Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality.
-- Bertrand Russell

The Medium is the Message, but what language are they speaking?

The Medium is the Message, but what language are they speaking?

I had the opportunity to write an introduction for the book Taking the Leap into New Media, by Stephanie A. Redman, in 1998.

From the Amazon.com review:
As Katherine McCoy states in the opening essay of Taking the Leap into New Media, "Is new media design a subset of graphic design or a sibling ... under the larger umbrella of communications design?" This defining question underlies the major problem faced by design studios today: whether to incorporate a new media/Web design department within their existing company or start a sister company to handle it.

The book profiles 15 designers and firms that have successfully undergone this transformation into the new multimedia/Web/interactive areas of design, including Duffy Design in New York (duffy.com), Segura, Inc. in Chicago (segura-inc.com), and Galie Jean-Louis of Seattle, the pioneering art director of MSNBC (msnbc.com).

...In addition to McCoy's essay, Taking the Leap into New Media features well-written pieces by Roger Black and Randy Weeks, which alone are worth the price of admission. If your studio is wondering how to proceed into the broader world of graphic design and new media, the valuable advice here can ease the transition. --Angelynn Grant

The Medium is the Message, but what language are they speaking?
Learning to talk in the Digital Era.

      By Randy Weeks

Life sure was harder when my folks were growing up.

Why, I've had indoor plumbing and electricity all my life. At the flick of a switch or a handle I can brighten a room, warm a winter's night, get the latest news or talk to a friend across town or across the world, not just across the back fence. And except for the occasional camping trip, I've certainly never had to put my shoes on, or walk through the snow just to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

I haven't even had to walk across a room to change a TV channel in decades. I know who's on my phone before I answer it. I haven't waited in a bank line unless I just feel like it since I was a teenager. Woodcutting is for fireplaces, sure, but fireplaces are for ambiance, and so are candles. I get to eat grapes and strawberries all winter and enjoy cold air all summer. Sometimes it feels like we're not even the same kinds of beings that our parents and grandparents were.

We're probably not.

We're far more dependent on one another than they were. We may not know each other as well in our world as they often did in theirs, but our interdependency is far greater, just as theirs had become far greater than their parents before them.

The vocabulary of this interdependence is pretty impressive all by itself, even before you get to be an adult and have to deal with the language of everything from bank statements to Internet connectivity.

Various sources have credited the average U.S. High School graduate today with a vocabulary of from 30,000 to 60,000 words. Either of those numbers seems like a lot, until you consider how many words we have to know just to be able to talk about the world in which we live.

In 1926, a study at the University of Iowa produced a report that claimed the average 6 year-old had a vocabulary of 2,600 words. Consider words gained and lost in our popular use since then, and my guess is that the mere addition and frequency of such concepts as TV, radio, day care, commercials, malls, magic markers, credit cards, CDs, remotes, Sesame Street, microwaves and the myriad brand names and designer whatchamacallits of our modern world make the vocabulary of today's 6 year-old an entirely new and expanded edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica by comparison.

Today's kids know things that were science fiction at best to us, just 30 years ago. They know more about electronics and video than most adult engineers could have imagined a generation or two ago. They're taught more about sex in elementary school than our folks told us, right up to the day before we got married. There is so much stuff you have to know, just to have an intelligent conversation nowadays…

The complexity of our world is staggering, and the interdependence that allows us to have central air, reliable electric and phone service, trash pick-up, supermarkets; daycare centers, cable TV, Beanie Baby collections, videoconferencing and pizza delivery has made our lives simultaneously easier and far more complicated.

And it is only going to get more complicated. Both fragile in its interdependence and strong in its intricate connections and related support systems.

Imagine how many more words and concepts you know than the average person knew in Europe or the U.S. in the 18th or 19th centuries. It's kind of scary, and the information in the world is now being shared and passed from mind to mind faster than ever, making the pool of information available to each of us larger still with every passing day.
But that's not exactly the subject I'm supposed to be addressing for this book.

Or is it?

Life sure was simpler when our folks were growing up.

Or was it harder? Simpler? Which? Both?


In the past, countless brilliant men and women lived and died in obscurity, their ideas never developed, heard or shared by the world. Today, those same unknown people can publish to the same platform that is used by Presidents, Media Empires and Universities. More voices are heard now. More ideas will come forth. More competition. More change. Faster change. Much faster.

Interdependence and cooperation are essential to success, even survival.

So we specialize.

We focus our energies on what we can master in the growing complexity of modern life.

We create new jobs, new industries, new mythologies for our culture as we adapt, new relationships between them all.

And life gets both easier and harder all the time.

The better we communicate, the more effective we are and the more successful we can be in our lives.

The new media wow stuff of today, however, is the Commodore 64 at best, the electronic Ping-Pong (remember "pong"?) at worst, of tomorrow. It's changing faster than we can read and write about it, and the new becomes the old at an astonishing rate.

It's practically a full time job just keeping up with the major shifts in technology news, let alone the micro-developments that every other week can render your coolest new idea in design a browser-crashing clunker for half of the visitors to a web site

I don't think the new media is going to be at all what we've imagined so far. I don't think we've imagined how our world is going to change, or what industries will be born in those changes. We'll miss most in our best predictions, just as most of us would never have envisioned in 1910, the emergence of such items and/or industries as auto insurance, fast food, drive-up windows, car washes, the Interstate highway system, exit ramp communities, vanity license plates or 7 story parking garages. Like the automobile, every new idea that has grown to be an integral part of our lives has spawned countless additional ideas and businesses that were not anticipated or imagined just a few years before.

For us to imagine that our world tomorrow will look like the world we see today is as ludicrous as a blacksmith imagining in 1880 that his skills will always be in big demand and that horses will always be the most effective way for people to get around.

I'd rather partner with others to pay attention to the market, the related businesses and needs, and the disciplines and skills that are involved today, and hope that our mingled knowledge and insights will yield a few of the as yet unimagined ideas of tomorrow.

So, here, subject to change without notice in a matter or months if not moments, are a few of my present thoughts on cooperative production of New Media:
  1. Build Effective Partnerships. I know there are exceptions to every rule, and will be to these, but for the most part, we should work cooperatively to succeed in the ever-changing electronic marketplace. The people who build a car are seldom in the same department as those who design it, or those who market it. In a world of ever-increasing complexity, specialization is almost always necessary in order to excel. Family practice Doctors are swell, but when you need serious work done on you, a specialist is the ticket. It's pretty hard to do everything great. It's also hard to effectively communicate across the camps, but done properly, that's a heck of a lot more effective than trying to do it all yourself.

  2. Find a liaison in one or both businesses -- someone that can speak the language of both disciplines well enough to manage the web projects effectively. The difference, in our experience, between a project in which there was at least one talented liaison, and a project in which there were none, is tremendous, almost indescribable, in terms of cost, quality, timing and customer satisfaction. A good specification for any project is a must, but those specifications are more complex and interdependent nearly day. In the world of mixed-discipline tools, myriad email attachments, web servers, mock-ups, and ad campaigns, the person who can speak each camp's language a little bit is worth a lot to both. Amidst the changing flurry of sketches, HTML standards, scripting, PhotoShop files, Gantt charts, proofs, XML, Java-embedded-everythings, browser-wars and firewalls, a man or a woman who knows enough to listen and communicate, manage, move, and coordinate the meetings, issues, changing costs and arising needs during a project is worth even more to everyone involved. Find one. Keep him or her happy (stepping down off the soapbox and catching my breath now).

  3. Respect the knowledge and professionalism of each other's efforts. It's about as cool to bash IBM or Mac as a platform as it is to badmouth a loved-one's family members. Cars need wheels as much as they need motors as much as they need seats and steering wheels. No part is really cooler or smarter or altogether better than the other, and taking time to learn all you can about each other's efforts will make for some pretty great projects, completed on time, on budget and with a profit.

  4. Don't expect each other to know or "get" the stuff that is new to each. Every teaming of web programmers and artistic agency has to face start-up problems such as format conflicts and Mac vs. PC compatibility. If you can afford to have both platforms running and kept up to date in your company, it might be a good idea to do so. Either way, communicate. Talk about methods of file sharing; image conversion, data transfer. Learn about ways to transfer files; use threaded message centers for sharing of project notes. Don't talk down to each other when discussing functions and skills that are better known by one group than the other. That kind of attitude is for people who are afraid of each other. What are you afraid of? A meeting of the minds is a terrific learning opportunity. Make good use of it.

  5. Always include each other in meetings and discussions that involve the project. At least make a call, review the issues with each other, and decide if representation is needed at meetings. A programmer should never assume that the client or the advertiser will "figure out" the programming he's written. The agency doesn't want to be surprised that the little color, shape, layout or other change they've quoted to the customer is actually going to take days of re-programming. With a quick call, email or impromptu meeting, those managing the contract at the agency can avoid rework and delays on seemingly simple changes -- because some of those changes affect complicated code -- code that no one at the agency or customer's offices might realize needed to be considered.

  6. Remember how fast this is moving, and how fast today's killer app is yesterday's Pong. Most days, the changes in new media seem to come so fast that we can barely keep up with the parts at which we already excel. Familiarity and competence in the communication technologies must be core in those companies planning to compete in the digital world -- a world that has barely even begun to emerge. But can you be an expert at everything? Do you know every difference between every version of every browser with regard to every Java, Java-script, active-x, animated GIF, table layout, frame design, download method, XML, SGML, PC vs. Mac display/load/transfer consideration? Neither do the experts. Many of them do today, but this afternoon they'll have to brush up. Next week, they'll have to be talking about changes, and next month they'll be loading patches and adjusting code and writing new and better and crash-free ways of doing almost everything. Several times during that month they'll be alternately amazed, horrified and humbled by what they see going on in the industry and the diverse pool of experts hawking their wares and services to the world. And that's the best and brightest of them. Clients with serious needs, whether for interactivity, back-office data sharing or impressive media communication, are not well served by WYSIWYG applications alone. Neither do they find it very satisfying to use their favorite talented programming outfit to conceive, design, test and implement a marketing and brand campaign, since those skills are not likely to be a programmer's strong suit. There are some who do it all very well, but I'm of the opinion that they are the exceptions in the new media world, and there is far more work to be done out there than even the largest and best-integrated agencies can handle by themselves. If you're not big enough or rich enough to hire some incredibly bright and experienced Internet staff, get a good partnership going and help each other stay on top of the wave.

  7. Computers aren't people, and people make the difference. Even though it's been covered a bit above, I can't say enough about the relationship factor. Computers can make smart people feel dumb, and they don't like to feel that way. It's dehumanizing to many people to have to work with a computer at all. If those who know the language and applications of the computer and the Internet make those others feel even worse by talking down to them and losing them in tech-talk, it becomes almost impossible to have a relationship -- and a relationship is essential to getting these jobs done right. Much of what we are all doing these days is pretty complicated stuff. Most of it has never been done before in this world, so we're all figuring it out together. The loss of a central, effective person has seriously hampered more than one seemingly well-oiled Internet machine. There are a few I still miss among the agencies with whom we worked.

  8. So, make a plan for the partnership as well as for the project. Just as street signs with pictures help us find our way regardless of language barriers, and a good architect makes a complete blueprint before any bricks get laid, a good specification, combined with a good development plan is essential in electronic media. Drawing good pictures for each other, and revising them as the situation dictates will help us work together effectively. It will help us get the job done in spite of the language barriers that will continue to exist between the skills that are being brought together on more and more projects as the information era unfolds.

    Macs and PCs don't always talk to each other. Don't take it personally. Make a plan to deal with it. FTP is better than Fed-Ex for lots of stuff, but not if some team members are unable to send or receive electronic content. Make a plan to deal with that.

    A message center, threaded discussion forum, simple upload and file sharing area is not as hard to set-up as it used to be, and the speed and efficiency improvement it brings is worth the effort. Coming up with agreements for standardization in tables, programming style, platforms, image types, naming conventions and other design elements will save lots of time and money. Decide how you will name JPG, GIF, HTML and other files / tools for ease of communication and manageable updates.

    Include each other in the specification stages, and the production stages will go a lot better.
A good mechanic can drive a car and tell you how good a car it is. He can listen to the engine and tell you what is most likely wrong with it. A builder knows what structure will pass inspection, what materials will work best for the lowest cost. A good designer knows what colors, layouts and presentation will best communicate the client's message.

We should take advantage of that as much as possible in our cooperative approach to New Media.

Some of us can be all things Internet to one or two customers, for a while, to some extent.

Most of us will serve best when focused on what we do best, in relationship with others in our real or virtual community who contribute value to the other parts of the project; those they know how to do best.

Because life is both easier and harder today than ever before.

And we're still playing Pong.

We haven't really seen anything yet.

(From the introduction for the book Taking the Leap into New Media, by Stephanie A. Redman. Published in 1998).

Copyright 1978 - 2024 by Randy Weeks
(This old site has been online since 1995... I'll redo it eventually, maybe...
Meanwhile, consider it a museum piece from the early web).

Thanks for visiting www.weeks.org
Your comments, questions, criticism, musings, yawnings and collaborative contributions are welcome.