Beyond Web 2.0

Design is changing, and Web 2.0 is already yesterday's news. Richard Wentk finds out why, in the futuristic world of web technology, new is already the new old.

What happened to web design? It's been just over a decade since Web 1.0 arrived, and in that time design has moved from entry-level HTML into a complex world of servers, databases, and front ends mixed with graphic design. The join hasn't always been seamless, and site design has veered between over-caffeinated Flash-for-the-sake-of-it at one extreme to corporate design-by-numbers at the other. It's not as hard as it should be to find sites that can offer both features at the same time.

Many Next Big Things have come and gone. A few have stayed. JavaScript, Flash and PHP have left their DNA in the design gene pool. Other technologies, such as Adobe Atmosphere, VRML and QuarkImmedia have drifted to the edges or died in the sun. Going back even five years, it would have been difficult to predict which technologies would still be around now. As a rule, proprietary technologies don't seem to survive. Flash is the obvious exception, and has carved out its unique niche by doing what it does better than any of the possible alternatives. But with the release of the Flash source to the Mozilla foundation, Flash is heading towards Open Source. And elsewhere commercial off-the-shelf content management tools are increasingly being marginalised by free, open solutions.

How we got to now
But before getting into the technical details, it's worth taking a step back to see what's been happening in design over the last few years. The key development has been a huge increase in synergy across platforms, and much more user involvement. The old model of pushing content at viewers who may or may not want it has been replaced by user experiences that give viewers a chance to add their own unique twist. Sometimes this goes horribly wrong, as in this spring's US campaign by General Motors for its Tahoe SUV. Instead of putting together their own ads from the supplied clips and templates, many viewers used the platform to attack GM on environmental grounds. The results were often entertaining to watch, but not quite in the way that GM might have hoped. But mostly the theme is not just that static graphic design is increasingly becoming a footnote, but that creatives are being asked to spend less time on the details of the look, and more on the overall user experience. As Simon Crab, design director of Lateral says, "Now we always think of the user first, and not the platform - so what we do is platform-neutral. We think about design in a different way. If you decide something is a web project that can limit your creativity. We try to think of what a user wants, and then give them that. Then we worry about how that's going to be communicated - as a site, a mobile application, but overall about the mesh and how it's all going to be integrated."

Paul Fennell at Red Bee agrees: "Everything is cross-platform now. We create promotions online and link them with IPTV, ringtones, screensavers, and generally try to engineer the experience. We did a project for children's TV where we tried to create a playground buzz, where kids would share what they'd seen and we'd get the interest. But it depends on the content. If it's interesting, viewers will pass it on. If not, it can be difficult to create that interest."

This is being made easier by a convergence of technologies across platforms. Flash is still popular on the web, but Java and XML, together with their variants, are the most common base tools. This increasingly means AJAX, which isn't a technology so much as a way of combining existing tools. On an AJAX page, small sections can be modified dynamically without reloading. Under the hood there's a familiar selection of HTML, CSS, JavaScript and DOM, combined with server-side smarts. What's unique is the combination of fast updates and interactivity that AJAX allows.

The fact that it's possible to repurpose the technology for web applications, mobile applications, interactive TV and even kiosks and animated electronic billboards can make life simpler for designers. Even though the platforms may be different, the coding and design skills become transferable, as is some of the code. Design houses like Lateral and Akqa are already exploring what's possible when databases and design elements are linked to newer features like geo-positioning. As Molly Parsley of Akqa explains, "When we worked with Yell recently, we put ads on buses with a GPS that would serve up ads for local businesses. That was the first time ever that had been done. We also designed some active bus shelters, so people could look up local businesses while they were waiting. The core theme was 'local knowledge' and it's the first time anyone has combined these new digital and outdoor solutions with more traditional TV sponsorship, cinema ads and posters."

User-generated content
Elsewhere there's another revolution brewing, and it isn't so much about technology as content. There's a clear trend away from centralised push-media towards interactive amateur content creation that's starting to compete significantly for attention with professional output. Not everyone is convinced that this is a trend that will last. According to Simon Crab, "User generated content has had its impact now that almost every TV show has its own blog. I'd say it's slightly pointless, but standard. But it's of its time. I think audiences will become tired of it." Paul Fennell offers a different point of view: "With user-generated content, content is the primary focus. Our job as designers is to create a platform for that content that's intuitive and functional, and transparent." So who's right? The biggest brands of the last few years, including Google and YouTube, have the most minimal visual designs but have carved out very strong brands for themselves. They've also proved to be hugely popular with users, advertisers and investors. No one knows yet whether YouTube will replace mainstream TV. But as the first successful video-on-demand service, its anarchic mash-up of traditional programs, home videos, blogs and video art has found a niche that's clearly very popular, and is already affecting the viewing figures of conventional broadcasters.

Design experiences
So what does it add up to? First, design is increasingly going to be about experiences, not images. There will always be a place for creating strong visual content, but increasingly designers will be expected to be not just fluent in content management and integration tools such as AJAX and Ruby On Rails, but also able to design a compelling user experience. Design will be about environments, interactions and stories, and worlds that spread across many media - not the static illustrations of a print campaign, or the only slightly more animated designs possible with older web tools.

Secondly, location and networking information will become more important, as designs become geo-friendly and campaigns become exercises in community building. This will make design a paradoxical mix of geo-located physical social networks blended with open electronic communities of interest. It will also open up opportunities beyond the UK and Europe, for those who want to explore them.

Finally, creating user experiences can mean producing spaces where traditional graphic design plays a much smaller role. While certain kinds of advertising will always rely on a romanticised, glossy and stylised experience, YouTube and other interactive sites suggest that content is more important than styling, and participation is more important than traditional marketing. So while it's not quite true that everything you've learned is already wrong, five years from now design is sure to look very different - not just visually, but also conceptually. And because new developments are inevitable, Web 2.0 may already look as antiquated an idea as Web 1.0 does today.