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Our favorite Monday night TV show is, by far, “The Antique Road Show”. Adva (wife) and I never miss it. In each episode, specialists from leading auction houses and independent dealers from across the country offer free appraisals of antiques and collectibles. Since my wife is about to graduate her degree in Art History, and I am a designer, we both absolutely love seeing all the fascinating art and design pieces people bring to the show. From family heirlooms to garage sale findings, from 17th century piano stools, to a laugh machine from the 60’s.

While watching the show a few weeks ago, I was thinking that it would be super neat if in 150 years my great great grandson would get one of my designs appraised. But after giving it another moment of thought, I realized that this could never really happen. I can count on one hand the number of site designs that have lived more than 10 years without a re-design (which usually completely overwrites the original.) A 150 year old design for the web just seems impossible.

It made me sad to think that my designs were not born to live more than a decade at best, that they are so temporary. This should have been obvious to me throughout my career (it probably was, subconsciously), but I never gave it much thought. Comparing it to the amazing poster/furniture/whatever-physical-object-designs I was seeing on the show, it became clear as day. How did I miss this? After shedding a few virtual tears and ranting on Twitter, another thought came to mind: How does this affect the work we do as Web designers?

Timeless

Then I read Mandy Brown’s article, which really had an impact on me. She talks about an idealist stance to preserve content on the web, about shielding it from the forces that be. A call to arms for solving not only the technology, but more importantly the will to preserve. Technically speaking, I truly believe this is possible when it comes to preserving the actual content of a site, which can easily be converted into different files or forms of technology. Once the will is there, it can be achieved. Heck, at the end of the day, words, images and videos can be converted into physical objects, like paper or film if all else fails. But what I am interested in, as a designer, is the design itself. Not only the content.

Web design (or should I say screen or interface design), unlike almost any other form of design, is completely based on the technology it is built upon. This technology, as we know, changes so rapidly, who knows if we will be able to create a seamless backwards compatible form of HTML for, say, 150 years? Who knows if Flash will be around in 200 years, it’s dead now isn’t it? Once the technology is gone, the designs built upon it will vanish into the same virtual nothingness they were born in.

Web designs cannot be transfered to physical objects either, since they rely on a kind of user interaction that will be lost once removed from its supporting technology. Interactions like hovers, notifications, dropdowns and animations, to name a few, will always be virtual and as such can never translate to physical form.

Virtual Design

So can we all agree that appraising sites will just never happen? Are we ok with that? Can we agree that this is because what we design ultimately lives and dies in a virtual world? Can we also agree that preserving such designs for many years seems impossible at this point in time, unless a solution is presented? If the answers to all this is yes, how does this affect us as designers?

I am starting to believe that this is one of the biggest differences between us and the rest of the design world (print in particular, to which web design is often compared.) Heck, I would even be more comfortable comparing us to cake design, stage design, or better yet, to window display design. These will either be eaten, taken down when the holiday has past, when the show is over or when seasons change. They are built to create a temporary experience and in that lies their beauty.

Is this one of the reasons that we still do not have a masterpiece web design that we can all agree on? Will we ever have one? If we find one, how will it be preserved and referenced? Is this why so many designers seem to rely heavily on ever changing trends? Is there room to start thinking of internet museums? If things were more permanent, would designers care less about the latest trends and try to design something timeless? Can web design even be timeless?

I have no idea. I have more questions than answers. But I am pretty sure that the fact that the designs we produce are temporary is one of the strongest thing that ties us, or sets us appart, as a branch of design. Technical differentiators such as screen sizes, interactive elements and so on are a good starting point for understanding what sets us appart from other fields of design, but I think it is time to start digging a little deeper.

13 Comments

Luke Connolly

March 21, 2011

Hey Yaron,

This was really great to read, thanks for provoking the thought. It certainly has affected me as a young designer, as I constantly wonder if I should try to re-aim my career towards print or package design.

I’m not sure how to answer the tough questions you’ve posed here, but I like to think that some day the web’s evolution may level off (to a degree) and that some designs will stand the test of time. The first web site I designed was static HTML using Tables and inline styles - remember <font> ? It took years to learn the quirks of DIVs and browser rendering. With each new browser, the amount of buggy behavior I have to account for diminishes.

Now, about 8 years later, redesigning my site does not involve switching from Tables to Divs or anything similarly drastic, but rather involves making slight adjustments that *could* be made without any significant changes to the design itself. Let us hope that sooner or later we can update the technology while preserving the design.


Tim Smith

March 21, 2011

What an interesting article! I had never thought about this. I’ll always remember someone telling me about UX, “If we do our job right, we become invisible.” How true that is.

However, I would love to look at it from the bright side of things. As UI Designers, if our designs are temporary, we have more of a possibility to continue to get better, leaving our “horrible” designs to be forgotten.


Jason Gross

March 21, 2011

I love this kind of thinking. It provokes thought and has compelled me to respond and also do some thinking myself.

After reading your article I can’t help but to think about how the Antique Roadshow came to be. Because really that 17th century stool was never destined for this show. When that stool was created the show, the medium, and the idea simply did not exist. So I think it is someone a mute point to try and design a timeless web site.

The creator of the 17th century stool probably put no thought into where his stool would be in 300 years. Rather a piano player needed a seat and they made one. The real magic here comes 300 years later when someone finds that object and dusts it off and appreciates what they have found.

So the real question here is can we as designers look hundreds of years into the future and imagine our own designs being discovered? Or will they all be erased as you have suggested? While it is impossible to truly know I lean away from your suggestion that all will be lost.

Many of us caught wind of, and enjoyed, seeing the old Space Jam site (http://www2.warnerbros.com/spacejam/movie/jam.htm) still alive and well, unchanged for 15 years now. So these types of scenarios exist where designs can live through the years only to be uncovered later.

Overall I feel as though while it is an admirable goal to try and design something that is timeless I think we may be better off designing to solve the problem of today and knowing that there is a slight chance that some day, down the road, the work that we do becomes timeless because of its re-discovery.


Tim Maggs

March 21, 2011

Really enjoyed reading this. As the comments before me I really hadn’t put much thought into this before.

I kind of have to agree partially with Jason Gross with the fact that people don’t go about attempting to create a masterpeice to be admired 150-300 years later. If you set out with that goal you would almost undoubtedly fail. It is only much later on that people look back and can see how timeless work created is. I’m sure that I read somewhere before that most classic art/design pieces only become truly valuable after the creator has passed on?


Ivey Inman

March 21, 2011

Thanks for the great article, I appreciate all the questions you bring up here. It presents to me an understanding that as web designers we design for our users, that which we make should be a living breathing thing. I think that the ideal everlasting site would be one that is constantly changing, flexing, stretching as each new user participates. So, I agree what makes web design wonderful is that it is temporary, it is living and breathing, forward looking and present. It’s a gift because it requires us to exist in the world around us, you can’t just sit in your office and design, you have to be out in the aware and expanding.


Greg

March 21, 2011

To put a slightly different spin on things, I think the throwaway nature of designing for the web creates an environment rich for experimentalism. Because you know what you’re creating isn’t going to last forever, and because you fully expect your creation to be replaced in a relatively short amount of time, the risk factor is significantly reduced. Compared to designing a physical product, where the aim is often timelessness, web designers can feel liberated and maybe try something they’re not completely at ease with. The ability to push yourself so easily out of your comfort zone is something I really like about designing for the web. After all, if it all goes tits up, your creation can (and perhaps inevitably will) be easily replaced.

Nice article mate; loving your work.


Frank Chimero

March 21, 2011

When I scrolled through this blog post quickly, I noticed an abundance of question marks. I wish more people were courageous enough to invite the neighbors over while the paint on the walls is still wet; to write about questions for which they don’t have answers. Bravo, Yaron.

One book I’d suggest reading is George Kubler’s The Shape of Time. Kubler’s definition of art embraces anything that is made by people, which opens up design and utilitarian objects to the conventions of art. To compound that train of thought with the topic of this blog post, he says “The moment just past is extinguished forever, save for the things made during it.” When we do not properly archive what we make, we lose moments.

There are a lot of conventions for preserving art, and while my knowledge of those procedures is shallow at best, I’m sure there are best practices for preserving art forms that are implicitly as ephemeral and experience-based as interaction design. We can look for insights from other disciplines. Interaction design is really more akin a performance art piece than a painting. How is performance art documented? Installations dependent on the space like Robert Irwin’s work? I know for years Irwin forbade photography of his work simply because it subverted what he was trying to accomplish: it turned an experience into an image.

Regardless, there seem to be two main challenges to preserving a web designer’s work: preserving the content and preserving the interaction. Any mode that I can think of that accurately archives one subverts the other if you try to do both at once. But, then again, this is the rare advantage of interaction design—it is the only media that combines the two in such a way. Perhaps what would be best is to adopt a dualistic approach to archiving: more typical approaches for archiving images and text, and then video for archiving interactions. This splits apart the intent and quality of the original, but perhaps we need to accept that any archiving resilient to time will have to break in some way. A copy is never as good as the original.


Mandy Brown

March 21, 2011

I love the comparison to cake design here. Does the baker feel similarly wistful about the fact that her cake will not survive (until the end of the night, even)? Does the farmer, when he harvests the season’s crop, regret that there will be no record of his work?

I wonder if one answer (to one of these questions) is that we need to preserve the stories as much as the artifacts. So, an interaction may not be perfectly entombed, but if we can defend its story against the ravages of time, we may yet protect it. Twitter will be gone in one hundred years (hell, it may be gone in five), but stories about how we used it and what it meant may survive.

Also: the stool that survives three hundred years is so enthralling precisely because it is unlikely.


Sharat Buddhavarapu

March 21, 2011

@Frank- That quote Kubler really feeds into my thoughts on the questions of writing fiction as an autobiographical process. How much can an author represent a moment in time perfectly if his memory of it is colored by his biases? It’s driven to begin thinking about designing a journaling plan/outline to help me capture moments in my life on the fly, while keeping the experience of journal writing fun! Also, to add my own question in, if this problem plagues authors, whose craft is thousands of years old, should we really be worried about an across-the-board solution, or should we be concerned with guidelines that ensure interoperability and resilience, while they help new creators to form their own archiving systems?

@Mandy- From what I’ve read of cake designers/farmers/bakers in Nora Roberts novels, it seems they do feel that wistfulness :P I really think that an archive of people’s experiences will be integral to whatever solution we find in the future. To use your example of the stool, it’s remarkable for its endurance, but also for the stories of the people who have sat in it, and what they did while they sat on the stool. The stool facilitated community if, as I imagine, it was in a small-town bar. I think we need to capture community most of all in our archival efforts, what we built is important, but as Frank said the copy can’t be perfect. 100 years down the road, the stories we tell about how we changed in the process of adding to this community will tell what kind of people we were.


Sharat Buddhavarapu

March 21, 2011

@Yaron- I can’t believe I forgot to thank you for inspiring the discussion in my previous comment. Silly of me. For all the brain power you’ve forced me to use, I’d like to throw some questions at you:

The thought that inspired this post sprang from your “real-world” contemplation of a realization that came from watching “The Antique Road Show” (great show) with your wife. So how much of that experience could be captured in any medium, be it virtual or physical? What part of the appraisal experience do you want your grandson to feel? How do you think we can work on transferring this?

Thanks for the brain food!


Martin Wright

March 22, 2011

Fantastic article. This has been a worry of mine for years. My father works with metal and he still has work from 30 years ago he can point to and say he made and that ha always made me jealous.

I do think transience is a strength of our medium. We can approach things with a different attitude, trying things out without the horror of permanent consequences.


Yaron Schoen

March 22, 2011

Wow guys, thanks for the amazing comments. I am so happy that I left them in the re-design.

@ Jason - I wouldn’t say that before starting a project I plan to make a design last for a 100 years. We shouldn’t be able to anticipate what will be. But, it would be nice if someone did find one of my sites (even if it is no longer usable because everything is in holograms)  and cherish it as if it was an antique.

@ Greg - What a great thought and way of looking at things. Experimentation is very much a part of my blood. That said, I am sure Mucha had the same way of viewing his art, yet it was still preserved and to this day influences trends and designers throughout the world. Can the same be said about us in 100 years?

@ Frank - Damn you and your brilliant mind. Your comment is better written than my entire post. lol. I must say that before I clicked on the publish button for this article, I felt a tad vulnerable *because* of all the questions.

I love the comparison to performance art, and I have no idea how they are documented. I am guessing Marina Abramovic’s piece at the MOMA last year was documented only by photos and videos. But that is only a documentation of the actual art. To truly have experienced it you would have to be there, or better yet participate and sit infront of her. As you mention, a copy is never as good as the original.

@ Mandy - I agree that the stories that come out of the design are essentially even more important than the design in human culture. But if an aspiring designer in 50 years time hears about a thing called Twitter and how it changed the way we live, it would be more than beneficial for him/her to actually see it and play around with the interactions. Just like it is important for designers today to learn about design history. Everything they learn is documented and preserved, because nothing was virtual.

@ Sharat - To answer your question, I would like my grandson to feel and learn the history of what we created. Of how a generation changed practically the world with this thing called the internet. I would love for future generations not only to know about the history and it’s impact but to also see and interact with it, just like we do today. Appraising is just a metaphor. But it would be nice for my ego as well, though I will be dead by then so fuck it. :)


Trent Walton

March 24, 2011

I love this post and the discussion along with it. I’ve always just accepted the temporary nature of what we do regardless of how well-crafted the code & pixels may be. Video archiving might work, but I do think that if something on the web has a broad impact it’ll be well-documented elsewhere— History books simply won’t be able to sum up the revolution in Egypt without mentioning Twitter. Regardless, waybackmachine.org probably doesn’t cut it.

Maybe what matters most isn’t the pixels themselves, but how our creations affect others. I’m not sure that can be archived, and I’m okay with that. My favorite thing about the web is the people behind it. For example, I’m proud of the work we did at DesignSwap, but what I value most is the friendship it facilitated.


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