Why I love designing for the web

I've always loved to write and draw. Growing up, I searched for ways to connect those two things.

I wrote stories, and then illustrated them. For awhile, when I was 12-ish, I drew a comic strip, which I 'published' weekly on our refrigerator door.

Later, my Dad gave me his old camera and I became fascinated by photojournalism. I could tell stories by walking around and capturing the things I saw on film.

Somewhere in my teens I discovered computers. I played with compositing my photos and drawings in an ancestor of Photoshop, called Aldus Photostyler. It was, by today's standards, appalling. No layers. Truly awful masking tools. RAM measured in kilobytes. But Photostyler also offered millions of colors, perfect gradients, and the ability to push pixels around like paint. I was infatuated. My hand ached from the stiff buttons on our roller-ball mouse.

The internet became a household thing around the time I started high school (1995). I began learning how to make web pages I could display in the Netscape browser on our chunky, beige Compaq PC. I was intrigued, but I also found the nascent web frustrating: brittle dialup connections; low-bandwidth, grainy images; very, very limited styling and layout options.

In college, the fine art department offered film classes and I took a few, intrigued by the idea of a medium that combined storytelling, images, and sound. By then (~2001-3), digital video, faster chips, and high-volume storage were becoming more accessible and it became possible to make inexpensive 'films' with a relatively small camera, a computer, and a DVD burner.

I felt like I was on to something good here, with my little MiniDV camcorder(Note: And/or a 16mm Bolex, when I could borrow one from the school.)and my pirated copy of Premiere, but something nagged at me. Video and film were essentially linear media.(Note: 'Time-based media' was the insufferably pretentious name we used for it, while we drank Natty Boh in our Weezer t-shirts in the Fells Point bars.)You shot some footage, strung your favorite bits together into an edit, then you played it back for people. They saw each frame for exactly 1/24 of a second(Note: Or 1/29.99 of a second in the early interlaced days.), one after another, in the exact order that your tape or disc displayed them.

Each frame was equally important, and, in another respect, equally insignificant. If I really liked a shot or if I wanted to linger on a certain scene, I could leave it on screen longer. But there were limits to that. Let a shot run too long and your audience got bored. You lost them. If you cut too fast, on the other hand, your audience might miss something important and get confused. Everybody had to watch the same edit, so you had to try to find a cut that works well enough for most people. I'm vastly oversimplifying here, but that's the art of editing in a nutshell. There's an awful lot of skill involved in cutting a film to tell a clear story at just the right pace.

I was never a great editor, partly because I felt a little frustrated by the need for editing in the first place. I didn't want to perform a story for a totally passive audience. I wanted to give my audience a space to explore. I wanted them to be able, somehow, to take a walk through the story, to take it in at their own pace. I wanted to offer different 'paths' through it, so it could be experienced from different points of view or in a different sequence.

I started experimenting with video installation, using multiple screens in gallery settings. In hindsight, I think I was trying to show people more of the story at once, so they could make choices about what to look at. Or so they could connect the dots themselves, with less prompting from me via editing. I was hunting for a bit more chance and serendipity.

The web, by then, had progressed. There was more bandwidth, more colors, more resolution, and CSS was widely supported! Animation was possible, with Flash. You could even put video and audio on a website.

I became fascinated by HTML and CSS. I could build complex, scrolling layouts with colors and images and words, all together, with nothing but some code in a text editor. I didn't need expensive editing software, giant hard drives,(Note: In 2002 I bought a 20GB external hard drive that cost me $300. To reinforce the fact that this was a major investment, it was big and heavy enough that I needed a backpack to carry it.)gallery space, or theater screen time.

As I experimented with building little web pages, it dawned on me that this was exactly the kind of storytelling 'space' I'd been hunting for. Once I uploaded a page, anyone could visit it and click around. 'User experience' wouldn't really exist as a concept for another decade or so, but I became aware that a web page had less in common with a book or video tape than it did with, say, a museum or garden.

A web page suggested more than it dictated. It might offer a path to follow, but the user had choices. They could linger in one place or move around quickly. They could read or skim or ignore. They could go forward, backward, or sideways. They could use links to jump from one place to another.

Animator and filmmaker Norman McLaren once noted,

Animation is not the art of drawings that move, but the art of movements that are drawn. What happens between each frame is more important than what exists on each frame. Animation is therefore the art of manipulating the invisible interstices that lie between frames…

In the same way, I might argue: interaction design is less about individual screens or states than it is about what happens as you move between and through them. The way it feels to move through the space an interface provides is where our craft matters most, just like the way a garden is built around the paths that visitors walk along.

And that's what I love, still, about interaction design, and especially about the web. I love that it's a medium concerned with exploration, suggestion, choice, open doors. As a designer, you can provide a space for the user to 'walk' through, connecting dots as they like.