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The numbers may seem small today, but when the first Communication Arts Interactive Annual attracted 382 entries, few saw it as a disappointment. In fact, the total came as a surprising vindication for a field that was largely considered a pastime rather than a profession.

It was 1995, and no one was exactly sure where interactivity was going. But there were plenty of indications, and most of them good. Already companies were starting to clamor for interactive work, and a nascent industry was scrambling to fill their needs. In a column written that year, Wendy Richmond went so far as to describe the situation as a "frenzy."

"It's as though thousands of companies decided all at once that they needed a marketing piece," she wrote.

And that was just the beginning. Over the next ten years, interactive media would produce a communications revolution that changed everything from the way people do business to the way they learn about the world. It would be a story with many sides: social, business, artistic, personal and, above all, technological.

Of course, the Interactive Annual didn't cover everything. Instead, it focused on excellence in design. Year by year, it provided a snapshot of a growing industry as it struggled to maintain high standards against a backdrop of hype, chaos and expectation.

PREHISTORY: THE DESKTOP REVOLUTION

If you look at the beginning of interactivity and ask "Who were the designers?" you'll find that few of them were, properly speaking, designers at all.

It wasn't that print designers in 1995 were strangers to technology. In fact, they knew it all too well. The previous decade had seen the biggest shift in publishing tools since Gutenberg. And the transition hadn't been pleasant. The colors that showed up so nicely on a screen at night magically turned four shades darker on a printer in the morning. One year's superfast $3,000 computer was the next year's superslow $3,000 doorstop.

But for all the extra work and expense, there was no corresponding increase in pay rates. Designers couldn't charge their clients more simply because they were learning new ways of working. Instead, the cost was absorbed, sleep was lost and relationships suffered. In fact, because computers and software were constantly improving, the later you got in, the lower your investment and the better off you were.

In 1995, Richmond quoted a designer who summed up the prevailing mood: "[We] got screwed with desktop publishing," she said, "and I don't want to repeat that."

And it wasn't just techno-skepticism that kept them away. Interactivity also required new ways of working that wiped out the biggest advantages of the desktop revolution. If designers had gained anything in the last ten years, it was control. For the first time, a single designer could not only lay out pages to perfection, but also manipulate photos and even create new typefaces. By contrast, interactivity offered only crude tools, and it had no use for loners.

"This is not a profession for those who love their ivory towers," said designer Lauralee Alben in 1997. "You can't do this alone. There isn't one way to collaborate, but collaboration is a requirement in working in multimedia."

As a result, many print designers ended up on the sidelines as interactivity took off. In their place came students, dreamers, architects, failed artists, technological visionaries and, above all, brash young entrepreneurs. They would embrace long nights, teamwork, specialization and anything else that would get them ahead. They would sneer at CEOs and amass paper fortunes. And most of all, they would scorn the past and try to create something unlike anything that had come before.

At least, that's what they thought.

THE EARLY YEARS 1995-1997

In the early years of interactivity, the disk was king. Whether it was floppy or CD, it loaded slowly and came freighted with technological difficulties. More than one Interactive Annual judge complained of waiting minutes for a project to launch, only to have it crash immediately afterwards.

Still, interactivity was an exciting place. At its core was a small group of dedicated practitioners. They sometimes called their work "multimedia" or "interactivity," but tended to prefer "new media," which shows just how rarely a new medium comes along. Not surprisingly, they also had a hard time establishing criteria by which to judge themselves.

"I think it's really too early to say exactly what makes a good interactive piece," said juror Doris Mitch in 1996.

But if the early pioneers didn't know exactly why they liked something, they sure knew when they did. In those days, a great project was an epoch-making event, a tidal wave that swept through the field, reshaping it overnight. When a disk had that magic something, the whole interactive world instantly stopped, gasped and adored.

The reason was that no one really knew what interactivity could do. Any designer who explored a new genre could open up a whole vista of possibility for the medium. A project like "Myst," for example, showed that interactivity could provide a game-like experience. "The Residents Freakshow" proved it could tell entertaining stories. And MetaDesign's "VizAbility" showed that it could be used to teach artistic skills.

In those years, judges would often select a project simply because it didn't look or behave like any other project. "My criteria for judging," said Jessica Helfand in 1996, "was the degree to which they were innovative. "

Predictably, a lot of experimental work made it into the early annuals. These homegrown disks sometimes betrayed a little naivete, but at their best, they could be very good. In 1997, the hilarious "Love Disk," for example, proved that you needed only a tiny budget and an active imagination to produce an entertaining piece of interactivity.

In terms of market segments, the educational and cultural world seemed to grasp the medium's possibilities first. In 1995, Microsoft's "Encarta" was in the midst of its long run as the most influential educational CD-ROM of the interactive age. Compiled by a massive staff and featuring a reference system that foreshadowed today's CMS tools, it spawned dozens of successful imitators.

Games were also plentiful, and enhanced-music CDs—and especially those for the band Alice in Chains-pointed to a bright future. By contrast, business and advertising projects seemed less noteworthy, although Herman Miller's 1995 Virtual 3-D Aeron Chair project was every bit as clean as one today. And Burton Snowboards—a company that would go on to be included in an astonishing number of annuals—set an imaginative standard for alternative lifestyle companies.

Taken as a whole, however, these early productions may seem a bit clunky to modern taste. The first annuals present a wide proliferation of menu types: circle, square, left-hand, right-hand, top, bottom and diagonal. Buttons were sometimes beveled to make them seem "push-able." Designers couldn't seem to get away from long introductory sequences, first called "covers" and later "splash screens." They even crowded the screen with wordy links like, "Click here (with your mouse) to view our print portfolio. We hope you enjoy it."

Of course, faced with this cacophony of looks, feels and sounds, some judges raised prescient concerns. "I would say that information design is an important aspect in all graphic design," said Peter Seidler in 1997. "Whether the elements are organized in a way that communicates effectively and is pleasant or inspiring or emotional in some way." Needless to say, that was an idea that would endure.

1998-2001 THE RUSH TO GLORY

The year 1998 marked an important departure for the Interactive Annual. For the first time, all of its judges listed their occupation as either an executive or creative director of an interactive agency. What had once been a vague and undefined field had suddenly become a profession.

A large part of that shift was due to the emergence of a new medium for interactivity: the Web. In its early days, the Web had been seen merely as a text tool, but with the inclusion of images everything seemed to change. "Now," said Brad Johnson in 1998, "virtually every major corporation in the country or the world has, needs or uses a Web site."

Over the next four years, the rhetoric about the Web would come to reflect the growing hype and self-confidence of the Internet bubble. By 1999, judges were already starting to speak of it in superlatives. The Web was "unique," "unparalleled" and "revolutionary." By 2000, it had acquired the ultimate mark of arrival: its own jargon. Judges were talking about "portals," "convergence," "relationship marketing" and "one-to-one customer access." Businesses were demanding sites that were "cutting edge," "leading edge" and, in a neologism that probably sent English professors running for cover, "bleeding edge."

At the same time, the annual's entries and judges displayed a rising sense of professionalism. Interactive designers had serious clients now, and they needed to be satisfied. "I think rather than going off in all these different directions," said Johnson, "people are playing it a little bit safer and concentrating on telling the story and presenting their content in the most effective way, rather than the most technologically flowery way."

From a formal standpoint, interactive projects started looking very modern by 1999, with navigation bars generally in the same place as today, logos placed at the upper left and conventions becoming conventional. Brand advertising became an influential category, with memorable sites like Altoids.com and Volkswagen's Turbonium. Cultural sites continued to be a source of innovation with online documentaries produced for clients like PBS, National Geographic and the Smithsonian.

The rapid advances in technology and bandwidth also gave rise to a genre of "experimental" sites. Of course, experimentation had always been around, but these sites came with a twist. They demanded that users have fast connections and the latest browsers and plug-ins. Some, like The REMEDI Project, were produced independently, but others, like Adobe's DHTML-heavy smashstatusquo.com, came with corporate sponsorship.

Needless to say, excellence then was not exactly what we'd call it today. From 1998-2001, the annual's judges saw success not only in terms of content, interface design and ease of use, but also in whether or not a project "got it." That is to say, was it interactive enough? Was it different from traditional publications?

This was easy for CDs, but not for the early HTML Web. But then a technology arrived that changed everything: Flash. Often called a "vector animation" tool, it was really much more. With it, designers could build fast-loading sites with music, voiceover and animated interfaces.

Soon, the industry began to expect that successful sites should contain all these possibilities at once. "A good project had any number of elements in it," said juror Joel Hladeck in 1998, "Either it had really great graphic design, very smooth motion, interesting navigation, maybe even unique architecture, but I think the really excellent pieces—the great pieces—had an element of all those things and that led to the creation of a very dramatic sort of experience."

In other words, for top designers, interactivity had become a form of content. With a proper arrangement of text, sound and motion, they believed that an interface could become more than a gateway to a Web site or CD. It could become a form of narration itself.

One of the most successful companies in this regard was Portland-based Second Story, which made the annual in one form or another for all but one of its first nine years. A typical project was its "Unwrapped: The Mysterious World of Mummies." Made to support a documentary, the site had an interface that looked like bands of tape. When you rolled over any part of the screen, the tape parted, revealing options for navigation. In other words, the interface itself was a mummy, a metaphorical extension of the subject matter. Though the site would be considered cumbersome today, it perfectly expressed the spirit of the times. It was not book-like, movie-like or like anything else. It was interactive.

At the same time, the Net saw a great expansion in the creative role assigned to design firms. While traditional designers had generally contented themselves with communication, their interactive counterparts had grander pretensions. A good example of this trend was the New York firm The Chopping Block, which placed a large number of projects in the annual from 1999-2001. Its sites, like buyarock.com, were complete creative productions, with quirky content, stylish animation and plenty of laughs.

Companies like Second Story and The Chopping Block produced Web sites that made sense for their clients-but others weren't so careful. Web designers soon began to acquire a reputation for arrogance and self-importance. Too often, they promised what they couldn't deliver and delivered what they couldn't justify. Their critics and skeptics found comfort in a growing school of "usability" experts. Led by the indefatigable Jakob Nielsen, they argued persuasively that the Web was a tool for delivering information, and that hip design only tended to get in the way. Their ideas took hold and were echoed more and more in judges' comments.

"The weakest area I have seen is something I've become very tired of-a gratuitous use of typographic animation and a gratuitous use of interface animation," said Robert Abbot.

By 2000 , the crazed pace of the industry began to take a heavy toll. With companies redesigning their sites every six months, there were hardly enough designers to go around. "There's such a race going on," said Lance Rutter, "such a need for speed in the whole way we approach everything we do for the Internet that I think we all need to take a good long walk in the woods and think about some of the fundamental issues that need to be changed."

2002-2003 THE LATE GREAT NET

In 2001, the annual reached its high water mark with 2,861 entries. The next year, the Internet bubble burst, and numbers dropped precipitously. Overnight, "rock star" firms dissolved, and huge consultancies vanished into bankruptcy.

The 2002 annual, interestingly enough, straddled this great divide. The entries—and there were many excellent ones—came in before the crash, but the annual's selection process took place afterward. Judges found themselves in the strange position of evaluating work from firms that were defunct and designers who were unemployed. At the same time, the events of September 11, 2001 were not far from anyone's mind.

"This medium has been so fast in developing and a lot of people have been so wrapped up in it, they've forgotten about their own life, and sometimes their own health," said Lee Feldman. "Some of the issues in the past year help us look at life more holistically, and not just as the Internet."

Feldman and his fellow judges made one thing clear: it was no longer enough to be interactive. A cool animation or a snappy whiz-bang didn't cut it anymore. Instead, a surprisingly non-visual criterion came into play: writing. In their comments and selections, the judges made it clear that the Web's long tolerance for baffiegab had come to an ignominious end.

''I'd like to see a lot more attention paid to text," said Drue Miller. "I read a lot of copy on these sites that looked like it had not received nearly as much attention as the visual design. It's just sitting there, heavy on buzzwords."

Compared with earlier years, the 2002-2003 annuals seem sober and grown up. Personal art largely disappeared. A corporate site from PeopleSoft was included. The New York Times returned with a content-rich piece about the September 11 tragedy. On the whole, the winning entries became deeper, either in the amount of content or in the nature of their subject matter.

From a business standpoint, clients became less tolerant of the notion that they should redesign their sites every few months. Instead, they began demanding content management systems that would last years, if not longer.

At the same time, the annual began to see an increasing number of brand-based projects for companies like Nike, Land Rover and BMW These sites and CDs were often fun, but they weren't always the sole responsibility of design firms anymore. While the Web had grown up, so had everyone else. No longer was the Internet a mysterious realm where only a small number of designers could create effective sites. Ad agencies now devised their own ideas and hired Web firms to execute them.

Above all, interactive designers no longer felt that they had all the answers. They saw themselves as professionals, involved in the long and difficult process of making interactivity relevant and interesting. "I don't want to say we've hit a plateau necessarily," said Miller. "But we have reached a point where people aren't experimenting truly for the sake of experimenting so much as stopping and considering...what's the value this is bringing to the user's experience?"

2004: THE REVOLUTION ENDS

Without a doubt, the first ten years of interactivity encompassed a massive revolution in communications technology. Like many revolutions, this one had humble beginnings, a rapid ascent and a spectacular fall. But once the dust had settled, it was clear that interactivity had fulfilled neither the most sanguinary expectations of its proponents nor the direst predictions of its skeptics. Instead, it had given rise to a complex and specialized world of usability experts, information architects, database programmers and interactive designers.

In other words, it had become a durable industry. And that's something, after all. ca

Joe Shepter is a freelance writer specializing in travel and interactive media. He has worked with Adobe, Oracle, Whirlpool and Coca-Cola, among others.
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