The Multidimensional Language of Digital Space

[November 14, 2011] 

The explosive design revolution that began at the turn of the last century has left us many legacies, but none more lasting than the perception of design as a coherent, visual language. No mere array of decorative elements, design communicates aspects of the human condition other languages cannot.

Today the design awakening continues, celebrated in digital space at a wide array of Web sites, including the following—a list rising just slightly above the status of a random sampling:

Communication Arts
Design Bloom
Design Magazine
Like Cool

Paging through such sites is especially enlightening once you browse back to digital places many of us consult daily. Whatever else Facebook may be, an exemplar of design-as-communication it ain’t. But, of course, there are thousands of other flat, boxy and uninteresting sites to choose from.

And that’s exactly the issue that’s been keeping me up at night: Why, in the face of the last 111 years, does standard, Box + Text Web design continue to dominate the scene? 

Not that we can expect much more when the majority of sites are nothing more than containers for Content, that mysterious goo we crop and shape to fit our space requirements. Now, don’t bother striking up another chorus of “The Client Made Me Do It,” because I’m not buying that. 

Confusing cause and effect.
While I’m intimately familiar with the pressures to conform that shape our industry, they’re no excuse for ignoring that Box + Text Web design communicates absolutely nothing to consumers, no matter how witty the copy, how touching the stock art, or how engaging the offer.

Fail to recognize that design itself is a mode of communication and you’ll be perpetually flummoxed by low response rates and high click-aways. You’ll continue to attribute lack of success to copy that isn’t “strong enough” or graphics that don’t “pop enough.” You’ll also fail to realize what a boring, lackluster voice is telling your brand story. 

Learning the language of experience.
If you’re with me so far, it’s time you acknowledge that digital space is an entirely new language, with a unique multidimensional syntax. As such, it’s a language you can only speak properly if each of its components is crafted correctly—to function interdependently.

To achieve fluency in this language, you must begin by creating a message and crafting a verbal/visual/sonic/motive instrument to convey it. Done right, visual elements shape and are shaped by how users read text. Text is accessible in multiple formats—its meaning, shaped by and shaping its environment. Video merges seamlessly into the texture, ebbing, flowing and unobtrusively marking several intuitive paths through the site.

Today, even better Web site designs communicate little beyond “Pages for Clicks.” As I see it, we’re wasting precious resources if we don’t give creatives a mandate to create vivid online experiences. After all, it’s the experience that sells. That’s the real message behind the moth-eaten adage, “sell the sizzle, not the steak” attributed to Elmer Wheeler.

Having explored what Web design is not, let’s look at recent developments, some not so much “new” as underutilized. 

Setting a challenging new standard.
The first example was developed to promote the work of Canadian illustrator William Kurelik. Here a flash environment or its equivalent enables users to navigate a virtual gallery of his works, biography etc. As a result, the site seems to acknowledge the users’ presence. At its best, this and similar approaches offer an engaging set of temptations to explore the work of a relatively obscure artist. 

The site developed for The Frye Company, an “artisanal” boot and shoe maker, takes this level of responsiveness further. Its sense-enlivening confluence of imagery and text celebrates emotion, discovery and the joy of living. The site, a window into an alternative universe of fulfillment, exists to make even the style-impaired stop and screen shop.

Finally, the shadow world conjured by the French interactive agency, Werkstatt uses the illusion of movement through space-time to create a fresh, multidimensional language of motion, color, pattern, sound and shifting meaning. As with our experience of the real world, objects and vistas recede and increase within a field of vision we’re ready to explore even in the absence of a “strong call to action.”

Speaking of the future.
What each of these sites share is an intent to create a narrative environment that itself contributes to the flow of narrative content. In these instances, the categories of content and design merge inseparably. As in any true language, it’s the interaction of its components, their overlap and cross influence that communicates, not its individual “words.” 

More important, the startling potential these sites reveal points to the eventual development of new modes of communication that may one day lessen the crippling distance currently ripping our real world apart.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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