Much has already been written about the marketing of Radiohead’s new album, In Rainbows. Bypassing major labels and a fixed pricing scheme, Radiohead invites customers to purchase the album for whatever amount they like (including nothing). The music is purchased and downloaded via inrainbows.com, an e-commerce web site designed by Radiohead’s graphic design mastermind, Stanley Donwood. Just as Radiohead’s distribution scheme is a critique of capitalism and major record labels, the interface design of inrainbows.com is a critique of the rigorous usability guidelines that have become all but ubiquitous on the corporate web.
The traditional goal of an e-commerce site is to separate the customer from her money as quickly and painlessly as possible. Disorienting and thought-provoking interface design has no place in the checkout line of amazon.com. But what if you are a rich band like Radiohead, with little interest in money but a strong desire to tweak culture, provoke thought, and establish a meaningful relationship with your audience? What if you decide to spend the popularity you have earned on a kind of experimental art project? Suddenly e-commerce design becomes less a means of extracting money and more a means of disrupt the customer’s expectations.
Donwood’s design for inrainbows.com is so minimal it’s disorienting. The copy is cheeky and terse, dry and ironic.
inrainbows.com welcome text
Although the FAQ section addresses a number of logistical issues regarding product shipping, it never explains that the album can be had for free. Only when you arrive at the payment do you realize that something is amiss. There is a cryptic question mark which, when clicked, leads to a screen that says “It’s up to you.” Clicking on a second question mark leads to another screen that says, “No really, it’s up to you.”
inrainbows.com shopping cart
Donwood is notorious for these kinds of cryptic interfaces and non-linear web questionnaires.
online Radiohead questionnaire, 1999
Previously however, his anti-usability interaction experiments merely supplemented Radiohead’s online image. Now, they serve as the singular gateway between millions of Radiohead fans and the product they have been awaiting anxiously for several years.
Is Radiohead insane to use such an unorthodox e-commerce interface? Usability advocates would say yes, but I disagree. There is a type of design which creates mystery and interest by concealing rather than revealing. What I’ll call “slow sell” design makes a conceptual proposition and leaves the user to imaginatively fill in the details over time. Donwood’s deadpan design, for example, poses a number of implicit questions: What is music worth to you? Is this too good to be true? Do you trust us (the name of the organization fulfilling the orders is W.A.S.T.E.)? What does reliability look like? Why is the commercial web so freaking square, and why do you so readily tolerate it?
In a capitalistic world where commodity exchange is the ultimate goal, slow sell design seems crazy (particularly at this crucial, money-extracting, e-commerce phase). But in the future gift economy that Radiohead proposes, slow sell design makes good (non)sense. It gives the band a kind of Dadaist, anti-establishment street credibility that appeals to the very audience they are trying to reach. It suggests that there are more important things than a quick buck – a suggestion that creates good will among customers which gradually (and paradoxically) leads to making money.
Ultimately, design is no small matter. Design is either a manifestation of how (we think) we live in the world, or a philosophical proposition about how we should live in the world. Are we humans mere receivers and transferrers of data and capital, or are we complex creatures who crave a bit of mystery now and then? As designers, are we bound to forever use our skills in the service of a market system that charges an awful lot for an album’s worth of music, or can we use our skills to help forge an alternative economy? In The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the townspeople make a huge airship out of women’s knickers. Upon seeing it, one of the heroes exclaims, “Look at all that underwear. Isn’t it beautiful? It’s like a dream come true. It’s the dawning of the age of lovely, intimate things.” Donwood’s playful interactive design for inrainbows.com suggests an alternative future for “commercial” design that is as lovely and intimate as Radiohead’s “pay what you like” gift economy. Dare we follow suit? “It’s up to you. No really, it’s up to you.”
Stanley Donwood’s site is slowlydownward.com.
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