say this is an experiment of the aspect of ‘who controls who’. We always try to make our interfaces much more human, in order to be able to relate to it better. All those new technologies and developments mean that you have to adapt to new systems all the time. You would assume that by making these new systems more human you could control them better, but on the other hand you are always a victim of your computer. You get lost, it doesn’t work the way you want it to… Very often you feel you are a victim of your system. So this is the notion I like to use in my works, the game of control. One time you think you are in control when you use technology in order to satisfy your human being, like an extension of yourself, in order to control the world. And on the other hand, you are a victim of what you designed yourself, because you can’t handle it, you don’t know how to use it, it doesn’t work the way you want it to. This is an interesting game, the man-machine relationship.
So to go back to where we started off, the Sandberg website with the elastic rate where you have the static matrix which is very much the logic of the computer and the digital world, and then the distortion which is very much the physical aspect. The programming of the site is based on the physical principle of spring. So it is exactly calculated in the way it would react in the physical world. The rules are applied.
Another theme which I like is the combination of simple elements with simple rules. So as the matrix has its corner points, you apply certain rules, and by multiplying those rules, you create a whole, where the whole is a more complex system than a single element, with new behaviours and characteristics emerging. I have also included this in other works of mine, and it is all related to the idea of letting go of control in designing process, which I think is interesting. You don’t try to design every end product, but you design the systems. You focus on the system and by using it, every time a slight change makes the design look different.
GB: Let’s get back to the notion of manipulation. Most common online user’s behaviour is scanning. In that sense, the form of the site seems to be the most important aspect. If a user finds the site visually more appealing, he’s likely to spend more time on it. An inexperienced Internet user can easily be misled by those Flash movies, different colours and fonts… Nowadays, the Internet is full of e-commerce sites, in a way like the ‘Themed Shopping Malls’, as Max Bruinsma calls them. If a group of designers gets involved with Cognitive Science and focuses on process of responses to colours, movements, fonts, they could optimize this manipulation. Do you see it happening one day?
LM: I think it is possible that if you would like, you can have a big influence as a designer on the way how users use and perceive the information. That’s how big branding strategies of the ‘shopping malls’ function. A lot of content behind it is psychologically based in order to influence users to buy certain products. But off course I am very much against that. I am very idealistic, otherwise I wouldn’t continue designing. I want to make better websites and systems, I turn my back on this aspect of manipulation. Why not let the user be an independent individual, so he can make his own choice? A lot of new technological developments focus on the user’s choice, i.e. that he can individually design his own environment and customize things the way he wants to.
GB: So it is more like a manipulation of a user, in the sense that the user believes he controls the system, not the other way around.
LM: Yes, this is an illusion because it is all pre-designed. There are two parallel developments in this concern. The one is the shopping mall concept, where everyone tries to make tight branding concepts of what they want to sell. On the other hand, systems are opening up; they become more like Wikipedia, where you can use the Internet in a way that you can really build things yourself. And of course, a lot of people build their own websites.
GB: In order to shift the subject, I would like to read out another quote by Jeffrey Zeldman. In 1999, he said: “Before you can puzzle out the problem of how to design a web project, you must resolve the riddle of who you are designing it for.” How do you define your audience, do you divide them into users, readers and viewers, if you think it is possible to make such a division? While answering this, could you explain the process of designing from the beginning (when you get the project) till the publishing of the final product.
LM: That is very important if you make sites that are supposed to have big audiences (a bank site). I actually don’t really think much of the end user’s profile and how to approach the user, before I start. I think the other way around, how I can express the information in a way that it makes sense, for the design, the structure, and the client you are making the site for. And then, the audience is also based on how this is made, on what kind of information it is. Maybe, you get a whole different audience than the one you were expecting; you can’t really control your audience. I am much more interested in finding the perfect system for a certain organization or for information. For example, the idea for squares on the site for Dinie Besems, a jewellery designer, developed out her systematic way of working. She also made a project where she cut tree leaves in squares. That’s how I started thinking in squares. I very much relate to the work itself.
Also, another example of my work is the house style that I designed for an art space, but then again an art space has a very specific audience. The whole house style represents the art space with an every day changing colours. The colour is generated by the system, and this is generated on the website too. This resulted in a colourful website, which is very nice and attractive. I can imagine that this appeals to certain people. Definitely to art public, but perhaps to others too.
GB: Have you ever tested one of your websites with test users?
LM: No not really. I did it once with a demo version of the interactive story I already mentioned, but it is not a good example since it wasn’t the final version of the product.
GB: Do you get feedback from your websites? Did you use any suggestions?
LM: I get them, but I never got negative feedback. They are usually questions such as: “Oh beautiful, how did you do this?”
GB: I would like to know whether there is anything you would like to do in your design work, but you can not since it is not possible yet? And is it right to say that nowadays something is impossible?
LM: I totally think so much is possible, that it is overwhelming in a way. What concerns me personally is the aspect of programming. It is important to focus on the system and the structure, not on the images and graphics. What I really like is when the system results in the visual structure. This is very often created through programming algorithms. It is important to think analytically in structures. That is what you need to able to design in such a way. Designers need to talk to programmers to completely understand what is possible, and I can imagine a lot of designers lack this quality. Maybe they should experiment a bit more with this.
GB: When you get an assignment, how much influence do clients have on your work? How much freedom do you have?
LM: In the best case, people approach me because they like the way I approach design. Yet, it is very important that you don’t put ‘the same sauce on top of it’. I listen to my clients very carefully and I am open to make compromises.
GB: Has it ever happened that someone had copied your work?
LM: No. I might inspire people, but I also get inspired by other people as well.
GB: Well then, how do you define copying?
LM: It is difficult to say when something is copied. I am happy when people have a similar approach as mine, because it is a good approach, otherwise I wouldn’t do it that way. What is important to note is that a visual idea is not of any use to copy, because it should result from the system you thought of.