The Book of Probes

“When he began to experiment with the probe technique to sharpen awareness, McLuhan stumbled on how one cliché works to probe other clichés, especially media as clichés. This led him to realize that all forms and formal structures are clichés.”

—EricMcLuhan and William Kuhns, “Poetics on the Warpath” (pg. 412)

Combine the probing thoughts of media culture sage Marshall McLuhan with the visual insights of design guru David Carson and the result is the quintessential coffee table book for anyone that works with technology and design. The Book of Probes is an intentional chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter experiment to combine the ideas of McLuhan with the images of Carson in thought provoking ways. For the uninitiated, some introductions may be in order.

Marshall McLuhan, once referred to as the “Oracle of the Electronic Age,” is perhaps best known for his phrase turned into book title, The Medium is the Massage. His massage/message word play and other bold perceptions, which he called probes, still continue to spark debate. McLuhan’s ideas about the “global village” and his division of media into hot and cool categories are just some of the reasons why Wired magazine named him its patron saint.

David Carson, a former professional surfer and sociology professor, is considered one of the most influential graphic designers working today. Newsweek said Carson “changed the public face of graphic design” and one of his books, The End of Print, is the best-selling graphic design book of all time. Carson continues to break the rules and redefine his field through work with Levi’s, Nike, Pepsi, Sony, Coca-Cola, American Express, Lucent, MTV, Ray-Ban and many other clients.

The Book of Probes puts graduate school reading assignments into a blender with graphic design edginess. The first 402 pages of the compact book are an intricate mental and visual playground. The remainder of the book contains some commentary from the book’s editors and a little more insight into McLuhan’s thinking. The editors help to explain how they selected various probes from Marshall McLuhan’s more than 200 speeches, classes, and nearly 700 shorter writings that he published between 1945 and 1980. With such a wide range of selections, some readers might not be able to decide which part is the main course and which section is dessert.

The Book of Probes coverThe electric light is pure information.  It is a medium without a message. In the electric age, we wear all mankind as our skin.Man works when he is partially involved.  He is totally involved when at play or at leisure.When new technologies impose themselves on societies long habituated to older technologies, anxieties of all kinds result.

The art direction and design in The Book of Probes is by David Carson and is a visually entrancing encounter. Admittedly, there are segments of the book that might give some readers headaches or trigger vasovagal syncope in small children. But McLuhan’s ideas and Carson’s images have always been known for their ability to shake things up. You don’t really read The Book of Probes. You experience it. It’s more like drinking a fine scotch than downing some bottled water.

Perhaps the most striking component of the book is the variety of photographic, typographical, and visual manipulations and inspirations Carson has employed to bring McLuhan’s probes to life. The probes themselves have been divided into sections of the book like “Media Ecology” and “New Science of Communication” to bottle the lightening of an immense intellectual thunderstorm. The medium enhances even McLuhan’s messages like, “Color is not so much a visual as a tactile medium,” and “The most human thing about us is our technology.”

The key thing to be aware of about The Book of Probes is that you don’t have to know a thing about Marshall McLuhan or David Carson to enjoy the book. The thoughts and imagery are a good introduction to some big concepts and probing theories. You might also find yourself scratching your head in confusion or just plain shaking it in disbelief. McLuhan’s probes are still just as controversial and puzzling today as they were when he first voiced them. Carson’s design treatments only intensify those sentiments throughout The Book of Probes.

Marshall McLuhan believed that the print revolution begun by Gutenberg was the forerunner of the industrial revolution. David Carson has done a laudable job illustrating some of the biggest ideas about the digital revolution in print. Imagine if Michelangelo could have illustrated Gailileo’s radical ideas or if Vannevar Bush and Pablo Picasso could have worked together. The Book of Probes allows Carson to work posthumously with McLuhan and will hopefully encourage similar collaborations in the future.

The Book of Probes is a book that stands uniquely apart from what takes up space on your local bookstore’s shelves. But perhaps that is a reflection of the incomparable individuals that helped create it. The marriage of these two minds shows promise for future combinations of scientists and designers. Contrary to popular belief, these two disciplines can work well together. The future of the digital revolution could be helped by more visual representations of sometimes complex ideas and subjects. The Book of Probes helps to gets us all thinking and seeing things in a new way, and to keep moving in the right direction.

  • The Book of Probes
  • Marshall McLuhan, David Carson, Edited by Eric McLuhan, William Kuhns, and Mo Cohen
  • Gingko Press, November 2003
  • ISBN: 1584230568 § 576 pages, 410 color illustrations
  • Retail price, $39.95
  • Target Audience: Designers, usability specialists, marketers.
  • Sections:
    1. Overture/Titles
    2. From Cosmic to Existential Man
    3. The Extensions of Man
    4. Advertising
    5. Media Ecology
    6. The Laws of Media
    7. Sense
    8. New Science of Communication
    9. Poetics on the Warpath
    10. The Book of Probes
    11. McLuhan and Saussure
    12. Album: Credits

Steve MacLaughlin is an experienced Interaction Architect who has helped develop award winning sites for a variety of Fortune 500 firms, governmental agencies, and educational institutions. Steve has taught the fundamentals of interactive design at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and MIME Program and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. MacLaughlin holds a M.S. Degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University. His new weblog, Strathlachlan.com, covers a range of issues and topics.

The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness

“Not long ago if someone told you that the hardware store would be a trendy place to hang out, you might have looked at them with a skeptical eye. If someone had told you that the top programs on television wouldn’t be sitcoms or dramas, but instead those that feature drab dwellings being refurbished and stylistically challenged people getting makeovers, you probably would have laughed.
Whether you have been paying attention or not we are living in an age of aesthetics. So says Virginia Postrel in her latest book, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness. Postrel examines how the role of aesthetics and style are transforming our culture and economy in a variety of ways. In the process we get a better understanding of what this new age means for designers, decision makers, and the customers they hope to reach.

Not long ago if someone told you that the hardware store would be a trendy place to hang out, you might have looked at them with a skeptical eye. If someone had told you that the top programs on television wouldn’t be sitcoms or dramas, but instead those that feature drab dwellings being refurbished and stylistically challenged people getting makeovers, you probably would have laughed.

But that probably meant that you missed the dawn of the age of aesthetics. Today if you walk into a Home Depot on a Saturday morning you will see a lot more than stacks of lumber and rows of lighting fixtures. If you are watching carefully you will see throngs of people participating in workshops on painting, tiling, and building backyard ponds. Walk through a new shopping area and the architecture looks more like an Italian villa than a strip mall in Davenport, Iowa. These are just the kind of strange happenings The Substance of Style explains in vivid detail.

Postrel begins The Substance of Style with a few examples to illustrate how “aesthetics is the way we communicate through the senses.” After all, human beings are visual, tactile, and emotional creatures and we are drawn towards people, places, and things that give us sensory pleasure. Postrel points out that “’form follows emotion’ has supplanted ‘form follows function’.” How else do you explain the success of the iMac, Volkswagen Beetle, and the Michael Graves Toaster at Target?

The Substance of Style goes on to explain how the age of mass production gave way to the age of mass customization. The futurists who predicted we would all be walking around in the same monotone tunics were dead wrong. For most of the 20th Century “the broad public enjoyed the expanding benefits of standardization, convenience, and mass distribution” and “the big story was not the rise of aesthetics but the spread of predictable standards of minimum quality.” This was the “age of Wonder Bread and Holiday Inn” where quality became improved and more widely available, but sadly there was little or no variety for customers. Henry Ford typified the business sentiment of this age when he said, “The customer can have any color he wants so long as it’s black.”

By the late 1970s and early 1980s the gains made in mass production, distribution, and quality reached a critical mass. Virginia Postrel explains how the ability to produce variety and utility was the tipping point for “the beginning of a new economic and cultural movement, in which look and feel matter more than ever.𔄙 The cycle of individually produced items to mass-produced monotony and finally to mass-produced distinctive items was complete. The age of aesthetics had begun and suddenly style began to appear everywhere.

The Substance of Style notes that Starbucks “is to the age of aesthetics what McDonald’s was to the age of convenience or Ford was to the age of mass production.” What prompted millions of people to spend $3.3 billion on a cup of Starbucks’ coffee last year? Postrel’s answer is that companies like Starbucks have used aesthetics to give their customers a unique sensory experience, and their customers can’t get enough of it. That same focus on aesthetics by product designers is now being echoed by everyone from retailers to homebuilders, restaurants, hotels, and nearly every facet of our daily lives.

Aesthetics is no longer the luxury that it once was, and that has allowed people to pick and choose styles that appeal to them as individuals. Advances in technology and product design combined with the mixing of cultures have all allowed for a greater range of aesthetic choices. This has also meant a huge growth in industries that focus on personal aesthetics. The rise in the number of day spas, nail salons, piercing shops, tooth whitening products, and other appearance enhancing services are another indication that we are living in the age of aesthetics.

It is this facet of the age of aesthetics that seems to be drawing the most ire from critics. Postrel points out how “the very power of aesthetics makes its power suspect.” Outlet stores mimicking a Tuscan village are one thing, but many contend “surface and substance cannot coexist, that artifice inevitably detracts from truth.” Pundits allege that people are only left with a shallow, deceptive, and decadent “world of falsehoods.” Postrel confronts this widely held belief to show that style really can have substance.

To begin with, the author believes you have to throw out the absurd notion that aesthetics are meaningless and valueless. For some reason we have come to believe that “appearance must be worth either everything or nothing” instead of accepting that “aesthetic pleasure is an autonomous good, not the highest or the best but one of the many plural, sometimes conflicting, and frequently unconnected to sources of value.” The Substance of Style illustrates this point by noting that “colas are neither good nor evil, and neither is their packaging. The packaging design adds pleasure and meaning, and thus value, to morally neutral products.”

To keep things in perspective Postrel is quick to point out that “form has its own power and worth, but it does not inevitably trump content.” Aesthetics has influence over our decisions but it does not blind “us to all other values.” Instead the value of aesthetics in many cases is its ability to give individuals personalized identity. That sense of aesthetic identity prevails when “I like that merges into I’m like that.” The substance of style consists of its ability to signal identity and that reminds “ourselves and the world of what we think is important.”

The Substance of Style also delves into the broader implications of living in an aesthetic age. For all the choices and options available to customers there are a lot of roadblocks being put up. Postrel asserts, “when ‘design is everywhere, and everywhere is now designed’ whoever determines look and feel controls a great deal of economic and personal value.” Customers begin to “demand better design, and that demand inevitably generates conflict.” The results are limits on what you can and cannot do in a new housing development, what types of architecture are permitted in public spaces, and a reminder that “your ugly house bothers your neighbors; your ugly sofa does not.” The best response to the style police “is what we might call the Italian solution – to look the other way from the stuff we don’t like.”

So what does all of this mean for designers and business decision makers? At the outset of The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel emphatically states, “Aesthetics has become too important to be left to the aesthetics.” What she means is that people in a variety of professions need to understand the importance of aesthetics to their customers and to do something about it. Customers in today’s style-focused world have issued a challenge to potential corporate suitors: “Give us a way to be smart and pretty, and we’ll take it.”

Postrel quotes Don Norman, the well-known usability expert, and his view that “attractive things work better.“ Believing that smart and pretty can coexist is the first step to focusing on the aesthetic demands of your customers. “By bringing design to new areas or coming up with newly appealing styles, aesthetic innovators can reap rewards,” writes Postrel. The other reality is that paying attention to individual aesthetics is “a requirement to stay in the game.”

The Substance of Style is more than a surface-level synopsis of the importance of style in today’s culture. This is a serious and much needed book about the forces that are shaping today’s culture and economy. Virginia Postrel masterfully explains how the evolution of mass markets helped produce personalized aesthetics for the masses. Instead of ignoring the critics of such a trend, the book faces them head-on to point out just how much substance there is to style. Postrel’s examples are illuminating, her sources are well respected, and The Substance of Style offers a lot more than just a catchy title. Anyone who is serious about surviving in the age of aesthetics needs to read this book. The Substance of Style will not only show you what you might have been missing, but it also gives you some direction on what to do about it.


About the book:

Steve MacLaughlin is an experienced Interaction Architect who has helped develop award winning sites for a variety of Fortune 500 firms, governmental agencies, and educational institutions. Steve has taught the fundamentals of interactive design at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and MIME Program and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. MacLaughlin holds a M.S. Degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University. His new weblog, Strathlachlan.com, covers a range of issues and topics.

Talking with Virginia Postrel

“Functionality, properly understood, means doing what the end customer needs and wants the product to do. Adding pleasure may be more important than adding performance attributes. ”Virginia Postrel, former editor of Reason magazine, now writes the “Economic Scene” column for The New York Times, and her words have graced the pages of Forbes, Forbes ASAP, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Her first book, The Future and Its Enemies, was met with critical acclaim.

Postrel’s new book, The Substance of Style: How the Growth of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, explores the economic, cultural, social, personal, and political implications of the growing importance of aesthetics in business and society. Boxes and Arrows contributing writer Steve MacLaughlin caught up with Virginia Postrel to get her thoughts on the age of aesthetics and what it means for design professionals.

B&A: The issue of emotion and persuasion has been the source of a lot of discussion in the technology community lately. What would you say to those technology professionals who believe that adding aesthetics to what they do is just selling out or taking a short cut?

Postrel: Aesthetics isn’t a substitute for functionality, but functionality isn’t a substitute for aesthetics either. Not adding aesthetics is taking the short cut, substituting the designer’s idea of what’s important for the customer’s. Functionality, properly understood, means doing what the end customer needs and wants the product to do. Adding pleasure may be more important than adding performance attributes. To a programmer, additional computer speed may be a legitimate improvement while a pretty case isn’t. But to many customers, the case adds value while the speed doesn’t. That’s not because speed is unimportant. It’s because personal computers are already so fast that they can do what most people want them to do.

I bought a Visor Edge a couple of years ago mostly because I thought it was beautiful (though part of that beauty came from the flip up cover, which is also quite practical). Only after I had bought it did I discover just how useful a PDA is. I don’t need much functionality for my purposes—just a contacts database and a calendar–but I want a PDA that makes me happy when I look at it. If I were buying one today, I’d get a Palm Zire, which is simple and beautiful.

B&A: In the book you quote Don Norman, the well-known usability expert, and his view that “attractive things work better.” Norman admits that some think this is a “heretical” view, but he has some research to back up his argument. Are there other voices in the design community that believe that being “smart and pretty” is not only possible, but essential?

Postrel: The success of design firms like IDEO and frog demonstrates the value of “smart and pretty” as a strategy. They pay careful attention to how customers are going to use a product, but they don’t treat that functional study as a substitute for aesthetics. Their products work well, but they also look and feel good.

B&A: What would you say to today’s design students who are still being taught the same old rules? How can they prepare themselves for a design career in the age of aesthetics?

Postrel: It’s as much a matter of mental attitude as it is a question of skills. The skills taught in school provide a basis to build on. But the common idea, for instance, that “designers are problem solvers” doesn’t answer the question of what kinds of problems you’re supposed to solve. “How can I provide pleasure and meaning?” is as legitimate and important a question as “How can I make this work?” or “How can I create a product that is easy to manufacture?” Karim Rashid’s Garbino trash can is wildly successful because it’s an almost perfect design. It’s cheap and easy to manufacture in a variety of colors. It’s highly functional–it has handles built in and is shaped so that trash goes in and out easily. But the first thing most people notice about the Garbino is that it looks and feels great.

Thinking about look and feel can actually improve functionality, because it means you get in the habit of empathizing with the end user. It’s really a matter of thinking, “What will make the customer happy?” rather than “What will make me, the designer, happy?” (In the best case, of course, you’re both happy.) The nightmarish interface design that Alan Cooper excoriates (and that I wrote a popular Forbes ASAP column about) isn’t functional for consumers. But it’s easy for programmers.

B&A: You talk about the importance of building a structure for design and aesthetics to work within a company. How can designers help build a foundation for placing greater value on aesthetics in industries that are not known for their stylishness?

Postrel: This is a tough issue of corporate culture and organization, and it’s a long-term process. The first key to success is to avoid a couple of common mistakes that can make communicating with non-designers difficult.

The first mistake is to justify design’s importance by ignoring its unique contribution. Designers say “We solve problems” and “We can do strategy,” and they forget that everyone else is also solving problems and contributing to strategy. The question is what problems can you uniquely solve? Where’s your value-added? If you try to sell yourselves as another sort of engineer, the engineers will just scoff at you—and rightly so.

Yes, you contribute important functional qualities. They’re absolutely critical. But you also contribute style, and style is valuable in the marketplace, because real people—your customers—care about it. Again, the trick is to identify with the customer and to get your colleagues to see that doing that will make the organization more successful.

The second mistake is to swing in the opposite direction and push the style equivalent of basic research when the marketplace wants style’s equivalent of applied engineering. Among themselves, designers are always looking to push the aesthetic envelope. Professional prestige comes in large part from novelty and innovation, from exploring the frontiers of design. (This is even more true with graphic designers, who face fewer material constraints, than it is with product designers. Interface designers are somewhere in between.)

But the customer isn’t at the frontier. The consumer usually wants to build on what’s familiar—to have something different, but not too different. That doesn’t mean the customer is a rube or a philistine, any more than it means that avant garde designers are useless. Theoretical physics and engine mechanics are different, and both are valuable. So are cutting-edge design and less prestigious, more mundane design. It’s important to remember that “good design” depends on context—good design for whom, for what purpose?

Some of the most difficult websites to navigate, and the most likely to crash, are those created by designers for designers. The Art Center site used to crash my browser every time I visited it.

B&A: You mentioned that interface designers are somewhere between graphic designers and product designers on the aesthetic freedom spectrum because of the nature of their medium. This is a young field that is currently going through some growing pains and a bit of an identity crisis. Any thoughts on what interface designers might become when they grow up?

Postrel: The biggest difference between graphic design and interface design today is not so much the nature of the medium—which is, of course, different—but the relative immaturity of interface design. We haven’t yet seen the coalescing of a “dominant design”—the equivalent to the basic layout of a book page, the arrangement of the steering wheel and controls on a car, the shapes of knives, forks, and spoons, the idea of a suit with jacket and pants (or skirt)—within which designers experiment. The advantage for designers is that there’s a lot of room for creativity and innovation, because user expectations are still developing. The downside is that complete failure is more likely. So is “design” that reflects what’s easy for programmers rather than what really works for the user.

I don’t know what dominant designs will emerge, but interface designers will know the field has grown up when a new design proceeds from basic structures that have proven themselves effective. Designers won’t have to invent the steering wheel.

B&A: In a business environment where everyone is looking for ROI to justify expenses it is usually the marketing or design departments that get cut first. Isn’t this just a short-term band-aid that could be causing more long-term harm to these companies?

Postrel: It may be, though it depends on the particular company’s strategy—Wal-Mart is not Target-—and on what the alternative is. Outsourcing design isn’t the same as not doing design, for instance. And companies that cut marketing and design first may be companies that aren’t using those departments particularly effectively in the first place. They don’t understand the importance of these functions, so they don’t get enough value from them, so cutbacks become justified.

B&A: The book discusses the variety of different groups and stylistic preferences, and how catering to these micro-markets will only become more important in the age of aesthetics. Do you have to be a member of one of these distinct groups to design for them?

Postrel: If you’re designing for a group you belong to—essentially designing for yourself–you have an advantage, because you’ll have tacit knowledge that’s hard to get from the outside. That said, you don’t have to be in a group to design for it. You have to be able to empathize with its members, to understand what they need and where they find pleasure and meaning. That may involve close study and, say, the use of rapid prototyping to get lots of feedback. Or it may be mostly a matter of sympathetic imagination. If you’re successful, of course, the end user may apply your design in ways you absolutely didn’t expect–because you’ve encouraged their imagination.

B&A: A popular phrase in the design world these days is: “Show me the value.” A lot of specialists in the fields of interaction design and user experience design struggle with this issue. What are some ways for them to better express the value they bring to employers or customers?

Postrel: The value of design comes from its ability to provide three things to customers: function, pleasure, and meaning. For interface designers, function is still a frontier. You aren’t designing toilet brush holders, where function is already well understood. But my message to designers of all kinds is not to sell themselves short by only emphasizing function. Designers know ways to create aesthetic pleasure that other specialists, who may understand things about function, simply don’t know. Customers value that pleasure, so they’ll pay more for a pleasurable experience. The trick, of course, is to figure out what *customers* will enjoy and, hence, value, which may or may not be the same things that designers themselves enjoy and value. Designers are often bored with things that still excite customers and want something more cutting-edge. That can make it hard to communicate the value of design to employers. It’s important not to confuse the design equivalent of basic research with the design equivalent of applied engineering. In the short run, value comes from the “applied engineering,” while in the long run new ideas emerge from the “basic research.”

B&A: Throughout the book you talk about the constant backlash from critics who are appalled by the notion of personalized aesthetics that break all of their rules. Are these “experts” just afraid of the inmates running the asylum or do they have some valid concerns?

Postrel: Specialists do know things that the rest of us don’t. They’ve learned patterns that work. This is as true of aesthetics as it is of writing or plumbing. Nine times out of ten, a brochure designed by someone with training in graphic design is going to look better—to the general public, not just to other designers—than a brochure designed by someone with no training. The tenth brochure will either be by an amateur with a great eye or a professional who’s pushing the envelope.

But that’s not the end of the story. Amateurs can learn by doing, and they have access to lots of new sources of aesthetic information, including software that has some of that professional knowledge embedded in it. Over time, I would expect a certain amount of aesthetic training to become part of basic education, just as people learn to write. (Most people can’t write any better than they can design, which is why I have a job, but that doesn’t mean nobody but professionals and gifted amateurs writes.)

Also, there’s a difference between expertise and gatekeeping. Expertise tells you how to achieve what you find aesthetically pleasing. Gatekeeping tells you what you should find aesthetically pleasing. It’s the gatekeepers who are upset—people who want to dictate the one true style, whether they’re arbiters of fashions in clothing or in architecture.

B&A: You tell the tale of a Chicago restaurant that ignored the importance of aesthetics while their competitors really focused on creating a unique dining environment for customers. The restaurant eventually goes under and the stylish restaurants thrive. Does this create an aesthetics arms race where if you are not stylish you risk losing everything, but if you are stylish the best you can hope for is to simply keep up with the competition?

Postrel: In some highly competitive businesses, such as restaurants, that is a likely outcome. The gains will go to the consumers, not to the producers’ bottom lines. But that’s not the whole story, because aesthetic leaders often command a premium, because they make smart, though sometimes costly, investments and manage to stay ahead of the competition. There’s an arms race in microprocessor manufacturing, but Intel is still profitable. There’s an arms race in retailing logistics, but Wal-Mart is still ahead of its competition. An “arms race” in aesthetics simply means that style has become another important part of operations, subject to the same competitive pressures as the rest of the business.

B&A: Have the ebbs and flows of the economy in recent years done anything to stem the tide of the aesthetic age? Is the demand for more aesthetics waterproofed from a struggling economy?

Postrel: The best answer to this question is the first paragraph of the last chapter:

“The aesthetic imperative is here to stay. The indicators may fluctuate with the economy—fewer new companies that need logos, advertising, and websites mean less work for graphic designers; fewer new products mean less work for industrial designers; fewer new hotels or restaurants mean less work for interior designers—but the underlying phenomenon remains strong. Every startup, product, or public space calls for an aesthetic touch. Personal appearance demands new forms of attention and offers new sources of pleasure and meaning. Aesthetic proliferation gives us more choices, opportunities, and responsibility than ever before. We expect look and feel to express, and to help establish, the identity of people, places, and things. What once was good enough isn’t any longer. Function alone does not suffice.”

Another way of putting it is that the total demand for aesthetics varies with the business cycle, as does the demand for other goods. But the relative importance of aesthetics—its proportion compared to other goods—has increased.

B&A: How long might the age of aesthetics last? Do we one day risk becoming desensitized to all this sensory overload? What happens after the age of aesthetics?

Postrel: It’s a long-term trend but how long, I don’t know. That depends to some extent on what other sources of new value-added emerge. Here’s what I wrote in the book, and it’s as far as I’m willing to push the prediction:

“The innovations that today seem exciting, disturbing, or both will eventually become the background of our lives. We won’t notice them unless they’re missing. Like convenience or hygiene, instant communication or rapid transportation, look and feel will simply be part of modern, civilized life. We’ll assume they were always there, like indoor plumbing or recorded music—that we couldn’t possibly have lived without their pervasive presence.

New styles and new aesthetic technologies will continue to develop, of course, and old ones to evolve or improve, but at some point aesthetics will no longer be the frontier. When we decide how next to spend our time, money, or creative effort, something else will top our priorities. Something else will disturb the familiar ways of business and culture. Something else will challenge our conventional notions of ‘real’ value. That something else may be radically new, the product of currently far-fetched technologies. It may be a major improvement in an existing good—a faster, cleaner form of transportation, an instantaneous mode of manufacturing. It may be as ancient as storytelling or exploration.”

We’ve already become desensitized in one sense: We take a lot of aesthetic quality for granted, even though it’s only a few years old. But in another sense, we’re becoming more keenly sensitized, able to notice more subtle changes or differences while also playing with new combinations.


Steve MacLaughlin is an experienced Interaction Architect who has helped develop award winning sites for a variety of Fortune 500 firms, governmental agencies, and educational institutions. Steve has taught the fundamentals of interactive design at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and MIME Program and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. MacLaughlin holds a M.S. Degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University. His new weblog, Strathlachlan.com, covers a range of issues and topics.

Making the Invisible Visible: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer

“The more respected a client feels, the more secure he’ll feel with your work and the less he will feel the need to watch your every move, thus giving you more freedom as a designer,” (p. 35)Making the Invisible Visible: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer Hillman Curtis. June 2002. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Publishing. [ISBN: 0-7357-1165-8. 240 pages. $45.00 (softcover).] Hillman Curtis first introduced readers to his revolutionary approach to New Media design in the best seller Flash Web Design. Curtis returns with his new book to explain the art of Making the Invisible Visible: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer. The book reveals how to combine the right processes with enough inspiration to produce successful New Media projects.

Curtis begins by teaching readers the “Process” his company, hillmancurtis, inc., uses to produce some of the best New Media projects in the industry today. The process consists of seven steps: Listen, Unite, Theme, Concept, Eat the Audience, Filter and Justify. Each chapter in this section of the book takes an in-depth look at each step of the process. Curtis notes that steps often mix and overlap in order to get everything moving in the right direction.

The Listen step involves gathering as much information about the client and product as possible. Although Curtis stresses the usual point that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, he goes one step further. The Listen step also means searching to understand the story behind the company. According to Curtis, knowing “the company’s history, its points of pride, its shortcomings, and its core values is pure gold.” (p. 28)

The Unite step might sound like some warm and fuzzy client love-fest, but Curtis’ recommendations are right on target. He reminds New Media professionals to involve the client early and often during the planning stages of the project. “The more respected a client feels, the more secure he’ll feel with your work and the less he will feel the need to watch your every move, thus giving you more freedom as a designer,” (p. 35) writes Curtis. Keeping the lines of communication open takes discipline, but the results pay off in the end.

“Our challenge as designers is to target a given project’s theme and use it as a guide that will influence every design decision we make, from the initial concept to the final composition.” (p. 41) That statement basically sums up MTIV’s attitude towards targeting a project’s Theme. And drawing a target is literally what Hillman Curtis recommends doing to hit the mark. He explains a simple exercise that can help you zero-in on the target and direction of the project.

Curtis draws a comparison to Pink Floyd’s The Wall album to illustrate the power and importance of the Concept. “Think of it this way: a concept is an idea. Our job as designers is to visually explain that idea.” (p. 57) Sketches, storyboards, and keeping your eye out for great ideas are the best ways to explore different conceptual possibilities. Along the way you solicit feedback from other members of the creative team and the client to create the right soil for good concepts to grow.

The Eat the Audience step is meant to remind designers that the audience needs to be included in the process just like everyone else. This is especially true in New Media design where the user is often unseen. Curtis discusses how to conduct “poor man’s focus groups” and other activities to find out more about the project’s target audience.

Both the Filter and Justify steps involve the compromises and streamlining needed to get the best end result. The limitations and constraints of bandwidth, browsers, plug-ins and countless other obstacles are challenges that New Media professionals must constantly deal with. Curtis looks at them as a way to “filter” out non-essential elements from the design. To further pare down the design you need to be able to “justify” it to the rest of the team. This step acts as the final checkpoint in the process.

Now, all the great processes in the world are useless without good execution. You have to combine know-how with inspiration to get the best results. MTIV’s second section is devoted entirely to demystifying the notion of “Inspiration.” For Hillman Curtis, inspiration “is the air we breathe to fuel our creative progress.” (p. 104) While this sounds very ethereal, Curtis is also quick to point out that there’s no such thing as divine inspiration. New Media professionals walk down a creative path filled with ideas and examples, and on this path they can’t help borrowing and sharing some of the things they find along the way.

Curtis explains how he constantly immerses himself in design books and magazines. “It’s all part of my ongoing effort to draw from the work of others. Finding in design books, perhaps, great starting points; or from movies or their titles, blueprints; or from poems or fiction, maps to follow.” (p. 113) Along the way, you piece ideas together until you reach a flash point where inspired creativity takes over. While reading MTIV you can’t help but notice how much Hillman Curtis has been influenced by the motion picture industry.

The “Practice” section of MTIV goes on to show what happens when proven processes meet inspiration in a design setting. Hillman Curtis likes to refer to it as “a sort of ‘Everything I ever wanted to know about New Media design basics but was afraid to ask’ section.” (p. 15) It includes a thorough review of everything from color theory to typography, and designing for the Web, broadcast and print mediums. Well-known professionals like Steve Krug, Katharine Green and Joseph Lowery make guest appearances to chime in a on a variety of topics. This section alone would have made a fine book of its own.

Hillman Curtis’ minimalist approach to design also appears to be his approach to writing. In just a few words he captures the essence of what it means to be a New Media designer and what it takes to push into unknown territory. Curtis passionately believes that “New Media design is a new frontier. It’s like the Wild West -full of pioneers who’ve traded their old professions for the wide open space of new possibilities.” (p. 138)

“Making the Invisible Visible” is a 240-page nonstop sensory experience, from the introduction to the index. At first I wondered if the book was all style and no substance, but Curtis hooked me after the first few pages. I found myself constantly commenting on how on-target his observations were, and how no other book has really captured what it means to be a New Media designer like MTIV does. I highly recommend this book to those in the profession who are looking for a spark to ignite their skills.

About the book:

Steve MacLaughlin is an experienced Interaction Architect who has helped develop award winning sites for a variety of Fortune 500 firms, governmental agencies, and educational institutions. Steve has taught the fundamentals of interactive design at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and MIME Program and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. MacLaughlin holds a M.S. Degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University. His new weblog, Strathlachlan.com, covers a range of issues and topics.