The Story So Far

Last year, I spent a good deal of time talking about how print designers often fail to realize that the shift from analog to digital media also represents a shift from narrative to behavior — a fundamental change in the language and purpose of graphic design. That’s still an important concept, I think.

But after looking at portfolio after portfolio over the past two years while recruiting talent for an employer that still places a high value on narrative, I should shade this argument further: the future of this profession is not predicated simply on a one-way shift from the sensibilities of analog to the sensibilities of digital.

It’s a two-way street. Granted, the majority of the shift is incumbent upon the analog-minded. But there is a tremendous amount of storytelling that needs to be told in digital media, too, and a tremendous amount to be recovered from the craft of art direction, a discipline that is seemingly stranded in the analog world.

My complaint, right now, is that the majority of storytelling that happens on the Web is based in the interactively rich environment made possible by Flash. Flash has its uses, and I have no particular disdain for the medium. But its unique value is becoming less essential over time even as native tools like CSS and JavaScript become more capable.

Actually, I should rephrase this argument: not enough Web standards-minded designers are thinking narratively in the way that our Flash-fluent colleagues are. The vast majority of practitioners of XHTML, CSS and JavaScript are almost exclusively dedicated to behavioral work — interfaces and templates. There’s very little narrative design being done with these tools, and that’s a shame.

  1. “Ёnot enough Web standards-minded designers are thinking narratively in the way that our Flash-fluent colleagues are.”

    Exactly. There’s a place for both technologies, but laying those arguments aside, I think it’s a shame how little exploration is being done on the non-flash side in the vein of storytelling, whether that be a product’s story, a corporation’s, or even an entertainer’s (how many bands are really telling their story with myspace?).

    Apple is one of the few examples that comes to mind. They often create well designed micro-sites for new products within their main site that attempt to draw us in and tell the story of the product by employing a number of different technologies. But their thinking is still fairly traditional. I think it’s just scratching the surface.

  2. I wish I had more time and client encouragement to do just that. Heck, I wish my portfolio was a little bit more that way. (I’m in the middle of a redesign, so I’m getting there).

    Unfortunately, most of my clients want to manage the site themselves, which 99% of the time means a CMS.

    If clients had the time/budget/inclination to hire someone in house, I’d love to be able to design for that, but the present reality (my reality, at least) is that clients want control and thus we end up designing and coding for the ‘worst case’, most generic scenario.

    Maybe we need to start a revolution where every brand should have at least one art directed page/section in which they let the design fly, and save the CMS work for the news pages.

  3. It would seem to me that because Flash is less accessible (i.e. you have to shell out cash for it) that there would by default be more narrative work in XHTML/CSS (there would just be more of everything)—but it seems that this hypothesis doesn’t fly.

    What caused this split, do you think? I don’t think it’s significantly more difficult to be narrative in XHTML/CSS than it is in Flash—perhaps it just takes a different kind of planning.

  4. How much of this narrative really comes from the writing and accompanying illustration and or photo graphic imagery and how much from the UI design. Seems to me you are talking about both and the need for designers to be involved in the content development as well as the layout. This is something that I think is unique to Digital design and sets it apart from analog design. The Information Architecture discipline is a good example of this.

  5. Khoi, I think you shed light on a major difference between the xhtml/css versus flash crowds. I live in the xhtml/css world and it is true that I think in terms of GUI, Info Arch, and interaction. Its as if I am in a ‘rut’ of sorts.

    What I find really interesting is that clients will want to use Flash just for the “eye-candy” affect. Many don’t know the name of the technology but they can cite the URL of what they like. Simply because one can do “cool stuff” Flash is the desired solution rather than figuring out what is to be communicated and then applying the appropriate technology.

    It brings back fond memories of many ‘splash’ pages and animated gif’s that littered everyones websites simply for the affect. Ah the good old days…

  6. Very true, Khoi. I’ve been very excited about the present opportunities available to digital narratives that don’t require Flash, both for the storytelling aspects, but also for the UI design challenges. It’s ironic to me that we were creating interactive narratives for CD-ROM 10-12 years ago that now essentially can run in web browsers, and I think the timing is perfect for standards-based designs that go far beyond where they are currently as interactive narrative presentations on the web. Flash will certainly continue to be a part of these projects, but there are many rich experiences that can be built without it, and that will provide so much more value as a result.

  7. I agree completely, and I have a theory as to why this is. Flash is a tool that designers naturally gravitate towards. When I say designers, I mean classically trained graphic designers — not HTML code monkeys. Flash speaks their language. It’s visual in nature and has similar tools and UI to Photoshop, Illustrator, and their ilk. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript speak a very different language: that of computer science.

    By and large, web standards-oriented designers aren’t traditionally trained graphic designer. Rather, they are computer geeks who got into design via the web. There’s nothing wrong with this, and obviously there are exceptions — but I think this is a fair generalization to make.

    It stands to reason, then, that web standards practitioners aren’t as likely to impress with their “design mind” — that which would let them think narratively and apply art direction in the way you’re longing for.

    As we move forward and sort-of “settle” on tools for our industry (be them web standards or Flash, or something else entirely), we’ll have more classically trained designers coming out of schools that also have a great understanding of those tools.

  8. I would love for you to also share some solutions to this problem taht you have thought up. Or examples of how we can do more story telling.

    I think I comprehend what you are saying, and I believe I agree with you, but I’m not totally sure I’m totally on the same page as you. Also I just always enjoy when someone points out a flaw in something and follows it up with their answer or solution to the problem.

  9. I think Jeff has hit it on the head, naturally designers will use tools that they can understand they don’t normally include XHTML / CSS.

  10. I totally agree. What strikes me specifically about web design is that most creatives I work with seem to have a morbid fear of the flexibility that native development methods give designers and developers.

    Pixel-perfect control of every page element is always seen as the number one priority and crafting a good UI remains a secondary concern.

    Hence, more often than not a designer will retreat to their ‘flash cave’, and the user experience normally suffers as a result.

  11. Lots of great points in the comments here, along with the main article.

    A little history before making my arguments: I’m a rare breed that got into HTML way early (1994) as a cheap, effective means of expression and design at a time (high school) when I couldn’t afford print tools. I studied design traditionally in college (though it was industrial design, another anomaly in my background) so I have that strong foundation that I apply to my interactive work.

    In my experience, the clients are the ones who dictate the extent of the narrative of a site. As Jason said, they rarely have the time/budget/inclination to help create a truly narrative, semantic web experience. Some of that is starting to change, luckily.

    Also, the introduction of really great tools like Coda and the assorted javascript libraries (jQuery being my personal favorite, YMMV) is making behavior-based design accessible to traditionaly-trained designers. Semantic markup has made the task of coding exponentially less daunting. Traditionally-trained designers are already familiar with style sheets, and are finding the move to CSS less intimidating. I have a lot of confidence in the people already in the digital design field that they can create narrative that connects with the audience, given the opportunity. Some truly great things will start to come out of the web.

  12. Khoi, this rings uncomfortably true for me. I do find that when I have the freedom to push towards narrative design, I tend to put away the standards-based options, and fire up Flash. It’s been nagging at me for the last year that it’s no longer practical necessity to approach it this way. So there’s my New Year’s resolution — bring a greater degree of narrative into my XHTML/CSS work. Simple enough. Thanks for the reminder.

  13. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see it so much as a Flash vs. XHTML/CSS issue, but a client control issue.

    If it were up to me, every project I did would be done primarily in XHTML/CSS, with touches of Flash where it was appropriate. Every project would be art directed. Every project would utilize a CMS to a degree, but the site would be overseen by an in-house design department who would then either build it in standards-compliant markup, or hand it off to someone else to be built.

    Unfortunately, those sort of projects don’t come along nearly often enough, and I have to pay my mortgage, so I often have to accept the client requirements, do my job, and move on.

  14. Not that one example refutes your whole point about control, Khoi, but certainly the much-lauded site for Miranda July’s book No One Belongs Here More Than You is a strong and precise example of narrative (in a more strict literary sense) told via the web. I’m inclined to say that the ‘story’ of that site would not be as rewarding in a book form, or some other printed form. There is progression, voice, anticipation, and pay-off — the necessary notes of any narrative. Being on the web, where you can’t peek 6 pages ahead to the end, is critical to the drama that happens as you follow the site along.

    What is interesting, and the part that’s contrary to this whole idea of control/behavior and print/web, is that in July’s site the user has no control. Click the right arrow or leave the site — about as much control as one has over a book or magazine. And yet, and yet…

    I think when it comes to what is compelling, the medium becomes less interesting. In other words, as human expression increases, technical relevance decreaases. Or something.

  15. Let’s not forget that flash is (historically at least) a timeline based tool. All other things being equal, if you’ve got a story to tell that’s a huge advantage over html.

  16. Khoi: this is what we’re trying to do with A Brief Message

    Really? Could you elaborate a bit on what actual qualities you’re referring to with “narrative?”

    It’s just that I see ABM as being pretty thoroughly episodic, in that there’s 200words on X, then 200 on Y, with generally no significant follow-up or connecting threads. I also don’t usually see the items much as storytelling but commentary. Not that those things are required for the site to function as is; I’m just being thrown by having it referred to as your example of narrative, since I appear to have a different concept in my head.

  17. A lot of the commenters seem to be missing the point. Blaming the medium for the lack of narrative in design isn’t justifiable. XHTML/CSS are no more responsible for deteriorating a compelling storyline than explosions and sex enhance it. If you structure your elements to support your story rather than serve as eyecandy, you’ll go further to create an enriching user experience than most rich media does currently. Also, to gain additional control and flexibility in one’s design that isn’t present in Flash requires a sophistication in XHTML/CSS that wouldn’t be possible if it were only for “monkeys”.

    I wouldn’t be concerned over the imbalance in choice of medium just yet, Khoi. Once designers have explored the technical aspects of XHTML/CSS and discovered what’s possible, they’ll begin to branch out more into narratives as part of a site’s overall design rather than passively serving up facts. It may take a maturation of the tools, better adherence to standards by browsers, and a boredom with Flash, but things will improve.

  18. I posted a few examples of narrative storytelling at my blog — some groundbreaking Flash and also some Flash that should have been CSS and JavaScript instead. Agreeing with Jeff Croft above, I think a lot of this has to do with skill sets in the journalism field (and other storytelling areas) — people just do not have BOTH skill sets. So they use the one they’ve got.

  19. I’ve been thinking about it for a few days after reading this article.

    And to me, the crux is not so much in HTML/CSS, but in CMS’s.

    Back in the olden days (like ten years ago), we would craft each page and ‘design’ it according to its subject, changing the decoration and fonts and colours etc. The page-per-page design is my understanding of the notion of narrative you’re explaining here (feel free to correct me).

    Now we all rely on a CMS that, admittedly, takes care of the chores (FTP yeah, HTML yeah, but not every day when one is focusing on what one wants to say). But in the process we’ve let it unify the design.

    Every page says the same: “Hey, I belong to [this site] and here is the short bio of my writer and yeah, this site is so consistent that you’ll have the exact same visual experience from page to page. No, don’t ask about page-per-page optimisation.”

    The storytelling is not part of the user experience anymore (every time I see The Fray’s archives I long for this kind of user experience, which you revived in a way with A Brief Message).

    Pondering about introducing a bit of that in my next site… reintroducing article-specific design would be a good thing.

  20. “The vast majority of practitioners of XHTML, CSS and JavaScript are almost exclusively dedicated to behavioral work — interfaces and templates.”

    That just struck a chord in me. hmm. I have some thinking to do.

  21. I can appreciate Khoi’s longing for the micro-experience, but that doesn’t change the fact that any web work that doesn’t take into consideration its context is missing its purpose.

    Linear narratives require that users suppress their natural sense of context (“real life” context). Once that new window pops open, the screen goes black, and that microscopic loading bar with the big flashing numbers and tiny faux-digital readout starts up, we all know its time to check our navigation skills at the door and get ready for some Flash.

    Fact is, the user may willingly suppress context, but machines don’t have that option. They just walk on by.

    Perhaps the strategy missing here is one called “progressive enhancement” whereby a web site may still retain its contextual nature while offering more specific linear interpretations as a client option. Isn’t that how pagination used to happen on nytimes? It seemed as though the whole article would download and then js would crop it and insert page navigation. Essentially, taking a unique node on the internet and using js to divvy it up into a linear progression.

    I’d rather see that philosophy for creating linear narratives. Use it as a localized departure from a sound internet strategy. A micro-strategy. As a micro-strategy, it makes more sense to just use Flash via Flex or SWFObject.

    P.S. Not convinced that Brief Message qualifies as linear narrative. Its template makes allowances for designing “singleton” compositions that may look more unique than standard layouts, but it doesn’t alter the browser’s context at all.

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