Category Archives: Opinion

An appy world

Predictions become more perilous the more precise they are. So when forecasting the fortunes of an industry like the digital design sector, generalisations are usually safer and more accurate. Bearing this in mind, in 2011 we can expect branding and marketing consultancies to continue to acquire digital specialists – especially those with technical skills, such as code developers. We can also expect to see successful digital groups keep moving up the client food chain, acting as boardlevel consultants on brand development, marketing and wide-ranging campaigns.

And yet these generalisations are rather tepid, as it’s what we are doing with the design work that’s really interesting. In the field of screen-based digital design, there’s really only one game in town, and that’s mobile. More specifically, the work of digital designers will be influenced by – as well as influence – how we use mobile devices.

One of the biggest trends in this area over the past few years has been the rise of the app. At the risk of propagating a certain well-known advertising slogan, there really is an app for everything. And although we have the release of the iPhone, iPod Touch and App Store to thank for this explosion, the world of apps has already become much more than just an Apple platform: it is a shift in the way that we now interact through the Internet, perhaps with implications for the nature of digital design and development in the future.

Chris Anderson, editor in chief at Wired US magazine, has proclaimed that ‘the Web is dead’, by which he means that our use of Web browsers to find and view traditional sites in an open and boundless World Wide Web is diminishing. Instead, we are using proprietary, closed applications to send and receive the information we need, albeit still via the Internet.

This appears to be a pedantic distinction between the ‘Web’ and the ‘Internet’. But if Anderson is right, the design and coding skills needed to build websites using standard languages such as HTML will be gradually overtaken by the programming skills needed to write bespoke apps for particular mobile operating systems, such as iPhone OS, Android or Windows Phone. And the major digital design work will come from businesses developing and refining their app software rather than their websites.

Or maybe not. Perhaps it is the very proliferation of different smartphone and tablet devices that will check the dedicated app’s dominance, helping to spread the range of digital design work that is commissioned. This is because an app built to run on the iPhone will not run on an Android phone and vice versa. As Android’s market share grows, and as Windows Phone enters the fray, clients may well see more sense in a single Web-based application – a Web app – that can be accessed on as many devices as possible.

A Web app is a Web page that is designed to look and operate like a dedicated app. They’re not new, but the latest versions are optimised for mobile screens, are task-oriented and usually feature simple, functional and intuitive interaction design, just like dedicated apps. And because a number of mobile-device Web browsers run on the same engine, including those on the iPhone and Android phones, investment in a single Web app design and development project can reach multiple platforms simultaneously.

A great example of a Web app is the mobile version of the BBC’s iPlayer, which delivers an app-like user experience (on supported devices) even though it is just a Web page. With the next generation of Web design tools such as CSS3 and HTML5 incoming, Web apps should become even more slick, streamlined and powerful. For digital designers, this Webbased approach is also less reliant on the code developers usually needed to programme the more complex languages used in native mobile apps.

So here is a prediction: over the coming year or so we’ll see more clever websites that look more and more like dedicated apps when viewed on mobile devices. In fact, The Guardian already moved in this direction last month with the redesign of its mobile site. For a company that has already invested in a successful iPhone app, this is an acknowledgement that the future may not belong solely to apps, or to the iPhone.

Our use of mobile devices will underpin pretty much all ‘traditional’ digital design next year and beyond. For digital designers this means catering for multiple mobile devices simultaneously – smartphones, ‘dumb’ phones, PDAs and now the larger tablets, such as the iPad and Samsung Galaxy. The more effortlessly a Web-based design works across these platforms the more successful it is likely to be for clients.

The Guardian’s blog rather sets the scene, saying: ‘The new site is available on any handset. Our aim is to improve the service for those of you with smartphones, who make up the majority of our growing mobile audience.’ Notably, the image used to illustrate The Guardian mobile site redesign features two HTC handsets and a Blackberry, with neither an iPhone nor an app in sight.

This article was written for Design Week’s Vision 2011 supplement, December 2010.

Are museums about stories or objects?

So asks Museum-ID… Here is a quick response to this question.

The appeal of museums for me is not so much that they hold objects collected and conserved over time, but rather that these objects point to external ideas, subjects or concepts. The objects prompt these subjects to be structured and studied – through curating and exhibiting – and then support the exploration of the subject with tangible evidence. The fact of the existence of the object in the case is almost always secondary to what it represents, for me at least.

One of the difficulties in exhibition design lies in balancing the desire for rich, detailed information (such as you might get in a study book) on the one hand and the need to offer an entertaining and open experience that will appeal to a wide range of audiences on the other. Add to this the practical and conceptual limitations of exhibiting objects from a museum’s store and the final space often lacks a full and satisfying coherence.

I have been musing for a while about the possibility of a Museum of Grand Ideas, or something similar, which would pick a theme every year or two, research it, build a narrative and an educational structure and ‘write’ the exhibition in an arresting and entertaining way. Then, loan applications willing, objects could be hand picked to bring these exhibitions to life. If the ‘Grand Idea’ were gravity, in would go Newton’s and Einstein’s notebooks, a Copernican orrery and so on. If the ‘Grand Idea’ were ‘The Nation State’ objects and media could show how notions of boundaries, territory and national identity have changed through history – a history lesson with great objects basically, but where the objects are tailored to the pre-written story, not the other way around.

As a writer with an interest in education, this focus on ideas, subjects and concepts and how they are presented – in other words, how it is written – really appeals. The objects provide the magic, but the story is great to start with and that’s where you start, as Steph Mastoris at the National Waterfront Museum says.

Sadly, I suspect the Museum of Grand Ideas may not be practical and would be rather too costly without a wealthy and generous benefactor. Although the opportunities for co-branding and marketing for all the institutions which lend to any given exhibition might be quite nice.