"To behold, use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it. to listen to radio or to read the printed page is to accept these extensions of ourselves into our personal system and to undergo the 'closure' or displacement of perception that follows automatically. It is this continuous embrace of our own technology in daily use that puts us in the Narcissus role of subliminal awareness and numbness in relation to these images of ourselves. By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. That is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions. An Indian is the servo-mechanism of his canoe, as the cowboy of his horse of the executive of his clock."

    — Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media


    something for nothing

    Look at this image, and tell me what you see. Did you name a color? Is it a picture? A magazine? A beetle? Where can you find it? Find what, the beetle, or the magazine? Or the image? What, exactly, are you looking at, what are you seeing, what do you know about what you see?

    Information is the direct result of your interaction with the world, with everything that is not you. We tend to think of ourselves as receivers of information - that the picture imparts meaning to the viewer. But stop and think for a minute - how much of what you know or learn when looking at something is coming from the something, and how much is already in your head, and how much derives from the context in which you're viewing (or hearing, or touching....)? We are as equally the source of information about a thing or a situation as we are receivers, and nothing is anything except in context.

    As with the image above, in order to know something about it, you have to decide what you're looking at - what you know about a magazine has little to do with what you know about an image, or a beetle. In society driven by electronic media, where there is no prerequisite that the images have any basis in reality, it is difficult to ever say for certain what one is looking at. Is it "real"? What does it have to "say"? And where, really, does its message come from?

    There is a wonderful scene in the movie LA Story where Steve Martin describes in intricate detail a haunting painting of a beautiful woman, but when the camera turns to look, all you see is a big canvas with blobs of color - there is nothing there. Like an abstract painting, the Rorschach test lets the viewer call up images and words based on an abstract picture in which there inherently is no message. We see what want to see.

    Jacques Derrida, a philosopher of the latter 20th century, helped codify in Deconstruction (his philosophy in a nutshell) a way of thinking that has been blossoming throughout the 20th Century. In particular, he re-framed our way of interaction with the texts and books that we absorb; it was his argument that an author has literally nothing to do with we find in a book, but rather that the reader brings everything in the way of meaning to the book at hand. James Joyce foresaw these possibilities long before Derrida - Finnegan's Wake is the ultimate example of a book for which whatever meaning that can be found is found to be in the reader. Joyce once said of his work, "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles, it will keep the Professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality." The labyrinth of confusion is ours, not his.

    In physics too, Quantum Mechanics has been the story of the 20th Century. We discovered that when we look at the world in small enough pieces, the physical act of looking literally defines what we can expect to see — Science and Philosophy have begun to merge in this new electric age. In a profound way, Marshall McLuhan saw and understood how the electric universe, in all its facets and with all its technology, has fundamentally changed the nature of our culture, and ultimately of all cultures. He was the first of many to understand that information is not words, nor pictures, nor files, but that everything can be viewed and dealt with as a form of information, including widgets and trucks and money - it's all information.

    We see what we want to see.

    culture and perception

    Alan Kay once said, "the right context is worth 50 IQ points." The web is an almost context-less place — web sites are about anything, can be anywhere, connected to anything else at all, of any imaginable size, and all too frequently, seem to make no sense whatsoever. In framing web sites, we are confronted with the basic problem of the viewer and the viewed - how can we know what someone will see when they look at something we've designed? How can you convey your intended message?

    In every form of communication, and every communication channel, you have to contend with who is listening; that is, with who your listener is, what they know - what is their culture, at least in respect to yours? In virtually all design work, there are at least three parties - the designer or architect, the client, and the client's customers. Three parties, three cultures, three frames of reference, three different sets of perceptions. It is no small thing to represent your client to their customers, to frame a message to an unknown lister. It is a basic a fundamental challenge, which we face whether we are designers or not - how does one make oneself understood?

    At left is a series of four illustrations, each depicting Amero-Indian pictographs on a rock in New England. The illustrations were done over a period of several hundred years by different people, each is completely different, yet all are illustrations of the same rock. How can four people look at the same thing, yet produce such different versions of what they saw? Like the ubiquitous graffiti of today, for almost all but the authors, there is no meaning for us as viewers, there is nothing to "latch onto" to define what we see - it's just shapes and colors. Without a set of predefined meanings, without some foreknowledge, without context, we cannot find anything in what we see. Who we are has everything to do with what we see, and what we know. Our culture, your culture, has everything to do with who you are. By the same token, who we're talking to has everything to do with what they hear.

    Clearly, understanding the speaker and the audience, and their relationship to each other is the first step in any communication design process. By definition, client and customer bring a partially shared culture with them - they know each other, and have expectations about process and results. It's worth pointing out here that "client" and "customer" may be professional reference points, but you can easily substitute "manager/staff", "teacher/student," "parent/child," or "lover/lover." It's about communication, not business per se.

    Too often, designers are wrapped up in pouring themselves into a design. Rarely is the user interested in the designer, but in the designed — Does it work? Does it make sense? If I can I find what I want, do what I want, and not be troubled by what you want, I can get where I'm going. Key to designing information is not to impress one's self, nor to "design," but to frame the message and context so the viewer gets it. The only measure of good design is whether the user / listener / viewer understands - if its useless to user, you've failed at your basic task, regardless of how "cool" your design is, or whether it wins a dozen awards.

    The history of the 20th Century is the story of learning about and expressing what we know, and how we know it. Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida, James Joyce, Richard Feynman - in their own way, they all started revolutions in various fields about the concept of "knowing." The first step in understanding the speaker, the message, the audience is to understand what they "know," and what their perspective is. Because the web is rapidly becoming a ubiquitous, worldwide medium, that challenge is greater than ever.

    the medium is the message

    According to Google on this 11th day of March, 02001 there are 1.296 billion web pages out there, all somehow vaguely connected, some pages closely, some distantly indeed. Some are wayside stops, some are dead ends, some are superhighways. The web is a sea of information, and we the users leap and skitter across it, sometimes in seven league boots, sometimes on our hands and knees with a microscope. It is a dynamic place, constantly shifting. It is its own kind of message. How can we hope to help anyone find their way?

    Communication relies on context - the ability to extract meaning from the medium, to separate signal from noise. Effective communication has to provide a context in order to make the message clear and present. Add to that the fact that the web is as much a point of departure as it is a destination, that you can rarely rely on the user having any particular context, and you have a considerable problem. How do I as the user know what it is I'm looking at? How can I find what I'm looking for?

    Latin based languages typically have around 27 letters (counting the space), and around 30 punctuation marks. There are over 200 billion possible 8 letter words, out of which the most literate of people uses no more than 35,000 (Shakespeare used no more than that, and neither does the human genome). With slightly more letters than we have fingers and toes, we can express the whole of the human experience. It's easy to complain about the constraints a problem offers (gee, Chinese has way more "letters" - they've got it easy), but I've found that constraints offer one the elbow room to get creative.

    Consider these images Jupiter:

    The bottom image you probably recognize - that's Jupiter, with two of it's moons in the foreground. But what's that squiggly line? That is also a picture of Jupiter and it's moons. I realize the image isn't very clear, but what you're seeing is a graph of the orbits of Jupiter and all it's moons over time. From the graph, you can tell how many moons Jupiter has, and you can tell the relative mass of its moons. No, of course it doesn't look the same as the photograph, but it is a valid, visual representation of the planet and its satellites, one that conveys a different set of information about the subject. How we represent our message, how we get our point across is up to us - it is the basic point of being a designer at all. The world is full of options, one just has to think about what the point is, and consider ways of getting it across.

    The web has slowly begun to evolve its own unspoken standards of context and communication, such as providing a menu bar, which usually has some standard choices, like "about," "contact," "search" - you've seen them. They're not required, but if you leave the basic contextual markers out, you'll have to find some other intelligent and intuitive way to ground the user in your "language of reference." It could be as simple as providing a site map key, which is what a standard navigation bar in fact is.

    Consider the now lowly hyperlink - you can usually spot them 3 meters away from your screen. They're a different color, a different shape, a different font, underlined, cause a cursor change, sometimes are animated, can actually make sounds when you pass over them or click on them, frequently have icons associated with them, and generally announce themselves from afar. In fact, all of the things I just listed reinforce and repeat the same message over and over again - click on me.

    loops and infinities

    All three of the following images are periodic charts - a map of all known elements. Each is not only different, but all are different from the standard squarish one you probably remember from high school. Each is specifically designed to call out different properties of the listed atoms in relation to each other. "In relation to each other" is the operative phrase here - even if you don't know the elements or can't remember the periodic chart, it's obvious just by comparing the three that they are about "the same thing" (the elements), but the arrangement is different, and so each graph must represent something different about the elements.

    The first step to establishing meaning, the first step in doing a jigsaw puzzle is sort the pieces into piles, where the things in the piles match, but the piles do not. Information design begins in the same way - sorting things into meaningful groups. Complex projects, complex web sites just involve stacks of stacks, and stacks of stacks of stacks. Literally all information can be treated this way - by finding meaningful patterns, and allowing us to manipulate the patterns, instead of the information directly.

    Except. Yes, there's a monkey wrench. It's called recursion, or that's the computer term for it. It's like this - say you're doing a jigsaw puzzle, and you do in fact sort the pieces into piles. Well, even a child can tell you that every piece can only go in one pile - that's the way it is with things. Information isn't like that - it can be copied, one can link to it. Take a shortcut on your desktop - this is not a copy of the file or program, but another way to launch it - it's a link, in much the pages of the web are linked together. There's only one actual copy, but it can appear (as a link) in many places. Specifically, a recursion is a link that points (eventually) back to itself - A -> B-> C -> A.

    When designing information, or more specifically designing a web site, it's critical to remember that you can have a piece of information, or a collection of information, appear anywhere and everywhere that it makes sense. That part most people remember. But it's also critical to understand that the best way to do this is to put the information in one place, and link to it as necessary - this way, if you want to change a color, or a word, or an image, or a page, or a site, you change it once, and all the things that reference stay up to date.

    room with a view

    Everything you do with a computer involves information (more on this in the computer lecture) - processing it, arranging it, formatting it, transmitting it, storing it — it's all about information. Even the software itself is information - a set of rules for how to interact with particular kinds of information. Every piece of software on your computer is a tool for viewing and manipulating information, for framing communications, for expressing messages.

    HTML, for instance, is a set of rules for expressing the relationships between many distributed files (text, graphic and otherwise), a browser is a tool for seeing those relationships. Dreamweaver, BBEdit, Image Ready - these are tools that allow you to not only see information, but arrange it on the fly, so to speak - you can literally manipulate the end result (I want this picture over here). The web in general is a way to look at complex, inter-related file structures, and provide meaning and context, by providing a visual relationship between files, across content.

    When you design a web site, or any form of communication, you are intrinsically designing information. The most important leap in understanding you must make as a designer is this — what you're designing is not a thing, but relationships among things, or more accurately, relationships between concepts (since that's all a bundle of information is). Don't ask whether it looks "good" or "bad" - asks whether it makes sense, whether it has meaning, and to whom. Conveying meaning through design is much easier than merely "designing" - decide what needs to be said, and to whom it's being said, before you design how it will be said.




all content © copyright 2003 neil verplank, unless otherwise stated