Lost In Translation

I grew up in an era when LPs and cassettes were the predominant forms of buying, listening to, and sharing music. I never saw CDs in the record store until I entered high school. It took about four or five years for anyone to start making the shift to CDs. Everyone had a tape deck in their car or at home, and most everyone had a turntable on their home stereo. I used to buy 45s at Music Hut and Hayes Music, before they both went under. I actually listened to those on an ancient turntable I’d had since I was a little kid. When I was in eighth grade or so, I started making mix tapes of albums by spinning the LP and standing ready at the pause button of left cassette deck father’s dual cassette stereo. You could make echo effects by recording the same snippet several times in a row, and dialing down the master volume a little each time.

Wednesday was the day that new albums would be released. For a few years, it was a regular routine to watch the Upcoming Releases calendar at the local record store and make the tough decisions about which albums we would buy. The only way to discover new music was to see it on MTV, read about it in Rolling Stone or Rip, be curious and buy it our selves, or hear it at a friend’s house or in their car.

When I first started collecting music, I would buy a mixture of LPs and cassettes. It seemed that some LPs had some cool stuff that the cassette versions did not. The Rolling Stones&#8217′ Sticky Fingers had a close up of Mick Jagger’s crotch, but on the record cover, there was a real working zipper. Led Zeppelin III had a spinning wheel that manipulated the background of the album cover. The covers of the cassette versions of Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy and Presence only seemed to tell half of a story, but when I saw the LP versions of these albums, there seemed to be a sinister second half to these stories. The Who’s Quadropenia seemed intent on telling a complete story, not only with the songs, but with the extensive album art. They wanted to immerse you into the world of the protagonist. Even as late as 1986, the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill had a cover art punchline that didn’t translate on the cassette version. That album also had hand inscribed messages near the record label (only on the record version) that I think helped add to their mystique.

As the record industry made the transition to cassettes and CDs, they were still trying to find ways to delight us with surprises. Everyone from the early 1990s remembers hidden songs, which were unlisted tracks inserted after a long gap of silence after the perceived end of the album.

These music artists were using everything at their disposal to tell a story. The songs on the album, the live performances, the cover art, concert posters, their personas, the videos, the liner notes, their magazine and TV interviews. The easter eggs from one era faded out in subsequent eras because the medium of transport and consumption changed, and there was no way to translate the exact same experience, but they had to decide what aspects were lost and which were kept.

“ The change it had to come,
We knew it all along”
Won’t Get Fooled Again, The Who

The Web is barely in its adolescence. Our medium is only twenty years old. To put that in perspective, the film industry was in the middle of the silent film era at the same point. Our golden age is just beginning.

However, our medium is the least permanent by its nature. How many working hyperlinks remain from twenty years ago? Even at the ten year mark, there is noticeable link rot. The sites from that age of the 1990s and early 2000s were built for desktop only. many in Flash, nearly all fixed width. They are living snapshots of experiences designed for a very specific point in time.

Today, we are more self-aware that we are designing not only for different devices that have different inherent experiences, but for platforms that do not even exist yet. All our efforts today will be tommorrow’s nostalgia. Our challenge as creators is to craft core messages and experiences that are strong enough to live throughout the ages, even if small nuances of today are sadly lost in translation.

How I Became a Web Designer

No one comes out of the womb a designer.

Neither did I.

Picture of Baby John

I grew up when older technology was brand new.

I bought my first computer in 1998.

I worked many blue-collar jobs where I learned–

Products are easy.

Connecting with people takes effort.

Eventually, I started learning HTML and CSS.

I built my first website in 2010.

Finally, it was time:

all Web development, all the time.

-Lockedown Design est. 2012

Today, I’m putting in my 10,000 hours on a daily basis.

“Tools help execute your plan faster,

but first you need the right plan.”

The future is unwritten.

History is a cycle.

Whatever comes tomorrow–

I’ll be ready.

Unsolicited Designs of Popular Sites

Recently, an unsolicited visual redesign of Facebook by Fred Nerby reignited fervent discussion in the design community. Some of the feedback was positive, a lot of it was negative. Today, I’m going to look at why designers continue to create these redesigns, and the positive and negative implications of doing so.

Why Post a Redesign for Free?

I think there are a couple of reasons that designers re-imagine popular sites. First, sites such as Facebook, YouTube, or Amazon are familiar to everyone. We can recall the what the layouts and interface for these sites easily. All sites are constantly being improved or redesigned, and I think this presents a natural challenge for designers. Choosing a well-known site to redesign, and posting it in a gallery says, “Here’s a site you all know; and here’s how I would improve it.” This brings me to the next reason that someone would spend time on an unsolicited redesign: Professional attention.

This one seems really obvious: How do you raise your profile in the design community very quickly? The answer for some is to post a gallery based on a popular site. Of course, many well-established names in the Web industry see this as a gimmick, and a ploy to grab unearned attention. And perhaps there is a lot of truth to this.

Erin Kissane Says No Outside Redesign

The Downside of Unsolicited Redesigns

Hot Drama on Twitter: Unsolicited Redesign

The design community expresses their displeasure towards redesigns that come from the outside for various reasons. The designers are working without an idea of what the goals and constraints of the project might be. The user experience (UX in designer parlance) probably hasn’t been taken into account. A one week redesign of a site as large as Facebook is a slap in the face to all the designers and developers who worked for years on the real life model. This is “spec work” (work done for free), this site never commissioned this work or asked for it. All these and more are the sentiments being expressed by Web designers and experts far more prestigious than myself.

Fred Nerby Facebook Redesign

But, as I look at this redesign, it is obvious that a large degree of thought was put into the placement of features. The one valid point introduced is that end users have not tested this design, and no design on Earth can be properly judged until put into the hands of real-life users, and the results recorded and analyzed.

While big-name designers are mostly opposed to the abundance of unsolicited designs being circulated, this opposition is not universal. If you want proof, take a moment to look at the beautiful redesign of the Texas Rangers site by Andy Rutledge. While I respect the myriad of designers whose blood, sweat, and tears have paved the way for designers such as myself, I also feel that projects such as Fred Nerby’s also have their place. We work in such a visual medium (everything we design is translated onto a screen or surface), that it seems illogical to punish people for pushing their boundaries or showing off their skills. In fact, I would say in other circumstances, we celebrate it.

Mass Culpability of the Design Community

When the Brazilian media company MaxiMidia targeted ad agency Moma, they created a series of fake vintage ads for Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Skype. These ads quickly circulated around the Internet, and to the best of my knowledge, they were completely unsolicited. The web agency Victors & Spoils used an unsolicited submission to land work from Harley Davidson.

But here’s an example that hits a lot closer to home. Just search Dribbble for “Facebook redesign”. Or “Twitter redesign”. Or “YouTube redesign”. Now, go to any of those shots, count the Likes and read the comments. It becomes clear that if unsolicited redesigns are really the wrong way to go, our community as a whole is not educating anyone to that fact.

Dribbble Search: Facebook Redesign

Dribbble Comments: Facebook Redesign

Ultimately, there are a lot of constraints with many industries (including social media sites) that unsolicited redesigns do not consider.

Conclusion

Unsolicited redesigns of existing websites are fun projects for designers to do, although they may only be surface deep. Design goes further than the surface veneer, and involves a whole variety of levels, including how the users interact with and actually use the site or app in question. To truly understand how design affects usability, testing has to be a part of the design process.

Visual designers will continue to re-imagine their favorite sites, even if other designers cast disdain in their direction. Sometimes, an unsolicited redesign can be used to generate business or attention for yourself, but a proper design involves research and a set of goals. The design community as a whole needs to better clarify for everyone what “good design” is, and spend more time explaining the entire process. As long as designers continue to get high-fives from the community, unsolicited redesigns are going to continue forever.

Recommended article: Lukas Mathis’ excellent article, “Unsolicited Redesigns”