Alan Lui discusses the use of visual metaphors from older media in web design and argues that such metaphors “naturalize the limitations of the new medium by disguising them within those of older media” (Reader, page 228).
Discuss while giving an example of a website.
The above quote is taken from a wider argument in which Alan Lui (2004: 195-230)discusses the properties and problems of achieving ‘cool’ web design. The subjective factor of ‘cool’ aside, one of the problems he highlights with designing for the Internet is that designers are not used to accommodating the highly fluid nature of web pages. One cannot design within a fixed frame of measurements, in the result is dependant on factors such as screen resolution/width, or wherever the user lands in scrolling up and down the page. Metaphors of older media are employed by designers to ‘naturalize’ these limitations by placing them within the explainable physical frameworks in a virtual form.
An example I would like to highlight is similarities between print publications and their online counterparts. If we compare The Age in print and the online version, we see certain overlapping design features. The newspaper logo is printed at the top and center of the page, headlines are ordered in size and importance, pictures and text are balanced for maximum readability. In some senses, the difficulties of arranging the somewhat space consuming information (which is done away with the folding sprawl of the printed broadsheet) is indeed naturalized within the uniformity and geometric arrangements that are common with newspapers. However, it may be argued that these design features are also kept because they are practical, and provides the same purpose in both print and digital formats. Newspapers will arrange headlines in order of importance, and size accordingly because it is trying to convey information efficiently.
What Lui neglects to address is perhaps the functions that these metaphors may serve in translating old media to new. The similarities between print and online media help the transition from print to digital – from old media to new media. The layout helps users recognize familiar features and identify that it is the same thing, only in a digital format. Moreover, the manner in which Lui discusses old media as a disguise or limitation falsely points towards the features of new media being hidden or ill utilized in these layouts. For instance, The Age website maintains its new media characteristics of modularity and variability (Manovich 2001: 30-31, 36-39). The articles displayed will be ordered by date and relevance, like the old media version, but there are links to older articles. Access to these articles does not break up the coherence of the text, whereas the print version could only contain articles within each issue as a whole. The constant updating of the website means that it is always unfinished and changing, producing constantly ephemeral versions of itself.
The arguments that Lui make highlight the difficulties in web architecture – form must follow function, combining the ease of navigation with aesthetic appearance.
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Lui, Alan. “Information is Style”, in Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, pp. 195-230.
Manovich, Lev. “What is New Media?” in The Language of New Media, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001, pp. 19-48.