As a designer, you can take inspiration from anywhere, but most of us will cite somebody who has influenced us in our early years which led to the work we do today. For me, I can delve back to my school years where I had two very influential people in my life, my art teacher, who showed us ways of looking at the world beyond the superficial, and my tech teacher, who showed me my very first grid, making up what I would understand to become typography. I never knew these two worlds would come together as interactive design, I didn’t even know what graphic design was let alone how to make it interactive. I was even more surprised to find out through my college years that I could make a living doing the things I love.
So fast forward to today. I’m sat in Red C thinking about why I became an interactive designer, which piece of work truly inspired me in the past to form my future. You have to understand that when I was in college, the web was first beginning. The words from my tutors mouth “Don’t bother learning about the web Wayne, it will never take off. Go to Leeds University and study editorial graphic design” will stay with me forever, and be quoted whenever I talk about my formative design years. I stuck to my guns (thankfully).
I dabbled with code as a kid, buying magazines where you’d type in lines one by one, run the program and it would make your name go diagonally across the screen. But my first ever clear introduction to interactive design was in the form of an interactive cd-rom project at Uni. Our brief was to document the process of changing a tyre and create a simple click through interface using Macromedia Director. At the time it felt like the most boring subject in the world, I didn’t realise the lecturer, Mr. Robin Blythe Lord’s subject matter would come to be most valuable the day I needed to change a blow out on the side of the motorway. But more than that, what inspired a potentially boring subject, was its introduction.
We began exploring the brief by looking at an interactive game called Myst. I’d never seen anything like it. There were no instructions, just a screen you had to explore. The more you explored, the more the narrative unfolded and, depending on your decisions, the storyline would change.
It was the first time I’d seen an immersive game with no instructions. Most tech at the time came with manuals the thickness of a bible. Of course, my project was much simpler, but from that project onwards, I came to understand that you could create a user experience that actually involved the user’s decisions and didn’t directly tell them what to do. It encompassed an unfolding narrative, puzzles, exploration, sounds, animations and a 3D world. It was like being in your own mysterious cartoon, but in real time and you could touch and move objects. Amazing. Playing on it for half an hour turned into a full day without even noticing the time pass by.
As the web evolved, cd-roms became obsolete, but time and time again I see interactive narratives popping up on the web and mobile devices. I see user interfaces with subtle cues that nobody would notice if they aren’t really looking for them (after all the best interfaces are the ones you don’t notice). I had big aspirations for my ‘change the wheel’ project based on that game, none of which I realised, it was far too ambitious. But it inspired me to study more and carry on developing my skills. When you first learn web design and development, one of your first tasks is to create blue hyperlinks and go on to learn how to style them by changing the colour of the link or removing the underline. This seems like nothing now, but when you first learn to change your designs in to code the sense of achievement is huge.
As interactive designers, we never stop learning, every day there is a new device, a new operating system, a new way to code. This is part of the challenge. It’s exciting. Keeping visitors on your pages is not too far from the way you get locked into a game like Myst. You have to keep it entertaining and interesting and give the user control.
I have a lot to thank my teachers and tutors for, and for Mr Robin Blythe Lord for introducing our group to the beginnings of interactive design. I also have to thank him for inadvertently teaching me to change a tyre, otherwise I’d have been stuck by the side of the motorway that particular night, waiting for somebody else to come and lend a hand. I would never have made it home in time to complete Myst.