Steven Heller and David Womack: The Good The Bad And The Ugly in Digital Design

by | Jul 23, 2008

Steven Heller and David Womack (more or less)

Steven Heller and David Womack are two of the most important and knowledgeable writers, thinkers and talkers on design today. They recently collaborated on the book “Becoming a Digital Designer: A Guide to Careers in Web, Video, Broadcast, Game and Animation Design”, which offer an insightful overview of the contemporary digital design industry, as well as interviews with top designers. We thought it would be interesting to get their take on the good, the bad and the ugly in digital design today. So we gathered one afternoon in Steven’s office, as they unleashed their opinions and expertise (along with some friendly banter).

Steven’s bio: Steven Heller is the author, co-author or editor of over 100 books on graphic design, illustration and political art. He was an art director at The New York Times for 33 years and is a columnist for The New York Times Book Review. Heller is also the co-founder and co-chair of the MFA Design Department and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism Department at SVA. You can subscribe to his daily blog for PRINT magazine here and learn more about his books here

David’s bio: David Womack is a writer, consultant, and curator who contributes articles on design and technology to publications including Metropolis, I.D.,, and Cabinet. He is also an editor of Adobe Think Tank.

What’s the story behind your new book?

S – This book came about because of a book I had previously written called “Becoming a Graphic Designer” and what we were looking at was the next generation. We’re looking at how this new field and this new digital industry makes options available for people who are in the creative fields. I also did a book 10 years prior called “The Digital Designer” and then one called “The Education of a Digital Designer” Each of these books went out of currency fairly quickly. So things have changed, and David came to it from very different perspective than I did, because David was immersed in this world and I was kind of poking around the edges.

D – I got interested in digital media in the first place because I come from a creative
writing and storytelling background and I saw it as a way of telling stories by using multiple media, and so I was interested in the possibilities of incorporating different kind of experiences and narratives.

The front and back cover of their book.

How so?

D – I’ll go into a web site project to do information architecture strategies, a sort of meta design where I ask questions about what character we would like the web site to have and how people will move through it for a satisfying experience. This is particularly important when working with organizations, because unlike for example an e-commerce site that has a natural narrative built into it, the idea of a narrative for an organization is a lot more difficult to pin down, and can also vary a lot from user to user.

S – I also felt that the web is a terrible place for design. This is partly because of the strictures that are imposed by the software, partly because too many engineers have gotten to lead where it’s gone, and partly because people are just becoming acquiescent in terms of what good design is and what is expected of the Internet. Every time somebody talks about the best-designed sites, you find these sites that are very functional. By somebody’s perception or interpretation they’re “good design” because they provide what’s necessary to provide, but from a graphic and visual standpoint they leave a lot to be desired. So I wanted to address that in this book by bringing in designers who were trying to make headway.

D – I agree that a lot of web design suffers although I put a little bit more blame on designers themselves, because I think that in digital media, designers were thrown into new situations where they forced to make things up as they went along. However, I think in a lot of cases they’ve settled for too little and they’ve settled for things that seemed like ‘rules’ a lot of times. Since there is so little structure and the medium is in such a state of flux, it seems like a ‘rule’ is something that you can hold on to to beat back uncertainty. I think that designers have gotten really lazy with not challenging web standards and not really thinking of the visual possibilities of the medium in the way that they did with print. Especially with typography, look at all the ways typography has been abused and stretched and challenged in interesting ways. You don’t see the same thing on the web and if you do, you run into a very stiff criticism from the web design community itself.

S – I’d like to be able to argue with David but he’s absolutely right. People who could call themselves web designers are different breed of designers and they’re acquiescent.
In print design there was an interesting period of time in the 50s and 60s when the Swiss took over and reduced everything to two typefaces, which caused a lot of argument and criticism. And as the modernists and the eclecticists within the design community fought, an interesting give and take emerged and it all came together and allowed things to grow. But with the web it’s a different ball game. It started when Rick Saul Wurman coined the term ‘information architecture’, which was just this highfalutin way of saying ‘graphic designer’ or ‘communications designer’. But it quickly got usurped by people who built wire frames and actually created forms for information. They’re not designers, they’re not looking at typography as something that can be expressive or emotive. They’re looking at ways of building the grid.

D – I don’t think it’s the information architects’ fault actually. While they are often responsible for defining the mechanism whereby information flows through a system, they’re not necessarily defining the expression of that information in the way that you may be talking about.

S – No I think the designers have acquiesced of the information architects. There was a certain point when the designer could have taken control, but the designer lost control and the roles changed. The information architect became the go-to person to set forth the system and the designer had to work within that system. But the word ‘integration’ is becoming used more and more, and where it is used effectively, designers and technologists are coming together and working things out.

So collaboration, rather than fighting it, out will improve things?

S – I think the whole world now is about collaboration, whether you like it or not. It’s about sharing experiences about collaborative effort. There will always be the singular genius like David over here, but people will have to work together more and more, and not that graphic design was ever a non-collaborative realm, but the fact of the matter is, a lot of the so-called star designers were one-offs, they didn’t work within a system. Or if they did, like Paul Rand, he made sure that he set down the system and everybody else followed it, and he could break the rules but everyone else couldn’t.

D – Just to understand how collaboration has driven the current aesthetics: I think that because information has become a lot more fluid, it needs to pass through a lot of different systems, which means that depending on the specific display, you have the same information appear in a lot of different contexts. This information is being interpreted through these different applications and therefore it needs to be unencumbered, that’s why standardization has so much power in the community. And I think that’s inevitable to a certain extent. What I’m upset about in terms of graphic design is the unwillingness to really question anything, and I think people have basically gotten overwhelmed by opportunity.

What do you mean by “overwhelmed by opportunity”?

D – Because the digital world is so unknown and it’s moving so fast, and people within it are moving so fast and advancing their careers so quickly they’re asked to take on larger responsibility with every project. I think that makes them tend to fall back on the known, because if you can articulate something as a ‘rule’, that tends to be very seductive, because it’s something you can hang on to when you’re in front of a big client.

S – Also, those clients see what’s done on Google and Amazon and they want to copy Google and Amazon. So what you have on one level is an originator like Ebay that is an amazing touchstone that brings people together and allowed everybody else who has something to sell say ‘We’ve got something, let’s throw up there to the global village and see if anybody wants it’. Unfortunately, Travelocity and Ebay and all these other sites look like shit. So there is this paradox: how do you make it not look like shit while it still does what it has to do? And how do you convince people out there who want to invest in what they think is this big moneymaking operation –although no one has quite figured out how to do that yet- how do you get those people to get off the dime and say ‘We should experiment, we should try something else?’ When the printing press came it was a lot of experimentation during the 20th century, the rebellion of the Dadas and the Surrealists that kind of filtered back into the commercial world. Since the web, with the exception of a few CD-roms back in the ‘90s, there doesn’t seem to have been much experimentation.

D – I don’t know, I think there has been experimentation, I just don’t think it has manifested itself graphically or visually.

S – Right. It’s about software and hardware etc.

The web site of Amsterdam agency Kessels Kramer

D – Well, one of my favorite web sites is the ad agency Kessels Kramer in Amsterdam which has a site that was just a series of really bad advertising for really inane products. And you would click through it and this experience of clicking through all this bad design would just put you in an absurd situation, which ended up defining their brand because if you appreciated that absurdity you would like their work.

S – But they were kind of exploiting the medium, that wasn’t the medium being experimental. It’s kind of like when David Carson did his typographical experiments. He was experimenting with digital technology but it wasn’t within the digital world where it was coming from, he was just using it to make a style and a name and it didn’t go any further.

So what are you hoping your book will do?

D – From my perspective, I wanted to pull back and ask: What are the basic principles that underlie all interaction design no matter what the format? So that’s the first half of the book. We’re looking at ones and zeroes, this bionary language of code that really defines what digital design is. We’re also trying to explore the implications of how that might affect a design. Another topic is action response, the fact that unlike other graphic design mediums the web provides action and it demands a response. So we’re trying to define basic elements and looking at specific examples and how they’re being applied by specific practitioners.

S – The first part of the book is basically all his. The second part of the book we shared but I was much more interested in the concrete examples because my brain turns to mush when I try to think about most of this stuff. Last night I went on to my own web site and got a message that said “You’ve reached a web site that’s scheduled to disintegrate, call your provider immediately.” and I just freaked out, it’s like when my car doesn’t work and there’s no mechanic around. And in the end I did find someone who said “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it”, which made feel good. But I can’t function in this wonderful world, I don’t know how to make things work or how to build them.

So what interested you about the concrete examples?

For example, this guy Mikon van Gastel, whom I met at MoMA art conference once, uses environments create information and decoration. So that made sense to me. So once I started asking him questions the way he responded taught me what he did. It didn’t teach me about theory, it didn’t teach me about the things that David talks about in the front of the book, but it gave me a more concrete basis to at least semi-understand what was going on. So if anything, this book was done for me. So I could understand what this new world is and how to transfer to it from the very prescribed print world.

Mikon van Gastel of Imaginary Forces’ digital display for Morgan Stanley

Did you envision other people like you as potential readers?

S – I envision tons of other people like me. But the funny thing is, or it’s not so funny actually, this book does not reside in the graphic design section at Barnes and Nobles, it resides in the computing section. Now, I go to the graphic design section when I’m looking to move my books around so they get better visibility. But I don’t go to the computing section. Now, I’m assuming that there are lots of people like me who don’t go the computing section, but there are probably just as many people who go to the computing section that don’t go to the graphic design section. If those people who go to the design section are interested in design is another story.

D – That’s interesting. But I imagine that the book would be useful for a student audience that is already immersed in digital design. I think it would give them an opportunity to pull back and reexamine the basics of what they are engaged, with and also looking forward to where they could really be going with it. I do think the book is for transitional designers who are working in print and are looking to move to the web, but I think it also serves students really well.

S – And we offer them options. So you have a whole section on animation. And those animators are not necessarily digital designers but they are working in a digital medium to create storytelling visuals, they’re storytellers. You go in there and you see games. Well some of the game people are also telling stories they’re just working in a medium that allows them to be on a computer or a flat screen TV and you go in there and you see typographers, Marian Bantjes who’s brilliant with what seems to be a classical hand drawn letter form, except she does it digitally. So she’s approximating script the way Gutenberg did. So what you see there is that you don’t have to be a systems analyst, you don’t have to be an engineer, you don’t even have to have any computational acumen. All you have to do is to be a designer and get to a place where you either work with someone who knows that stuff or you learn it because it’s part of the vocabulary that you’re speaking at age 15 – 25.

D – Just in the way that I don’t think the book fits neatly in either graphic or web design section, there are a lot of people in it that are difficult to pin down to a particular discipline that’s one of the hallmarks of what’s happening in digital design generally right now this crossover. Just looking at the skills: web, video, broadcast, game and animation, there are so many of the people who are doing interesting work that would fit comfortably in at least three of those categories, if not all of them.

S – Well it used to be that graphic designers could only move things around on their lay out pad. They even had to have someone else set the type. But that’s not the case any longer.
You have to be multi-disciplined.

D – A lot of the integration is really led by tools. It’s so amazing to see how all these tools are coming together and becoming this sort of über-tool. The fact that shoe designers are creating their own little hacks for Adobe Illustrator, which originally was not even a design tool but an illustration tool that conserved to create three-dimensional forms. Information architects are also using Illustrator to lay out their wire frames and it’s very flexible.

S – It’s kind of like these drugs that were meant for one purpose but work for another. So you can take Viagra but it will keep you from getting a stroke or something. Or children’s Aspirin.

D – Going by the way things are now, I would definitely say children’s Aspirin!

This post was authored by NoD staff. Notes on Design is a design industry blog sponsored by Sessions College for Professional Design.

If you are interested in developing your graphic design skills, Sessions College offers a range of graphic design courses for students at all levels. Contact Admissions for more information.

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