A Permanent Work in Progress

The Web is a Permanent Work in Progress

Way back in 2007—and believe me, three web years is a long time—I read a column by Harry McCracken, the editor-in-chief for PC World, that I’ve not been able to forget since. In marveling at the pace of technological change, and its increasing scope of reach across the world, he wrote:

“More than any communications medium before it, the Web is a permanent work in progress that’s always new.”

I’ve probably parroted that line hundreds of times since then—to colleagues and clients alike—in order to impress upon them this truth that we will never be finished. And really, this is the central, most profound distinction between the design for print paradigm and design for the web. While a printed piece moves in one direction, from inception through design and production to the point at which I can hold it in my hands and keep it, web content moves forward and backward in an endlessly undulating pattern, from idea to implementation, there and back again.

Work that is never done. That changes everything: design thinking, the processes we follow, the way we estimate costs and plan schedules, the promises we make, the way we measure success. Each facet of the practice of design looks very different when considered in light of the web. But the fundamentals of design, those truths by which we judge design good or bad, do not change. This means that designers, though they may naturally specialize in one form of practice over another, need not feel permanently unqualified for interactive work simply because their primary experience has been in print. Which brings me to why I am here…

I love the imprint tagline, “expanding the design conversation,” because the design conversation is so much larger than just about particular disciplines or media, whether print, products, or the web. I’m excited to contribute to it from my point of view, which, since making the transition from being a student at RISD to being a student of the world, has been primarily through the lens of web technology. But so much of my work has been done in partnership with creative agencies, which means that it has relied upon our ability to create and maintain a relationship around this expanding notion of design.

So, thank you, Print, for making a place for me here at the Imprint blog. (A blog, you know, is the perfect example of this idea of a permanent work in progress. A blog is not one post, but all of them, nor one author, but all of them, and it flows forward like a river, never exactly the same.) We have a lot to talk about.


7 thoughts on “A Permanent Work in Progress

  1. Pingback: The Case Against Designing Mobile Apps — Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers

  2. Christopher Butler

    Rafael, I’m glad you liked it. Thanks for promoting on Facebook, too!

    Jacob, good point. You reminded me of a quote I read recently in a New York Times op-ed about education. The author quoted the sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, who once wrote, “A well-trained man knows how to answer questions; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” So, going with Baltzell’s distiction, we need the education first and the training afterward. Keep reading!

  3. Jacob

    Chris, I just read your other post, too, which is a nice companion to this one. I actually don’t mind that you’re not focusing too much on technical stuff. For me, I think I need a primer that will help me to figure out what technical info I actually need to seek out. Right now, I know that I don’t know as much as I should, but I need help figuring out what questions to even ask!

  4. Christopher Butler

    Aaron, you’re right about the blurry division between print and web consumer experience today. The way we can experience information accross many different contexts is convenient, but it often enables the perception that the process of realizing content is simpler that it actually is. For instance, the ease with which I can control how I experience a blog post – whether on the screens of my laptop, mobile phone, or tablet, or compiled and printed on demand using a variety of fantastic services (Instapaper, MagCloud, Lulu and the like) – forces the complexity of these various processes of implementation into the background, making it difficult to perceive the intricacies of the software applications or print machinery they all rely upon. In other words, we’ve gotten so good at managing the differences between print and web that we make it look very easy. And for the consumer, it can stay that way so long as the costs remain cheap. If prices have to go up at some point, we’re going to have a job to do of re-educating consumers to understand that complexity tends to equal costliness. If we don’t run up against a cost problem, well then we’ll still have this in-house discussion to conduct – making sure we, designers of all ilk, are of one accord when it comes to how our expertise is shared and nurtured amidst rapid technological change.

    Liz, I wish I could find the web instantly gratifying! In reality, though, that “endlessly undulating pattern” I mentioned tends to make the experience more akin to futility than satisfaction. That’s not to say that the web is only frustrating, but I just have to reframe what it means for me to be satisfied. My tendency is to link satisfaction with completion, and I mean real, “print it, ship it” completion. But the kind of completion that the web offers is more like a pause. Web designers just have to learn how to be able to truly rest in those pauses and, when the time comes, resume with the same energy that they originally began with. It’s funny, though, that I’m finding more and more enjoyment in print projeets – particularly some of the various book projects I’ve done over the past year, which, as I mentioned in my reply to Aaron, are kind of content bridges between print and web.

    Thank you both for reading and commenting. I hope to see you’re names under my next post, too!

  5. liz

    great post…. i work as a designer in both web and print, i always preferred print until the last couple years.. i’m starting to love the instant gratification of web, the notion that the work is never done, has expanded my creativity..not being afraid to take risks..be a little crazy.. and if it doesn’t work..take it down, or, on to the next one! looking forward to hearing more from chris.

  6. Aaron Schneider

    I’m an Associate Creative Director at SolutionSet (mill valley) with offices nationwide. I primarily deal with the many forms print marketing can take, however, there are major digital crossovers to these pieces. The print and digital consumer experience is already so blurred, these mediums rely on each other to help continually drive profits for clients. One needs to drive to the other. One needs to call out to look for the other in an endless stream of CRM.
    Chris and I went to RISD together. You’re in for a treat with this blog.
    -Aaron Schneider