is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Designers are terrible at saving what we do. Most of us know that we should take the time to document what we’ve done for our own portfolios, if not for posterity. Yet few of us take the trouble. We usually wait until we leave our jobs and a portfolio becomes an imperative, or when a potential client spurs us to write a case study of a finished project.
In the analog world, this is merely an inconvenience. We scramble to dig up old mock-ups, assets, tearsheets, samples, and digital files. It’s tedious, but the definitive nature of analog design — the fact that there’s a canonical version of every brochure or book jacket — makes the archival process a straightforward one.
Archiving digital design, on the other hand, is far less clear-cut. It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating that digital media is a conversation. To design for digital media is to design systems within which wildly varying kinds of interactions can happen, virtual systems that are conducive to great conversations. Conversations, however, are notoriously difficult to fully capture.
Saving Conversations for Posterity
Imagine a verbal conversation between two or more people and consider the methods available for documenting it. You could transcribe the words spoken, of course, but those words are just one aspect of communication. Missing in that transcription would be a record of the the subtleties of the exchange, the pauses, the awkward moments, the sudden and spontaneous laughter or insight, and the facial expressions and hand gestures that do so much to flavor any exchange.
Even if you could capture those intangibles, the record would only be documenting the content, not the environment around it. Perhaps the conversation takes place at a formal event, like a gala or a dinner banquet. You could capture the invitations and other collateral, but those tell us very little about the event itself. Photography and film or video could capture scenes from the evening as well, but these measures require significant expertise, and their end products are frequently biased.
This hypothetical conversation is very similar to the challenge we face when we think about archiving digital design. More and more, digital media is social by nature. Designers are creating event-like structures within which robust conversations take place, with at least one added layer of complexity: The events don’t end at midnight. They go on and on and on. Digital media is a conversation that has no end, a conversation that changes constantly. And as an industry, our attempts at archiving digital design have been less than satisfactory.
There’s no shortage of printed compendia of digital design, books that are full of page after page of screen grabs from websites, arranged like a binder of mug shots. While these may satisfy some people, there are few serious digital designers who refer to them. Design competitions, similarly, will curate a selection of the best digital design within a given time frame, but they do such a poor job of surveying the entire field that their relevance to professional digital designers is minimal at best. Archive.org’s venerable Wayback Machine, which seeks to capture snapshots, in code, of sites across the Internet, is valuable; yet it fails to catalog the images on any given web page. If the original site has taken down the available image, it’s lost forever.
Just as a mere transcript of a conversation will never be enough to accurately record all of the detailed nuances of an exchange, this method is incomplete. But you can hardly place the blame on the good folks at Archive.org. They are years, if not decades, ahead of most of us on this problem, and designers, with our limited enthusiasm for the act of archiving, have been particularly neglectful. The Internet changes radically every three years, if not sooner, and yet we have very little record of the major role that we’ve played in its upheavals.
The problem is only becoming more difficult. Even if we could capture the full experience of the web, digital design is expanding beyond the relatively discrete confines of a “Web site.” The total experience of visiting Facebook isn’t just the site you see at Facebook.com, but also the countless sites that serve up Facebook’s widgets every day. Likewise, Twitter is barely represented by Twitter.com, as most users access the service through third-party clients like TweetDeck and Echofon, or on apps installed on their smart phones. Location-based network applications such as Foursquare and Gowalla reside almost entirely on mobile devices, which requires roaming in the real world in order to be fully experienced. It’s impossible to capture the entirety of these experiences.
The real question is, what do we want to save, and for what purpose? Do we need to merely document the typical interactions within a digital design, so that the most salient aspects of today’s Facebooks and Twitters make it into future history (e-)books relatively intact? Or do we need to take an architectural approach and try to preserve designed online spaces, so that students of history can themselves be immersed in the experiences as they exist today?
Similarly, is it enough to capture code to be compatible with tomorrow’s technology, so that today’s designs can be run on tomorrow’s hardware? Or do we need to record and recreate the hardware properties that render today’s digital experiences? Will it be useful to experience YouTube on the inevitably faster technology that will become available in the future, or do we need to reproduce the joy and pain of waiting for movies to buffer on 2010 hardware over 2010 broadband?
These and many more unanswered questions represent the downside of digital media’s inventiveness; it’s changing so fast none of us has time to think about how to preserve its most instructive lessons. But we can’t afford to ignore these issues for much longer. Today, we have no best practices for archiving digital design for the future, largely because we have yet to really grapple with these questions. Meanwhile, major milestones in digital design are being lost every year. Every time a site or an application gets a major upgrade, every time an interface is overhauled, it represents something learned, knowledge accrued to advance the craft. But we won’t benefit easily from these revelations if we don’t do the hard work of archiving these steps forward.+