N vision


Archive for September, 2010

September 13th, 2010


New visuals in the time of new reading

The shift from printed communication to online communication is so fundamental that it’s hard to grasp the implications. Creators, editors, publishers and readers are all affected and where a few years ago web and print were parallel worlds, now they are complimentary and more and more ‘pixel’ reigns, leaving behind those readers relaying on print as their main source of information.

All aspects of visual communication have been touched by change, not least the role of visuals. The screen based interface, new technical possibilities, logistics and financing all influence the change in the use of images. But there also changes which might be less obvious.

One of the important aspects of online media is how the audience ‘reads’ in other words takes in the information. Lets take the webpage of a news site as it is today and compare it to the printed page. Already it is very clear that there is a different way the reader is asked to navigate and select the information. On the homepage you are greeted by compact headlines, headers and thumbnail sized images, with little hierarchy and surrounded by lists internal links and blinking advertising trying to attract attention.

Headlines and articles are updated throughout the day, when you return to the page there is no guarantee that the information in the same place. On the other hand background articles will remain on the site beyond the single day and are directly accessible through an archive within the same environment. (Though not always free to enter)

Clicking a link is a stab in the dark, the length of an article only becomes clear when you click on it and go to the dedicated page; it’s unclear how deep the information is that belies the headline. But in general, the maximum length of a single article is shorter than it in print. On the other hand when it comes to ongoing courant themes, you can find an ever-growing list of related articles and article updates, rather than a concluding article marking a single moment in time.

Furthermore you are actively encouraged to take the article out of the given context of the site and ‘email it to a friend’, print, place on Facebook, MSN or Twitter, taking it outside a specified format and design.

And then off course, this specified design is relative since each reader formats their browser to their own preferences, for instance typeface and type size vary from screen to screen.

Also the external circumstances in which the information is read have changed. In general the reader will view the site on a computer; a laptop, desktop or I-pad, which is of course a gateway to many other sites, programs, games, social media and so on. In other words the information is embedded is a box of distractions. A printed newspaper or magazine is limited and finite; there might be a cartoon or a crossword puzzle waiting, but they are all still part of the same paper, which can’t be updated while you read.

A news paper is a cheap and dispensable object, which can be left lying about and become part of the visual landscape around us, the same headline and visual might catch our eye through many moments of the day(s).  But reading a computer screen is a more dedicated act; computers often have a specified location and a website is specifically ‘called ‘ for besides computers and are still too expensive to ‘just lay about’.

Reading from paper is easier on the eye than reading from a light-omitting screen. The newspaper is presented in a dedicated design and format, honed to maximise one specific reading experience, whilst the interface of the online edition had to adapt to whatever size and quality of screen is given.

All in all, screen reading might not be a perfect experience, but it offers a gateway to huge amounts of information in a multitude of ways.  Most communication online is created for quick access and update and it seems less concerned about a more the total reading experience.

So how does all this affect the use and understanding of visuals and of illustration in particular?

Visual as part of the design, help break otherwise monotonous field of text, but more importantly they show aspects of the information that either cannot be put to words or support and clarify the text. Unlike journalistic imagery which focus on facts or events and unlike info graphics, which focus on data visualisation, editorial illustration has a more reflective role where it visualises the concept and underlying ideas and gives alternative insight and a personal perspective.

On a webpage, where the priority is with giving concentrated information, the visuals, more often the size of a thumbnail, seem selected based on their compact qualities, direct hitting with little room for subtle details or subtle messages.

Where illustration is more part of the reflective realm how can it be part of this short and sharp world of online editorial communication? Perhaps to be part of the online world it needs to redefine itself.

Where reading is more impatient and distracted, should illustration perhaps be more guiding. Where the interface of the page can be personalised, should perhaps the reader be allowed to personalise the visuals as well.

When the article is encouraged to have a life of its own outside the context of the site, should the content of the illustration not be more autonomous so it too can be enjoyed as a separate piece? With all the new technologies, should the illustration remain still or should movement, sound and interaction become expected parts of its new form?

Perhaps as the written content can be constantly updated, the illustration should also be an updatable and revealing new elements and aspects. Or should illustration perhaps perform the role of the reflective moment in an otherwise fast moving information flow?

These changing parameters and possibilities are interesting challenges for illustration and ask for different ways of thinking about the visualisation of ideas and creation of the works. It might affect the way illustrators are working and might ask for closer cooperations between writers and illustrator creating joint authorship or, on the other hand, a more pro active autonomous approach. Different types of content might become interesting to illustrate, some traditional areas might fall away. But most importantly in form and style web images need develop new qualities and expressiveness, suited for the online environment.

Tell me where can I see this new hybrid illustration? For what seems to be lacking is an incentive to experiment with this part of the communication landscape that, though small, is not insignificant and still has a clear and exciting role to play, which with all the new technologies and opportunities opening up could harbour more possibilities than we think.