New Media Design Is Industrial Design

I wrote this article in February 1999, at least in part out of frustration at a seemingly widespread lack of understanding of what interactive media was all about. Web sites in particular, it seemed, were being created either by programmers or by graphic designers – and never the twain shall meet. People who genuinely understood the medium were in short supply, and everyone else, it seemed, was desperately trying to adapt ‘traditional media’ thinking and skills to this new form – and frequently failing.

Looking back, I think much of my frustration came from the (inevitably) slow pace of progress in this respect – which may be ironic for a medium that was moving so quickly; or perhaps it was a direct result of this pace. Some of us understood the medium, saw the opportunity and wanted to get on with it – but often we had to wait while others caught up.

Re-reading this article now, six years later, I’m struck by how much of it still seems relevant today…

New Media designers seem to have been traditionally – if such a word can be applied to an industry so young – categorised either as programmers or as graphic artists. This is unfortunate since good new media designers really are neither of these, though this categorisation may go some way to explaining why so many new media applications – be they web sites, CD-ROMs, kiosks, or whatever – are so bad.

Good new media design is about a marriage of skills encompassing programming, graphic design, script writing, copy writing, sound editing, video production, human-computer interface design and many more. Good new media designers will be those who have a grounding in all of these skills rather than any one particular specialism. They will know enough about each skill to be able to communicate effectively with those who are specialists. They will be all-rounders who understand how all of these media fit together. They will be designers in the broadest possible sense.

Ultimately, I suggest, new media design is akin to industrial design – to design a good product one must ask several fundamental questions such as What is it for? Who is going to use it? How are they going to use it? Why would they want to use it? And so on. One must simultaneously account for functionality, form, aesthetics and ergonomics. Yet how often do we actually see this in new media? Rarely, in my opinion.

The problem is that most of the people who are in a position to commission new media, or manage new media design teams, have themselves been in business for much longer than this industry has existed. On the other hand, most of the people who are good at producing new media tend to be young, inexperienced designers, often fresh out of university. People who are not burdened by the experience of working in other media and who can approach new media with a fresh eye and fresh ideas.

Commissioners and managers tend to commission projects or select team members on the basis of what they are already familiar with – i.e. traditional roles and traditional media, be it print, video, television, radio, film, advertising, public relations. Unfortunately much of the discipline, terminology and methodology associated with these fields do not apply directly to new media. Yet so often they are forced to do so by those who simply do not understand the medium, and will never therefore realise its full potential.

The result is that we often see new media products that have either been created by graphic designers to look beautiful but frequently at the expense of functionality and ease of use, or we see products that work wonderfully but look terrible because they have been created by technicians. It seems rare to find a successful balance of form and function in new media.

Meanwhile, those who do understand are often too young or lacking in experience of the business world to be given the freedom necessary to ensure the project is a creative success. They spend time trying to prove themselves to managers while becoming frustrated at having to work on projects that they (but unfortunately not their bosses) know could be so much better.

The result? All too often, those who can’t are in charge, while those who can aren’t allowed. Not a particularly good recipe for success.

So what is the solution? Firstly commissioners and project managers need to stop applying traditional-media techniques to new media. They must not expect solutions and approaches that worked for them elsewhere to yield the same results in the new medium. Instead, they need to assess their broad objectives and devise completely new strategies with which to achieve them using new media. To do this, commissioners need to be educated or advised about the possibilities and potential of the internet and interactive multimedia, so that when they commission, they know how to get the best product for their needs.

Secondly, project managers should not select team members by choosing people who fit traditional job roles and skill sets. Certainly some traditional skills will be needed, but these alone are not enough. A successful project will almost certainly be conceived, planned and designed by people who truly have an understanding and overview of new media – by those with the all-round skill set of the industrial designer. In other words, by true new media designers, and not solely by programmers, graphic designers, producers, editors or others from traditional backgrounds, who happen to have turned their hand to new media.

Finally, we must devise a ‘language for new media’. We must define the methodology, find the job titles which best describe the roles required of those involved and devise the terminology to enable business people and new media designers to understand each other. It took seventy years to develop a language for film; we have a long way to go!

About Jonathan Hirsch

I've been working in the interactive media industry since 1995. I'm a problem-solver with a multi-disciplinary skill set. I work on a freelance / contract basis. I help clients create great digital products.

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