Sunday, April 03, 2016

Death Marches and Rabbit holes - inside the multi planar world leading new media design

It’s that tingling, numbing sensation in the fingers, closely followed by the perennial fight to keep your eyes open. Focus, focus! There’s a flaw in the code. What’s more there’s another three days ahead of this. The room, intermittently, visited by others, displays cans of strewn cola and pizzas — the diet of start-upers.
Memories like this don't leave you; all part of the lifestyle - death marches and rabbit holes. That  scene in the matrix where Seraph has to fight Neo and declares you don't know what someone  is like unti you fight them. Well, in the dotcom boom you didn't know what a person was really like until they're really tired and find that little extra mile of problem-solving neurons.

Soho 2001 seems a long time ago, but in 2016 a new generation is at it. In 10 contact days spread over 10 weeks in between a raft of other modules a group of students with no prior knowledge of the web and comms will have the opportunity to go from zero to heros pitching their sites at a google exec at google headquarters in London, but first there is the little matter of understanding what it takes to create a site.

There was a time when when there was a clear division of labour: Front end folks e.g. designers and project managers were the presentables, a mix of casual and denims. Back enders, usually coders and system engineers looked like they worked the vice squad undercover, and then there are the intermediaries such as SEO marketeers and data analysts.

In the visceral multiskilled world of millennia with zero hour contracts,  'bait and switch' policies and heightened risk taking, you'd be a fool if you didn't try and understand the mechanics of the whole work flow. This is the era of the jack of all trades and master of all. Paradoxically, that doesn't mean becoming a loner on the basis you can do it all.

In 1998 I learned to code, but was so hung up on the narcism of showing my stuff that I struggled at what to show and how. Agency do it with aplomb attributing success to the team. On your own, beating your chest can come across as self-aggrandisement syndrome.

I took the plunge anyway with this I found on wayback, the Internet archive being one of the first scrawled (2003) designs, using HTML and Flash. It looks awful by today’s standards, but back in the days, it held its own. You can see also my influences from this comparative screen grab of Channel 4 about the same time.

I took the plung anyway with this I found on wayback, the Internet archive being one of the first scrawled (2003) designs, using HTML and Flash. It looks awful by today's standards, but back in the days, it held its own. You can see also my influences from this comparative screen grab of Channel 4 about the same time.

But guess what, whilst Channel 4 had a team of web coders and designers, I was just me.

Amongst some of my top stories at the time, my film work with heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis fighting Tyson, an interview with a former head of the CIA about their new recruiting policy, a diving expedition to the cold waters of Gallipoli and my international work in South Africa and its townships freelancing for the BBC World Service.

In 2003, the traditional route, still employed by broadcasters to get noticed was a showreel on VHS. The VHS has since been dropped, but broadcasters are still fixated on the opening 15 seconds of what you look like and how you sound. I would later find out it was one of the biggest barriers to hiring minorities, on the basis you just didn't look and sound right.

Now, today our media has a place to breath, but what's the skinny on tooling up yourself?

Our students in ten weeks do the following

  1. Coding HTML 5 and CSS3 and Java
  2. Coding for mobile first and responsive designs
  3. Creating the brief that underpins research into the name, and purpose of the site. This tends to be a rigorous exercise employing both working in a team, turn taking, and understanding one's limits.  Members gather data on the exemplars that may influence them, performing their own internal analysis. Referred to as white paper syndrome, more often than not students will struggle on how to get started and will require a series of nudges.
  4. Their efforts are evaluated through a systematic approach to critiquing.  Students then must present their work. Self-organise into a division of labour with an overview of collective responsibility. We encourage students to take on roles they would not mormally assume, so they're outside their comfort zone.
  5. More often than not here too, by critiquing students come to learn of their own flaws. The knowledge exchange approach is not to indicate what anyone might percieve as wrong, for there are rarely straight cut flaws in this process. After all it's their design. My role is to question why they're doing something and the reasons they got to where they are
  6. Back to design, coding to build on their briefs. This becomes a collective process, something akin to a thesis. Their proposition must lead to questions about their aim of their thesis and they'll be picking any number of methodologies towards that process. It is however an artistic approach, so there is flexibility and creativity in building the process.
  7. Design principles are re-emphasised, with hierachies and different cognitve design and compositional process. Often I'll use my knowledge of the Romantics, impressionists and classical painters. How did the great masters teach us how to see the world and what conventions do we possess to decode websites. A good point here is that different countries have  different conventions at looking at style. This too is dependent on the audience and the era. Note how my 2003 Mrdot design ( above) wasgood for its time, but is deflating now.
  8. Videojournalism and photoshop compositional workflows are introduced, alongside other rich media, but the prompt is partially the student. By now they're taking on so much knowledge that any new knowledge will only be of use, if they have a direct need, so we set up scenarios for that need.
  9. Further critiques and presentations. The web presentation must complement a booklet handout they must put together for VCs to read. This critique often yields more testing, particularly with the audience and different operating systems.
  10. By the fifth week we hold surgeries to find out from students their concerns. These often yield a range of issues from wanting more coding time, to the use of rich media.
  11. The week after is soft launch. This is death march teritory. It's often one of the biggest snags. Design, code and content flaws arise. Here too the content, style and tone can be assessed with their market and students are encouraged to poll, test, conduct qualitative analysis with their target audience.
  12. Hard lauch follows with tweets to industry, friends etc about the launch. Another death march ensues. SEO strategies on the page and strategies of writing for SEOs are debated at length.
  13. The site is up. Back to the brief. Does the site match the brief, if not it needs to. Students present a pecha kucha - ten minutes or less to sell their site to a VC or expert. Here business plans for expansion and social media methodologies are finessed.
  14. Presentation to Industry. In the following years we've presented to Channel 4 News, ITV, senior exec at the BBC WS. This year we're at google.
  15.  The next three weeks involves building their own sites, based on the workflow above. This involves identifying who the students would like to work for and how we approach the employer.

 Presenting at the BBC World Service and Channel 4 News

This year's Onliners presenting at Google.

A couple of take aways here. Whilst the emphasis appears to be laid on skills, which is necessary, the main investigations involve cognitive skills at understanding the psychology of websites. For instance, why would anyone come to your site? What's their motive? What do you want from them? How do they navigate your site? How do colours affect them? How is your writing style tempered to the audience?

The issues coupled with the whole concept of web design become the rabbit hole. It becomes addictive. On several occasions students will express at the end of the course that they never want to go near a site again. Many email me to say they are now working in online.

There is one abiding memory that I have which keeps me focused and spurs me on. That if you have the potential, if you believe in what you can achieve, if your dreams keep you excited, then online is not a job, it’s a window into your world that showcases whet you want and others may take some joy from too.

In 2005, I won ( a dream) one of the US' most coveted international digital awards, the Knight Batten for a website that has changed since but was built on these principles. Since then many of the students I have been fortunate to interact with have come close to their dreams.

And all because of Death Marches and Rabbit Holes.