Stop the Web, I want to get off

by Joe Gillespie — Dec 1, 2004

For me, the World Wide Web started in 1993. By then, I was already a seasoned 'interactive multimedia' veteran with a client list that included VideoLogic, Apple Computer and Canon. I had been an 'early adopter' when personal computers hit the scene in the early eighties. I was working in new product development, packaging design and advertising during the day and, at evenings, weekends and on the bus to work, I was programming games for Sinclair and Commodore computers. By 1983, I had about sixteen games on the market and a couple of top-selling graphics utilities.

When the Macintosh came along in 1984, I was one of the first buyers in the UK. Even though its output was relatively crude in those days, it was still useful for producing comps and mock-ups. Most of all, I could see its potential. There were several incredibly expensive graphics workstations around at that time costing hundreds of thousands of pounds and I dreamt of having one but there was no chance. When the Mac II came out in the late '80s, with its fourteen-inch, 256 colour screen, I bought two, gave up my career in advertising and launched myself into 'interactive multimedia' with a vengeance. Computer graphics had arrived. All this was new but with my background in graphic design and computer programming, it was the natural route for me to take. Even in those days, 'programmers' and 'designers' were diametrically opposed in skills and philosophies. I managed to straddle both camps, which gave me a distinct advantage.

When the English Daily Telegraph newspaper asked me to put together a presentation about the future of newspapers based upon work I'd done earlier for Apple, I proposed a hand-held tablet device with interactive newspaper content and ads. I mocked-up an edition of their newspaper to demonstrate the concept and enthuse people who were knee-deep in tradition. It did!

The presentation was hiked across the four corners of the globe and showed drooling newspaper magnates the mind-blowing possibilities of computers and news. Although the technology required to make it all this happen was not quite there at the time, it was not some distant science fiction pipe dream, it was only just out of reach – and they were grasping wildly. After exploring various options for transmitting the data over telephone lines using the 'bulletin board' technology of the time, it became clear that a great deal of expensive research and development was going to be needed. Then I stumbled across NCSA Mosaic , the great granddaddy of all browsers. It beckoned from the void.

Mosaic, with its very basic HTML, could not do everything that we wanted for our online newspaper, but it could do quite a lot of it, it was available and it was free. I learned HTML in a couple days and, using Microsoft Word on my Mac, put together a seminal interactive newspaper. Within a few days, the management, already straining at the leash, gave the go ahead to develop and launch the World's first major interactive newspaper – The Electronic Telegraph. By then, the first Netscape browser had also arrived. Great timing!

Shortly after that, I was asked by Microsoft to help them develop their own version of the World Wide Web. At that time, The Microsoft Network (MSN) was based on proprietary technology, which required 'C++' programmers to create the pages. No simple WYSIWYG or text editors here! It was impressive and worked pretty well – but it was way too difficult (and expensive) for mere mortals to produce 'content'. The Web was gaining ground fast and Microsoft had to toe the line.

WPDFD – the beginning

For big companies, the uptake on the Web was slow and shaky. By the mid nineties, 95% of my work was still CD-ROM-based. I was developing a couple of CD-ROMs for Sony to promote their professional audio and video products. With most of the work completed, there was a lull for about a month when I was waiting for new product photos to come from Japan. I decided to put the time to good use and to explore the possibilities of this new 'Web' thing. Having produced a lot of multimedia training material for Apple and Canon, I was able to put the beginnings of this site together in that month in mid-1996. The main issues at that time were bandwidth and colour palettes and I was already very familiar with both having worked on so many Macromedia Director presentations.

Apart from Microsoft and Sony, most my clients were Mac-based. Multimedia work, at that time, usually involved doing a 'state-of-the-art' Mac version in full, glorious, 8-bit colour and sound and a dumbed-down 4-bit colour version without sound for Windows 3.11. Although Windows '95 has already been around for a year, the megalithic corporations of the World were slow to change. I guess that's still the case.

So, with Web Page Design for Designers, my mission was to pass-on my experiences in dealing with colour palettes, highly compressed images and 'Web' typography to people who were already designing for print. They had the visions, but needed to know about new techniques. As a side-effect, I had a work specimen that I could use to persuade feet-dragging clients that the Web didn't have to be black text on a grey background that went from the left edge of the screen to the right edge and with the text running right up to the photos. CD-ROMs had had their day. The Web was the way to go. WPDFD was a portfolio piece that I would never have produced for regular clients.

For the first few weeks, my new site had a trickle of visitors – mostly through word-of-mouth or the announcement e-mails I had sent to friends, colleagues and clients. Then, in the space of a single night, my hit counter jumped to several thousand, and the next day, and the next. Netscape had given me a link on their 'What's New' page and the whole thing snowballed from there.

Having produced the basic site, I found that I had to keep updating it as new techniques and programs came along. The monthly editorials began in April 1998. It would have been very easy to be carried away with the enthusiasm so I had to set myself a limit of three days per month to write the editorials and reviews. More recently, that time has edged-up as the articles became longer and more detailed.

Ever changing

I remember seeing an 'art' film once where someone painted a piano using time-lapse cinematography and a boogie-woogie soundtrack. The paintbrush never appeared in shot but the paint gradually covered the piano, stroke by stroke, in all its psychedelic glory. At the fresh edge, the paint was wet, bright and glossy. Further back in time, and space, it gradated to dull, matte and dry. As the fresh edge moved forward, the dried paint inevitably followed behind at a more or less constant distance. It was quite mesmerising to watch.

I have always seen the Web as being like that paint. The fresh edge is wet and fluid, and maybe a little unstable as it can still run and drip. Trailing way behind that fresh edge is the dried paint. Solid. Static. It still has a job to do but it's no longer alive.

I have always relished that fresh edge – almost as much as my love for the overwhelming potential of an empty page! But, to keep a wet edge, you have to be constantly moving.

CSS

I adopted Cascading Style Sheets at a very early stage but the browsers, or should I say the browser users, were not keeping up. For quite some time, I used an ungodly hybrid of CSS for typography and tables for layout. Adobe GoLive, which I used at that time, was actually very good for that kind of work – and probably still is. For the period where Netscape and Explorer 4.x ruled the roost, tricky CSS-positioning was a pretty dumb option. People were using it but their pages were collapsing into heaps all over the place. It wasn't until Netscape 7/Mozilla/IE 6 came along that I felt confident about ditching tables completely and going down the full XHTML/CSS route. In doing so, I had to abandon GoLive and resort to total hand coding in BBEdit. Not only that, but I had to pay even more attention to what 'other' browsers were doing to my pages. There was no doubt that things were getting more difficult at the front edge.

In the introduction last month, I wrote about 'Web Design, the Craft'. When you are so close to your work, it's no longer just a job, it's a way of life. Graphic design has been a way of life to me since my mid-teens. Everything I do, think, breathe and buy has to be 'designed' and my early design tutors insisted that to design well, you have to throw away all preconceptions and start again from first principles. Paradoxically, I have always accepted that philosophy and it has worked well for me. What I didn't realize was that this race was not a sprint, but a long distance marathon and if you run at full pelt in a marathon, you will burn out early.

I don't think I'm burnt out just yet, but I can see that happening in the middle distance if I'm not careful. That's why I'm going to slow down my pace now. I don't need to be at the front of the pack any more. There are other things I would like to do. When you are always running, you miss the scenery and I think that I've probably missed a lot of things along the way.

What now?

Currently, WPDFD has a regular audience of about 150,000 visitors each month, over 20,000 links to it and a top position in Google for 'Web design', 'Web page design' and even just plain 'design'. I don't think that I can improve much on that – certainly not without running a lot faster than I want to.

I'm going to quit while I'm ahead!

Now, the concept of 'retirement', in the conventional sense, and sitting around looking at old photos and playing dominoes couldn't be further from my mind. At nearly 60, I'm about to start a new career. Having spent the last 40 years in what my parents would have called 'commercial art', I'm going to forego the 'commercial' bit and do some 'real' art.

My 'wet edge' life philosophy will not allow me to sit and sketch with watercolours and painting portraits in oils is not my cup of tea either. Canvas and acrylics, perhaps, but more likely something that hasn't been done before. I don't know quite what, but I will enjoy finding out.

Questions? Comments? Bring them to the WPDFD Forum

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