When Design Comes to Life

World Wide WebDesign is moving off the page faster than ever, and Drew Turney wonders if he’s ready to take advantage of the growing opportunities.

If you’d been reading this story 15 years ago, Desktop would have told you about the exciting new technology called HTML that was sweeping the world. The average designer had only had a generation (ten years or so in graphics technology) to get used to using a computer instead of a drafting board and pencils and already there was a technology pundits were promising was going to revolutionise communication.

In those days you could afford to ignore the web and leave it to geeks with propeller hats. Today ignoring digital design is like pretending global warming isn’t happening. Sure there are a few standouts, but they’ll follow the dinosaurs and dodo to extinction very soon. Every ad agency, marketing consultancy or design studio worth its salt offers web design services.

Now that design across print and web is mainstream, other fields of digital design are catching up fast, and in the very near future (if they aren’t already) your clients will be desperate, convinced they’re missing the boat when it comes to new generation website content or design for everything from mobiles to games. Welcome to the new paradigm, where you’ll be seen as the expert in design that’s on screens the world over.

The New Web

One of the most frustrating things for designers in web design is the lack of control you can enforce on the user. The web is an untamed, untameable medium destined to be seen as many different ways as there are computers, mobiles and TVs in the world within just a few years.

“Paper is a fixed canvas and the user does not cause it to change with interaction,” explains Julian Carroll of Sitepoint Solutions client services division. “That makes is easy for the designer to achieve their design goals. Designing for shifting canvas dimensions [of web design] is obviously more difficult. Add to that, web design often requires the designer to produce a template that has to cope with content length varying from page to page and navigation menus changing from section to section.

“Scarier still for designers, Content Management Systems allow clients to build their own pages, so a designer has to create a template without knowing what their clients are going to put in it. From a creative perspective, you need to come up with robust and flexible designs. Don’t create designs that require pixel perfect alignment to be successful.”

On the upside, advancing PC technology has given you a generally bigger canvas to work with. As of January 2009 (according to the world wide web consortium) the statistics for PC browser sizes in use around the world was 4 percent at 800×600 pixels, 36 percent on 1024×768 and 57 percent on higher resolutions. Quite a different world from early 2000 when 800×600 pixels enjoyed 56 percent of the market and a little over 10 percent of users were still using the now-miniscule 640×480.

So while you can create a website optimised for a common resolution in a popular browser, the whole idea of the web is universal access and if you create a page that’s unreadable on just one device or screen, you’re unwittingly rejecting web inventor Tim Berners-Lee’s spirit of giving HTML to the world.

The answer is web standards, a set of conventions that any browser vendor worth their salt adheres to. Standards are rules in the code that separate the content (HMTL) from the design (CSS). Standards ensure older, superseded elements like framesets or nested tables are done away with, elements that are useless when it comes to mobiles and other non-PC devices, and Julian Carroll — like most enlightened web designers — is strongly behind them.

“Design for the latest standards and implement gracefully degraded solutions for legacy browsers,” he advises. “Try and avoid CSS hacks if possible. If you have to use them do some research about how to manage them so they don’t come back to bite you in the future.

On your game

While a much smaller employer, the area of digital media that must surely give web development a run for its money — if not surpass it — is video games. Since so few of us are lucky enough to work in the field that spawns global hits like Halo, Gears of War and Manhunt, Desktop asked Sweden’s GRIN studios producer Per Juhlén all about it. As the man in charge of the recent Terminator Salvation film tie in game, he reveals what must be one of the coolest thing about working on a game based on a film — advance plot spoilers! “Yes, everyone would envy me and the team if they just knew what we know,” he laughs.

So considering a development cycle he estimates at anything between 14 and 26 months (faster for XBox or Playstation), how similar is game design to what the rest of us usually do when we play around in Photoshop and doodle on notepads?

“Pre production involves concept sketching, design documentation and initial project management planning,” Juhlén says. “The more effort you put in during the early stages the easier it will make it later as you can be more efficient with costs and turnaround times.

“The steps on a high level game would generally be story draft, concept sketches of characters and environments, programming of core systems, voice scripts, animations and cinematic sequences. Then you can usually start what’s called the ‘critical path’, where everything falls into place and you see the final product taking shape. To get there, you need to have all the building blocks available for game play programmers, level designers, the cinematic director, voice actors and so forth.”

It’s easy to forget how spoilt you are when you design for print. In effect, you’re telling the output device (the press) exactly the way things are going to be. Web development introduced a new level of adaptability for two reasons. First, it was suddenly your users telling you what canvas your designs would appear on (such as different operating systems, browser sizes, etc). Second, you had a specialist colleague (the developer) tasked with making it happen and he or she was only too happy to tell you the technology simply wouldn’t allow many of your high and mighty artistic ideas.

Game design is similar, only worse (or better depending on your point of view) as your amazing design idea has to fit into a lot more technologies and satisfy a lot more colleagues with their own rules and frameworks. “As a designer you must be able to clearly convey what you want to achieve even though you’re not the one that has to make it work in your game engine,” Juhlén says, “so don’t rule out anything. You have to be a little like a teacher required to teach any subject, and that requires an extensive bag of tricks and tools.”

One thing we were really excited to ask a game designer was what he uses. Using Illustrator and Quark Xpress is pretty impressive to those outside our industry, but how cool would it be to be able to use CC+, Java and all those important-sound programming languages?

Instead, the principle of design is the same whether you’re doing a game for global release or the local Chinese restaurant menu. “Anything you need to be able to convey your (hopefully) outstanding design idea,” is how Juhlén answers when we ask what software and tools aspiring game designers should practice in. “I’d also say you should look into the most efficient third party solutions that give you quick turnaround.”

In fact, if you’re in game design all those high-faluting sounding languages and platform protocols won’t be part of your usual toolbox anyway. Just like a website designer need not know Javascript or high end Flash, making an idea work is a different job description. “You can’t really say different platforms requires different programming ‘languages’, it’s more the frame work that differs and the trick is to take advantage of each platforms strength and handle the weaknesses. Regardless of the area you work in, you need a strict, clearly communicated framework with discipline to successfully program game play code or engine tech.”

And so to the most important question. If, as a wannabe game designer, you knocked on a studio like GRIN’s door with a killer video game design idea, would you get a meeting? Juhlén says the realistic answer would be no, but take heart. There are a thousand avenues to get attention for your idea, from YouTube to Flash templates you can program yourself, and Australia has a thriving game development industry considering the size of our population. Do your homework, grow thick skin and you’ll get there. If you’re a print or web designer (or on the way to being one) don’t let the naysayers stop you — you’ve already got the determination to enter a very competitive field.

A movable feast

In just the last few years in markets across the world, something has fundamentally changed mobile applications and services. And as in so many other technology sectors, it starts with an ‘i’.

“Of course, I can’t even enter into this conversation without mentioning the iPhone,” says Doug Maloney, head of products and services at 3 mobile. “What a real change that has introduced to the market, even just in understanding what the word ‘applications’ means or the idea that you can put an application on your mobile phone.”

Of course, applications on mobiles weren’t new when the iPhone launched in Australia in 2008. As long ago as 2004 futurist Howard Rheingold was watching teenagers in Japan and Korea look at their phones instead of speaking into them and telling us we’d all be doing it eventually. But as in many sectors, the iPhone has made mobile applications easy and taken it mainstream.

So with the field taking off, how much work is there for mobile applications designers in the Australian market? Simply put, there isn’t one. Sound like bad news? Maybe it should sound like big opportunity. “There are loads of opportunities for local developers,” thinks 3’s Maloney. “There’s a lot of buzz about mobiles and mobile applications in Europe and we just don’t seem to have that same groundswell of developers saying ‘hey, we’ve got this great idea, let’s get it up and running and see if it works’. I feel a bit incredulous that small developers and even some of our bigger partners aren’t seeing it as an important area to focus on.”

In light of our place in the global market and comparatively tiny population however, it does beg the question of whether Australia can lead — or at least participate — in mobile applications, and you might be surprised at the answer. Unlike in most technology market races, the US is decisively not where the action is. When it comes to mobile data, the industrialised countries of Asia leave the rest of the world in the dust. It’s true that in the US they don’t have the prohibitive costs we do but like us, Americans just haven’t taken to mobile data culturally.

So if you want to make it as a mobile app designer, where’s the action? Games and entertainment, social networking and business utilities own the market so far, but 3’s Maloney describes it as a ‘maturing market’. Most of the applications we’ve seen on mobile at this stage are simply stripped-down versions ported across from the PC, but some apps will live much more comfortably on mobile devices than desk-bound systems. “Mapping applications basically present a book on the screen and there are some real opportunities to simplify that and turn it into a really mobile location and navigation experience,” he says.

But Maloney raises another interesting point when we ask him what 3 Mobile thinks the next killer app will be. Where the form factor of a PC lends itself to accessing and using dozens of different applications, the mobile device is quite different. We don’t want to switch tools to do every little thing — it’s the reason behind the 80/20 rule, where most mobile owners spend 80 percent of their time using 20 percent of the functionality of their device. Put more simple-to-use functions into that 80 percent and you’ll be onto a winner.

“We have this tendency to just keep adding and adding and adding functions instead of realising [the phone] only needs to do one thing or two things really well,” he says. “So I don’t have any predictions for new categories or applications as such, but we’ll see a real simplification of the services over the next few years.”

But here’s the best news yet when it comes to mobile app design and development — you’re already qualified. As far as design, the above advice from GRIN studios’ Per Juhlén stands firm — don’t let the constraints of software affect your vision. It’s up to software engineers who know Java, Flash or other specialised languages to make it work. If you’re making apps for the iPhone it’s even more specialised as you’ll be using Cocoa-based programming protocols like XCode and UIKit.

So if your head’s spinning after reading that last paragraph, relax — that’s why you’re in design. Like in everything from websites, games, mobiles applications or any other kind of digital content, everything starts with making something compelling for your customers or visitors to use. Do that well and you’ll find yourself at the bleeding edge of a design sector that’s only getting bigger…