Paper Chased: Digital Design Comes of Age

When we first started doing digital work, we would always print out the project, rather than view it on screen. The point being that it was easier to dismiss simple and subtle design decisions in electronic form than it was when the tangible piece of paper was staring you in the face. (Yes, purists would argue that was a step removed from how it was meant to be experienced, but it really did make you consider what the work looked and felt like, while removing the technology aspect that often masked poor design). This was during a period when most banners were treated as electronic junk mail, with lots of flashing buttons and a cornucopia of typography (and I do not mean that in a good way), which justifiably gave the medium a less than positive image among traditional designers.

Corporate Web sites were exactly that. A compendium of data that certainly gave you every piece of minutia about governance and structure, but that were largely not relevant to their actual customers. Designed largely by IT departments, chock-full of text and charts, the consumer wasn’t considered a prime target and marketing was largely absent from any decisions made about design or content. Conversations about user experience were largely absent of any broader discussion about design and its impact on the experience.

It was a period in which anyone who paid even a modicum of attention to detail in both design and concept could stand out from a sea of flashing buttons and typography train crashes. We were all learning to adapt our skills to a new and entirely untested medium.

We’ve evolved to a state where the definitions of “design” and “designer” have expanded and become more democratic, even within the narrow confines of our communications industry from a point where a traditional designer’s role would be limited to “making things look beautiful” to a time where expectations are that design and art direction are one and the same, that design and coding are one and the same, that design and experience are one and the same, and that the role of design is really defined by what limitations you place on yourself. Now more than ever, anyone can be a designer and have his or her work seen and judged by an audience whose size can be as large or small as the inventiveness requires and demands. (Spend even a little time on MySpace or any other social networking site and you get a sense of how the digital world has broken open what was a somewhat insular industry. Your design is people’s perception of you.)

The Internet has made knowledge of design much more universal: The ease with which you can now research and view design from other eras, from other countries, has led to design with a global sensitivity. Gone are the days when there were “types of design” that existed independently from one another — silos of style.

Digital design has made experimentation a part of our daily life. Thanks to Google, the idea of a traditional, static masthead has been thrown out the window. We expect something different every day. Collaboration happens more frequently and easily, on a broader scale than ever before. Which leads to a mash of cultures, styles and disciplines. Which in turn leads to the most grand, maddening, unexpected but ultimately exciting sense of exploration that I have seen in the design field in many years.

So, while there may still be a tremendous amount of graphic design that is (subjectively) not so good in the digital arena, there is also a larger percentage that is really, really good, and smart and boundary defying. The sense that anything is possible (at least in terms of design) has never been truer, brought about by the advent of digital as the latest and most progressive medium in our toolbox.

Now we are coming full circle. Aesthetic trends that started on the Web are showing up in print and on TV. Projects that were once Web based are morphing into real-world experiences that simultaneously exist and evolve in both an online and offline form. We don’t think in terms of digital vs. traditional. It is design – period — and it either works or has a smart idea, or it doesn’t.

We no longer print out every piece of interactive content we create. Occasionally, something slips through that is more about technique than idea, or animation for the sake of animation rather than to further the idea, but all in all, we are much more comfortable and confident working in the digital space. Indeed, we spend time now trying to think of ways to make our print design more experimental, celebrating the fact that if nothing else, the digital medium has led to a renewed vitality and scrutiny in the practice of design, no matter its form.

Keith Anderson is director of design and interactive at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco. He can be reached at