Revolution Lullabye

January 5, 2009

Helfand, Six (+2) Essays on Design and New Media

Helfand, Jessica. Six (+2) Essays on Design and New Media. New York: William Drenttel, 1997.

Helfand’s essays, which all first appeared in Print and Eye Magazines, ask how our ideas are being shaped by new digital media and vice versa, how new digital media is shaping our ideas. She writes as a designer, calling in each of her essays (some more overtly than others) for her fellow designers, whose formal training probably did not address programming code or hypertext or moving visuals, to take up the challenges presented by the internet and digital new media and find appropriate, responsible design solutions instead of leaving the digital landscape open to chaotic, untrained interpretation. Her argument (which she admits is a bit elitist) takes her from an analysis of electronic typography to the relationship between information and form and from questions of access to a discussion of the physical, hardware and software constraints of digital design. Her first essay, “Design and the Play Instinct,” claims that responsible and thoughtful play is an essential component of the design process, and the computer has made play easier and more efficient because of the possibilities of erasing and reverting to previously-saved, “uncorrupted” drafts. She warns against designers relying on old design paradigms, such as those developed for the printed page, calling for designers to find ways to accurately present the overload of information and non-linear narratives found on the internet in ways that allow for clear communication without making complex concepts and relationships overly simplistic. The technology might limit the design, but the concepts a designer can communicate are not limited. The text is a little dated to the new media debates of the mid-1990s (lots of discussion of CD-ROMs.)

Quotable Quotes

Interaction design: “It demands, instead, more comprehensive thinking that involves cognitive, spatial, and ergonomic considerations” (59) Interface designers can’t just rely on traditional design training; they have to branch out and collaboarte with software engineers, psychologists, and other experts who can help them with the unique design challenges of new media.

Designers need new ways of “visualizing stories in multiple layers, for designing with mulitple points of entry” (60).

The problem with websites that “dutifully mimic the form and structure of a paper publication, which is its own restrictive model” (49). Instead, we need “more ambitious thinking, more inventive models, and, undoubtably, more inspired design than presently exists” (49).

“The internet is a dialectic hybrid: a utopian archetype at once pragmatic and mythical, borderless and structured, it is a potentially infinite space with no geographical, political, or otherwise material boundaries” (47).

“Texture is complexity made physically manifest” (22).

“As information overload tips the scales, the demand for editorial and design direction will become more and more critical” (45).

“Thoughtless computer-aided (or driven) design maximizes shortcuts. It delights in gimmickry and exploits for effect. Here, in the land of the gratuitous filter, it is a celebration of bells and whistles, uninspired form and negligble content…This is the play instinct gone awry – devoid of imagination, brain-free, giving way to the loathsome gravitational pull of mediocrity” (10).

Notable Notes

Essay Titles:
1: “Design and the Play Instinct” – play is essential to the design process. Computer and technology facilitate it (and allow it to happen.)
2: “Electronic Typography” – typography is now asked to represent spoken, time-sensitive word, can disapper and appear in the 4th dimension, need for visual literacy to develop, emails are constrained but serve all purposes.
3. “The Pleasure of the Text(ure)” – digital new media is often pushed into linear forms when that doesn’t make particular sense because it gets rid of the texture. CD-ROMs discussion.
4. “The Culture of Reciprocity” – access to new media is limited around the world, how educational institutions are teaching and using new media, new media is formed by and for those who participate in it.
5. “A New Webbed Utopia” – the internet is controlled by its constraints: html code, upload times, ambiguous target audience
6. “The Lost Legacy of Film” – new media designers should look to film designers to help unlock the power and potential of narrative and drama. New media has more choice and participation; the audience become the authors.
+1. “I Design, Therefore I Am” – avatars as identity, one that can be manipulated and edited constantly.
+2. “The Myth of Real Time” – our world has equated real with efficient, and the potential of leisure time as productive time is ignored. Also, digital media seems by its very nature ephemeral, not as a comglomerate of building layers over history.

blue underlined hyperlink developed by U of Illinois for their Mosaic project – now ubiquitous in website design (49)

information highway should be reconceived as an information landscape – by MIT research team

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