Layered Design Objects

This scenario explores how practitioners are using digital tools to create graphic works that translate across multiple applications (both online and offline). It looks at how working with designers can enhance our understanding of the digital design process, and how by collecting designs-in-progress directly from their hard drives and desktop environments, we can capture the traces of digital making. It then turns to the question of how we go about collecting these works in the increasingly online formats in which they are encountered and experienced.

Collecting the digital design process

As poster curators and collectors, we have learned to interpret the printmaking process through observation and touch. Marks of tools, combined with the texture of inks against paper surface, enable us to decode a print and understand the way it was made. But examining the screen, we find instead, a surface that seems to withhold any visible traces of making. Digital lines don't leave impressions, and digital brushes don't reveal how colour pigments are applied. Contemplating the digital poster's altered material character, we realised how much of what we understand about traditional design processes, derives from the tactile physicality of print. In contrast, digital designs initially feel impenetrable. When we started to look at designs on screen, we noticed how the layers of their construction had been rendered smooth and flat, and how clues to the movements of the maker's hand appeared absent.

The materiality of a traditional print has allowed us to study process: it is possible to observe a work on paper and decipher the sequence in which its separate colours were applied, or discern the malleability of its matrix by interpreting the character of the printed marks. We have come to understand materiality as something which contains the evidence of process and the context of making.

How might a digital object, flattened behind the screen, become knowable as a made object?

Studio visits, and the conversations they ignited, prompted us to question our assumption that the screen always conceals the gestures of making. We listened to designers talking about their projects while clicking through early studies, and pre-print versions — and we began to get a sense of how the digital designs came into being. Observing digital works in their pre-finish state; before composite layers were sealed and files were compressed according to their output, we gained an insight into the digital-making process, and were able to perceive something akin to texture.

We found that, explored within their native software environments, the objects did reveal traces of process. We noticed that works-in-progress on the digital page, remained among the detritus of the on-screen studio. For example, toolkits in use the last time the file was opened were still in position, revealing not only the current colour swatch selections, or the nib applied to a drawing tool, but also giving a glimpse into the practitioner’s preferences — each kit dragged to a place on the screen of their choosing.

Watching the actions of the designers’ hands, we saw how they navigated their on-screen workspace with skilful curser movements and swift keyboard shortcuts. We noticed that with these direct commands and clicks, the underlying structure of the work could be visible, or hidden — and that it was possible to select either multiple, or individual layers to show or hide at any one time. During the working process, this allows a designer to view some parts of a design but not others, or hone in on specific elements or features. Re-opening the files, we recognised these custom views as opportunities to unveil process.

We came to understand that; like printed posters on paper, digital designs consist of layers. Critically, we recognised that it was the functional space of the native software environment which allowed us to penetrate them.

In our experience of curating ‘analogue prints’, the processes of making remain discoverable on the surface of an object long after it has left the design workspace. Until now, we have been able to identify materials and analyse techniques in retrospect — without opportunities to explore the studio, speak directly to designers, or examine their tools (although when these opportunities arise they have deepened understanding of the work). The visibility of digital process, however, depends upon access to designs in their environment of creation.

In this way, the digital design asks contemporary curators to take conscious and creative steps to capture process in context. Quickening cycles of obsolescence (which dictate that software programmes are continually updated), and the complexity of technological interoperability (where access to software applications is dependent upon retaining access to compatible operating systems), make it critical to do so as close as possible to the time of production. Especially since commercial software providers appear to be moving towards a subscription-based licensing model, whereby payment of a monthly fee unlocks access to applications via Cloud servers. This model compromises designers’ ownership of — and access to — their own work. Independent control of their personal archive becomes conditional upon sustaining the subscription.

If we are interested in the processes and techniques of digital work then it is desirable to view the design files within the version of the software in which they were created in order to understand the functional parameters within which the designer was working. We have to accept, however, that this may not be achievable simply by saving the files themselves. Each time they are opened, the data will be rendered within a current version of the software supported by the device on which we are viewing them causing subtle, but significant changes in what we see. The software will change over time and may eventually become obsolete.

With this in mind, we experimented with making screen recordings of designers clicking through the files and narrating their work, in addition to collecting the files themselves. This both added to the documentation of the design process and created an additional means to capture a view of the design files in their original software environment.

Capturing encounters with digital posters

Technology has changed what the poster is, where it can circulate, what it can do and how it behaves. This not only recasts its designer’s task, but also changes the character of a viewer’s encounter with it. As we move through the urban environment, we read posters at a distance: on hoardings high above streets, across railway platforms, from the windows of busses. In the online realm, we encounter them in closer proximity, and have the opportunity to engage with them more directly. Digital posters pop-up on the screens of the smartphones in our hands, and with a click, webpage advertisements expand to intercept/engage us while we’re reading online. Our relationship to these dynamic objects is therefore different.

We don’t just catch sight of the digital poster, we directly attend to it – clicking to view it, resize it, be diverted by it, or even to dismiss it.

We have long recognised the printed poster as a call to action. Whether informing, persuading or provoking, the poster operates as a prompt, a summons to act. Actions are always latent and potential within the printed sheet, yet the essential experience of viewing remains passive. Whereas digital posters embedded in online environments elicit active engagement. The nature of ‘viewing’ has changed. Graphics encountered on the web drawing forth their viewer to interact. And as collectors we now have an opportunity, to capture object with encounter.

Contemporary practitioners will now often produce a design as variants, and adapt it according to how, where, and in what form they will be seen. Their making process is informed by an understanding of how images are experienced differently depending on the platform where they are published. The new variability of poster formats brings with it new possibilities of encounter.

The networked structure of the Internet, means that posters are no longer experienced as self-contained visual messages. Designers have learned how to deliver graphics that can take advantage of the fact that online spaces/platforms are interconnected. Commercial marketing campaigns for web are not only devised to seize a viewer’s attention, but to lead them directly toward a purchase via a series of hyperlinks. Meanwhile, independent designers are now able to draw direct connections between related works in their portfolios, and refer to external content elsewhere on the web.

Observing and analysing the digital poster, we realise its new affordances (of variability, interconnectivity, and interactivity) have been produced gradually, as the web environment has evolved. Images on the early web were static, and so the activity of viewing graphics on-screen was not far removed from perusing a back-lit pamphlet. The introduction of ‘rich media’ formats, now commonly used in digital advertising, shifted the static image into motion. Video and dynamic GIFs encourage viewers to interact with content, so that encounters with images directly spur action.

Even everyday websites boast dynamic user interfaces, with sub-navigation features that allow a user to adapt how they view content. In-page drop-down menus, and select options, facilitate the narrowing of results and the surfacing of particular items. These technical aspects of the environment, instil agency in a web user, and give new capabilities to the poster. These are not passive encounters, they are active.

Webrecorder can provide replay-able encounters within the web environment.

As collectors, we need methods that can capture the operability and interactivity of ‘rich media’. One current tool which makes this capture possible is Webrecorder, a small-scale open-source mechanism for web archiving. As a curator or archivist explores a ‘graphic event’ by searching hashtags, following hyperlinks etc., Webrecorder records the background sequence of request/response exchanges, which are continually taking place between the browser and web servers. Those exchanges are stored and packaged as WARCs (web archive files) which can then be reassembled. Which means that Webrecorder can provide replay-able encounters within the web environment. That is, not a static screenshot which visually mimics a webpage — but, a replay that is navigable, multi-spatial, functional and dynamic. Essentially, Webrecorder reproduces those sections of the internet that the curator has interacted with, allowing us to demarcate and collect a multidimensional slice of online experience.

Read more about our first case study here.