How new technology transforms the way
we create and communicate
I  N  T  E  R  A  C  T  I  V  E    D  E  S  I  G  N    F  O  R  U  M 
Issue 12    |   June 2000


Reviewed & recommended:

The Interactive Book by Celia Pearce

Designing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen



Other books that explore the nature of computer-based media (reviewed at

Hamlet on the Holodeck by Janet Horowitz- Murray
Hypertext and beyond.

Computers as Theatre by Brenda Laurel
Think of the computer not as a tool, but as a medium.



In association with






Interface Culture
Steven R. Johnson,
Basic Books (1999)
Paperback. ISBN 0465036805
[info, buy it]

"The interface came into the world under the cloak of efficiency, and it is now emerging—chrysalis-style—as a genuine art form." (p. 242)

So says Steven Johnson in a book that's about 180 degrees away from Jakob Nielsen's Designing Web Usability. Yet I think we need to take both of them seriously.

For anyone creating interactive media, it's tough to stop struggling for a path through the trees of ever-changing software, inconsistent browsers, clueless clients and constant deadlines to look at the forest. Taking the advice of a wily local who knows the territory, like Nielsen, is smart.

Sometimes, though, we need to look out toward the horizon. We're looking, in this case, for the possibilities of computer-based interactive media. If you want a glimpse of where we might be going,

...that strange new zone between medium and message. That zone is what we call the interface. (p.41)

Steven Johnson is a good guide. He's knowledgable (co-founder and editor of and well-read (he quotes Charles Dickens as often as Marshall McLuhan). His writing is clear and understandable, something that can't be said for many similar books on technology and culture.

He sorts through history and current practice to focus on the real breakthroughs of the technology, like hypertext:

Ask any Web user to recall what first lured him into cyberspace; you're not likely to hear rhapsodic descriptons of a twirling animated graphic or a thin, distorted sound clip. No, the eureka moment for most of us came when we first clicked on a link, and found ourselves jettisoned across the planet. The freedom and immediacy of that movement — shuttling from site to site across the infosphere, following trails of thought wherever they led us — was genuinely unlike anything before it. (p.110)

Meanwhile, back down among the trees we're not alone:

There is a more fundamental...blind spot in the high-tech imagination, and it has to do with the general region of experience that the interface is felt to occupy... we're reminded a dozen times each day that the digital revolution will change everything, and yet when we probe deeper to find out what exactly will change... all we get are banal reveries of sending faxes from the beach.(p.213)

But our guide sees something ahead:

The most profound change ushered in by the digital revolution will not involve bells and whistles or new programming tricks... the most profound change will lie with our generic expectations about the interface itself. We will come to think of interface design as a kind of art form— perhaps the art form of the next century.(p.213)

The idea of interface as art form is tremendously exciting, yet promises to make our jobs as designers even tougher. We have to balance the "traditional" goals of clarity and usability with a desire to strike out in new directions, to find new paths through the forest. Johnson points out the difficulty:

The first generation of interface designers to break dramatically with the first principle of navigability will no doubt be pilloried by the digital establishment, but they will also open up a whole new possibility space for the designers that come after them... "User-hostile" may sound like an odd goal for interface design, but the truth is the field could use a little tough love. (p. 227)

Interface Culture doesn't pretend to forsee where this evolution as art form will lead. It simply traces the path we've taken to get to where we are now and points to big changes ahead. It does us all a great favor by reminding us to keep looking for a new way.




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