The Elephant in the Living Room has #*@ on the Floor

While many of my colleagues will disagree with me, I remain convinced that we are entering a new age; one that no longer operates by the same rules as the one we are leaving. We are evolving from a story-based society to a society where the viewer creates his own story. The primary difference between this age and the last is the non-linear freedom of the user.

Previous to the advent of interactive design, most forms of communication, art and design were linear: books, music, film, and video. All were based upon the ancient art of telling a story. The user, as a passive recipient was “fed” a linear production: a story with a beginning, middle and an end. The only control he might have had was to stop, rewind, or fast-forward the show. The story often had a message that the author(s) wanted the viewer to understand, and the entire production was geared towards the delivery of that message.

In contrast, the interactive mediums have introduced the idea of “branching paths” with the user in control of what information he wants to receive and, to a certain degree, when he wants to receive it. Although most web designs deliver an “image” (brand) to the user, and may have a message; it is the user who chooses what he wants to see and understand.

This emancipation of the viewer through interactivity and freedom of choice has far-reaching ramifications. Advertisers have learned it is not as easy to hold viewers to their content when the user has the freedom to click away at any time. It is a bit like the remote control for your TV; when you can mute the ads or go to another station without getting up, why listen to another ad?

Interactive design has even greater implications: that we are learning a new way of receiving information, and that it is more and more up to us to “connect the dots” between diverse bits of knowledge, and that all information is just a few clicks away. We are no longer inside a story being led to a conclusion that the author wants us to draw. We can draw our own conclusions, and use many diverse sources to do it.

Long-term memory, or learning by rote is a thing of the past. Albert Einstein claimed never to memorize anything that could be looked up in less than two minutes. Since creative thinkers are often at least 50 years ahead of their times, I’d say that is an indication of what is happening to us as a society today.

Imagine what Einstein would do with the Internet and Wikipeidia today. Then again, why retain any information at all, except what is immediately practical? I notice that this has happened to me in my life as an interactive designer. I have created the programs for interactive applications, but I no longer retain how I did it. The reason? Well, as I tell my students, the scripting languages change, the applications change, and my needs change.

What is new today is gone tomorrow. There is no need to fill my brain with outdated junk, when, if I need it, I can grab a newer version from the Internet. Why bother to re-invent the wheel, why bother to create anything new, when new is gone so quickly. Someone else is bound to have already created it. Save yourself valuable time, unless you really want to learn how something like that is made, or if you want to do it all the time as your occupation. Otherwise, leave the technical specialty to someone who is really good at it and loves it. It is not your job as a creative person to know technical details (unless it is what truly interests you).

So, our job as designers is to enable others to “connect the dots” in ever new and meaningful ways. We build interfaces that allow others to easily navigate their own path through the bewildering array of knowledge, by both simplifying and organizing the information into a palatable and easily digestible form. That is what is similar in all forms of communication design. What has changed is the format, the delivery system, and most especially, the emancipation of the user.

People will always love a story; humans are naturally drawn to stories. I don’t think that interactive communication will ever replace storytelling, nor should it. I just think that it is important for designers to recognize that the new art form — this new means of communication — is changing us. As the creators of this new culture, we have to be more aware of how this medium really works and how it is evolving.

The impact of this new form of communication on human civilization is immense. In fact, it is so big, so obvious, that like the proverbial elephant in the living room, most of us cannot even see it. We should not take it lightly, but I, as an interactive designer, am very excited by the prospects. I love the unknown, the unexpected; I don’t know where it will lead, but I am most interested in seeing what develops.

Copyright 2007 Aliyah Marr

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