24
May
13

Walking Away from the Grid and the Rail

In 2013, when the Internet is still routinely force-fit to specs made for print, out-of-home, retail or broadcast, it’s easy to fall asleep every night believing a Web site is simply an electronic newspaper.

Excuse me, but what a waste.

As CPUs muscle up, pixel densities climb, sound systems deliver stadium acoustics and the promise of artificial intelligence looms on the horizon, digital space is going through a reality change. As these ramped-up technologies converge on our touchscreens, we now have the opportunity to walk away from mechanical grid-plus-right-rail formats—and evolve an inherently digital idiom.

Ironically, the same consumers we’ve convinced to trade-in their traditional worldview for a digital screenview are now more immersed in digital communication than we are. While we continue to crank out flat arrays of boxes, consumers are swiping from screen to screen with a grace reminiscent of simian brachiation. And lest we forget, gamers around the world are now logging billions of hours battling boredom with ‘bots. As I see it, that leaves between 90 to 95% of all Web sites woefully behind the curve.

Viewscreen: On.
How do we address this mismatch between the idioms users respond to and the idioms we speak in? As I see it, we must develop a new visual vocabulary in which text, image, animation and video would narrate the brand story in a series of engaging experiences.

So, if the marketing team at Volvo (as of 5-24-13) wants to tell consumers their product is “designed around you” they might think to demonstrate what that means, and not expect consumers to “see for yourself” by stumbling into the showroom. At the moment, the intriguing idea of a car designed around consumers merely serves as a lead-in to a dissertation about “Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC).”

Posting documentary-style videos on a You Tube channel is not enough, not least because users have to leave the site to find them. Besides this site-hopping message deployment merely adds remote boxes to the standard grid. A Facebook page, when linked to from a Web page, is still just one more carton of promo for users to ignore.

What if, instead, Volvo illustrated that thought in an immersive digital environment? The story behind “Designed Around You” would help users appreciate the engineering, aesthetic and social challenges that drive the process of building a car—and help them grasp why Volvo adds value to their lives.

Bullets in abeyance.
Now, this approach in no way obviates the display of factoids or order buttons. But the site would be oriented toward creating a seamless, dovetailing branded experience with multiple access points.

One thing this approach does obviate: throwaway copy devoted to promotional nonsense. In a branded experience environment such copy is a distraction—a little like the advertising vignettes broadcasters wove into the first generation of TV sitcoms.

Besides, times have changed. In a tight economy, the phrase “Don’t Wait—Order Now” continually begs the question “Why?” If you think the answer is a series of bullet points, you’re on your way to another digital makeover and another parade of customers who arrive at your showroom with no idea why you’re better than the competition.

Not, mind you, because they don’t have enough facts, but because you’ve failed to endow your brand with memorable emotional resonance. And that resonance, in today’s world, is what a growing swath of Americans associate with immersive, digital entertainment.

Encouraging trends.
You can already see baby steps in the adoption of a new digital idiom. Certainly the goings on at OK Studios suggest a point of departure. Here flash programming helps ratchet up the engagement level—but that’s not the whole story.

The site also delivers pages composed of surprising imagery and loose-limbed copy, working in concert to create a branded mood / voice. And while you could argue OK Studio isn’t hemmed in by the necessity to hawk merchandise, it’s easy to see how an e-tail component could be handled in this idiom.

As a cursory Google search will tell you, these are trends and tendencies explored by a number of adventuresome Web designers, including, unfortunately, cartoonish “3D” approaches that interfere with consumer engagement by adding extraneous layers of “realism” to the interface.

But enough. At issue here is not what programming technique to use. The point is to find a way to communicate in digital space that’s truly idiomatic to the medium. It’s something that needs to evolve at its own pace, but does require one inciting incident: The decision to walk away from the Grid and the Rail.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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