I ran across a reference to Dan Boyarski and his class on “Time, Motion, and Communication” at CMU while reading an interesting thread kicked off by Dan Saffer on the idxg list (via Dani Malik at Laszlo). He questions the role (or lack thereof) of the page in “Web 2.0” . Inspired to learn more, I enjoyed reading Dan Boyarski’s keynote speech for Designthinkers 2001.
Dan Boyarski talks about his discovery of teaching motion, rhythm, and time in a typography class. I wish I could see the visual presentations that went along with this talk, and not just a transcript, but I can imagine from his vivid descriptions. He talked about how he invites folks from the drama department to talk to his students. They start using theater words to describe a presentation, like the design students are directors, which of course they are.
It is wonderful to read about his transition from purely print design to motion graphics and interaction. He also talks about about the web:
“The web right now replicates paper. The web replicates books. And that’s natural. McCluhan had a wonderful saying about ‘driving into the future looking at the rear view mirror’ because that’s what we know. That’s what we’ve left. That’s what we’re comfortable with. We’re comfortable with books, so we talk about web pages. There’s nothing physical on the web and why do we still put pieces of paper on the screen and you click on a button, another piece of paper comes up. Click on another button, another piece of paper comes up. We’ve forgotten that that screen is simply a window into a space.”
What else can we do, but learn from our experiences and apply those experiences to a new medium? Is “a window into a space” any less a view from our rear view mirror than a page in a book? Metaphors are useful. They help us find our way around. Despite their familiarity, actually because of it, they help us discover (or invent) new parts of a working system. We need to start thinking about the web with new metaphors when we want to create things that don’t fit the old ones.
The web was created mostly for publishing documents. The page metaphor is unsurprising and has proven useful. Layered on top of that are links, with anchors, and navigation that let us travel from web site to web site. Oddly a set of web pages are not referred to as a book, but rather as a place. These mixed metaphors are not a problem, but rather each has its own domain, and these domains overlap to cover what might otherwise be a disturbing and disorienting venture into cyberspace.
Boyarski points out that we’ve “forgotten” that we are not restricted to the page metaphor. Software is flexible, and can create an alternate model. In particular, web applications have evolved that don’t particularly fit the page metaphor, but changing the metaphor requires both a shift in technology and a different approach to design.
Working at Laszlo, which coined the term Cinematic User Experience, I’ve enjoyed diving into an alternate, more appropriate metaphor for application design and development. I may be called a “software architect,” but we don’t create blueprints for an application, we create story boards. We write scripts which drive the development of initial prototypes. The application changes over time in a way that is analogous to film, but the changes are typically triggered by user interaction or changes in data from the network. We borrow other words from film and video production to describe transitions. A new element may slide in or fade out.
The metaphor isn’t a perfect fit and it doesn’t need to be. Its comfortable, yet can lead me to think in new ways about an old problem. Sometimes watching a film or the evening news can provide an idea to apply to this new medium. Like a student that Dan describes who borrowed the motion of elevator doors opening to pace his animation effectively, sometimes it helps to look in the rear view mirror while we create the future.