Form + Function

NEW YORK It isn’t a viral hit like Subservient Chicken, but Domino’s pizza builder might be equally important. The application, built by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, lets users craft their own pizza online, name it, then have it delivered to their door.

For Jeff Benjamin, interactive cd at Crispin, the Web application that debuted early this year is a sign of where digital design is headed. Rather than craft a one-off Web site, he said, advertisers want to build brand loyalty by providing utilities that both improve people’s lives in some small way — even if it’s simply a tool for customizing pizza — and directly pad corporate bottom lines.

“The new ‘viral’ is going to be a business solution for clients,” Benjamin said.

Funny microsites are giving way to useful, sometimes entertaining applications; the showing off of flashy technology is yielding to design geared towards generating sales; and crafting for social interaction is replacing one-way experiences. Now that digital points exist far outside the browser, designing for the Web is passe, with digital design chasing the elusive goal of designing experiences that wrap all of the above together.

“When you create a utility, you’re creating something that gives people time back,” said Nick Law, CCO for North America at R/GA. “It becomes less about information as pollution and more about information to help people get through life.”

Interactive design used to be synonymous with Web site design. The objective was crafting a Web experience that reflected the overall brand message. Although brand consistency is a laudable goal, many interactive designers chafed at the role of “matching luggage” to offline campaigns, often resulting in shallow microsites that mimicked TV campaigns.

Even experts in those sites are rethinking their approach. Barbarian Group, which worked with Crispin to develop Subservient Chicken, is now concentrating more on useful, content-rich sites. That means starting the design practice with the customer in mind, helping them navigate quickly through an experience or to worthwhile content, said Benjamin Palmer, CEO of Barbarian.

“Five years ago, people would muck through a site with non-standard navigation that was confusing because the whole Internet was confusing,” he said. “Now the Internet is so big you can’t do anything that’s annoying anymore.”

Often that means scaling back the special effects, like Flash sites, which take a long time to load. For Kashi, Barbarian Group built a product site last summer that centered around community and included tools for visitors to improve their lives and encourage others. For instance, tools that let users participate in daily health challenges, such as taking 30-minute walks or skipping coffee, while interacting with each other. Product information is secondary to content about a healthy lifestyle and community interaction, a leap, Palmer said, from earlier Internet design.

“The thing that’s more in the forefront is designing the experience of how people are going to interact with your content,” he said.

Advertisers also see the opportunity to build brand applications that allow people to do everything from customizing pizza and matching their personality with products to the planning of trips.

“The days of making funny things that may or may not have an effect on the client’s business are ending,” Crispin’s Benjamin said.

Epson took a new design approach with “Epsonality” last fall. In the past, the Web portion of the Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners campaign would have been a microsite with a few pages of content. Instead, Butler, Shine’s experiential design team melded broadband video with a personality quiz to match users with the right Epson printer for their needs.

The creative approach is admittedly tongue-in-cheek, said David Blum, executive director of interactive services at Butler, Shine. But underneath the surface is a sales generator, built by interaction designers, information architects and decision trees. A lot of thinking went into getting people “through this experience [to purchase] without just being entertained by a bunch of videos,” he explained.