Monthly Archives: September 2007

Creative News & Feed My App

Creative News – great online resource for web and interactive designers

FeedMyApp.com – awesome directory of Web 2.0 sites of interest. Nice place to get lost in random browsing.

Some links

www.wikinomics.com – has the class assigned Intro & Chapter 1 reading.

The Wikinomics Playbook – collaborative project expanding the Wikinomics book into the wikisphere of collaborative efforts.  The project seems to have reached a critical mass stage just prior to being sent along for printed publication, but you can read up on the business and industry thinkers there.

www.creativecommons.org – The free online site which allows you to determine the amount and type of rights associated with your original creations and postings. Includes all the information you need to get working inside the Creative Commons model of responsibly licensed sharing.

Wikinomics Blog – exactly what it says, RSS feeds available

Wikinomics: the Online Countercultural Movement

I’ve been bitten, hard.

In some of my last posts I approached my concerns for the means by which Mashups were infringing on copyrights, and how Intellectual Property rights weighed into the mix for artists and users of the web. I’ve also responded in defense of Professionalism, and urged the need for respecting some of the traditions of the past. Those who know me personally won’t be suprised by this tendency, but I confess that my decisions have been based upon a set of assumptions and experiences based on how the world already worked.

 Not anymore.

Wikinomics by D. Tapscott and A. Williams (2006, New York: Portfolio) unscrewed my brainpan and mixed things up inside before sealing it all up again to stew for a bit … and all I’ve read so far was the introduction and the first chapter. That was enough for now, but I’ve been hunting for readily accessible copies of the full book since I read the article. I’m just going to have to fully embrace my new web-centric philosophies and deal with the shipping delay from ordering it from Amazon.com.

Buy a Flower for Wiki-Consciousness?

I’m not kidding, Tapscott and Williams are prophets of a whole new way of thinking. I read the first couple of chapters and I could feel the shift in thinking that they were talking about. I can see it spreading, an objective, observable phenomenon, slowly finding its own throughout the marketplace of today. The internet is changing more than just the way in which we access information, it’s completely revolutionizing our entire global socio-economic structure. And no, that’s *not* hyperbole.  The thing is, Wikinomics is still in its infancy, and while there are some promising case studies from early adoption of this new social model, there’s going to be a few uphill battles along the way before it settles out into a finely-tuned model of economic collaboration and intellectual partnerships.

But we’re getting ahead of the point here. Let’s back up and explain. In the book Wikinomics, Tapscott and Williams are presenting a new look at some of the ways that the business model is shifting from what they term the “command and control” model whose legacy we operate under even now.  Before we get into the ‘wikinomics’ aspect of things, let’s take a closer look at command and control thinking.

Command & Control

We should all find this model extremely familiar since it’s the prevailing model of approaching resource allocation today.  Basically, it’s tied fundamentally with the idea of ownership. When you make something, be it an expression of an idea, an actual object, a development process, or a technology, the underlying assumption is that the creator of this -thing-, whatever it is, has ownership. And the owner of a thing commands how that thing will behave, and to what use or purpose it will be applied, at least on the theoretical level.  Ownership is concerned with controlling how these items or assets are used and narrowly defining terms for any sort of asset that you happen to own.

Money is made by taking this asset into the marketplace and charging people for different kinds of access to the asset. It could be allowing the public to have one viewing of a movie you filmed, all for the price of a $9.25 matinee ticket. If could be charging a structured, contractual fee structure to allow someone else to modify or repurpose your idea in certain, limited ways. Under that particular example, the money comes from the temporary access and limited control that the owner assigns to paying individuals, a/k/a “licensing”. All of these models are part of the Command & Control economy.

 Under the Command & Control economy, it behooves the creators of certain items to position them in such a way as to lead to dependence upon the brand, not just the individual item. Consider Microsoft Office Suite of applications. They’re designed to work together, but as with most Microsoft applications, they don’t exactly play well with others. The Microsoft brand is protected, doggedly, because for all of its innovation, Microsoft is definitely a Command & Control economic player.

A New Approach

Wikinomics, on the other hand, as defined by Tapscott and Williams, offers a way of thinking about ownership from a collaborative approach. They define four main principles that helps to define what they term Wikinomics to be all about: being open, peering, sharing, and acting globally (2006).  Being open seems to be all about adopting a model based on transparency and not secrecy, allowing access to resources and assets which were previously strictly controlled, and overall learning to play your cards face-up on the table, not close to your chest. To an extent.   Peering is all about inviting the efforts of true collaboration and empowering a group decision-making process to behave in a way that not only allows but motivates and relies upon the network of peers and colleagues working together. Sharing is the vehicle whereby openness and peering is enabled, being the process of re-evaluating or in places even relinquishing traditional ‘command and control’ strategies for thinking about asset management and intellectual property. And the last principle of acting globally means that the membership and participation in the collaborative efforts is truly opened to global participation, not just hierarchical multinational influence. (Tapscott & Williams, Wikinomics, 2006)

All of this doesn’t seem like much at first glance. After all, companies have used the buzzwords of ‘collaboration’, ‘cooperation’, and ‘partnership’ for a while, without ever stepping outside of the baliwick of Command & Control thinking.  However, traditionally these words were applied in relation only to surface-level shifting of management strategy, not applied to the entire global business culture.

Can we get a witness, please?

Let’s face it; there’s would-be prophets and doom-peddlers in every age, and modern day is no different. There’s an entire bookselling market niche which does nothing more than serve up the latest fads and trends in organizational thinking as the business world has struggled to evolve and develop. Some of them work, and some of them (ach-sixsigma-oo!) do not. But all of them are merely variations played out on top of the Command & Control model of the business game.

Wikinomics has already produced results, and the book goes into a couple of them. One of the primary differences between Wikinomics and Command & Control thinking seems to lie at the foundation of each philosophy. Command & Control operates from the traditional economic pattern- there are finite resources and the scarcity of an object helps to determine its value, so you want to ideally corner markets and control as many high-demand low-supply assets as you possibly can, and therein lies the key to wealth generation in the marketplace. Wikinomics operates from the point of view that of all the resources on the planet, human intelligence is the renewable, ever-expandable, and social model we should be working with. Wikinomics starts from the concept of a foundation of abundance which lies out there just waiting for the right team of entrepreneurs or community-members to gather together to tap into it.

Don’t go door to door hawking Wikinomics just yet

Yeah. Cooperation. Collaboration. Untapping the power of the community. Focusing on the team. Sharing in a supportive environment. Let’s just throw open the doors of every vault and start up the great intellectual socialism of the new millennium! — Huh? Let’s not and say we did.

For one thing, Wikinomics is an ideal right now. In certain cases it is ready to go and working fine, but let’s not miss one crucial point regarding the Command & Control paradigm. Wikinomics argues for the need for less command & control, but it doesn’t say you have to be careless about it. In the Introduction, Tapsott & Williams tell a story about a mining company who released all of their proprietary geological data to the world wide web and offered some prize money for the solutions that could help them strike gold, literally. While definitely an innovative story, let me highlight one all-too-important fact: the one thing that the mining company retained was Command & Control over the land for which the geographic data had been collected. They could afford to post all of their data because the company was dying out already, and even if someone could use that data to locate a potential vein of gold, property rights were very clear as to who could actually prospect on that land.

Balance is always good

Let’s keep that caveat firmly in mind as we continue to look forward regarding the New Collaboration empowered by the internet. Even though we want to attain a much greater degree of collaboration, the Wikinomics principles are not meant to be applied without a strategic evaluation of current business models. In order for the whole concept of Wikinomics to gain further ground in reality, everyone needs to seriously examine just where the control should be lessened, and to which degree. Let’s not forget that piracy of all kinds still exists in the world today. Whether the pirate rips off someone from the Command & Control model or steals the unprotected work of the Great Collective in order to sell it for a profit back on the Command & Control side of the economic fence, it’s still an act of Piracy. Add in the tendency now to build entrepreneurial business models almost exclusively around the Wikinomics model and you start to run the risk of being -too- open and -too- sharing for our own good.

Luckily, the legal community has already provided us with some level of protection, in the form of Creative Commons licenses. Interestingly enough, Tapscott and Williams mentioned Bill Gates in specific as disliking the very notion of Creative Commons (Wikinomics, 2006). Let’s examine why.

Creative Commons Licenses vs. Command & Control

In order for Wikinomics to really take hold, it relies strongly on the idea of the Creative Commons, or the common body of assets/knowledge/intellectual property which are intentionally put up for share among the rest of the online community. Creative assets, to which everyone holds as part of the Common copyright. There is a website for the non-profit organization called ‘Creative Commons’ which explains it more in depth. However, essentially what the artists, authors, and content generators of the new online community can do is develop a license which asserts legal protection to their work, and allows them to specify what levels of openness and sharing are allowed when working from that source material.

What this does is creates a pool of knowledge and assets whose originators (and therefore, under law, whose ‘owners’) are voluntarily allowing to be shared. Over time, with sufficient participants and content generation, the Creative Commons would create an essentially free resource for use by the community under minimal restrictions set by their originators. Why buy the milk from Command & Control authority models when you can source (and share, and remix, and repurpose in many cases) the cow for free?

A Task of Interpretation

Wikinomics only works when a significant body of users embrace its principles and take pains to share assets within the great collaborative whole. The interesting thing is that customers and end-users have been gleefully adopting exactly such a habit of support, some (like me) actually revelling in the fact that commonly-held assets directly empowers society, not corporations. While I enjoy getting corporate paychecks, it’s time that we wrestled back some control and allowed competition in the marketplace model to exist not just between companies, but between companies and individuals alike.  The internet seriously levels many playing fields of access and communication, so it’s only natural that the Command & Control thinking is under serious attack.

This isn’t to insist on blindly following some charismatic dogma foisted upon us by Yet Another “Business Guru” or two. There is a real task ahead of us if we’re going to continue to develop and support the model of Wikinomics as a general platform for the future. We need to not only study and understand the way in which the collective global users are moving into this new model, we need to examine how to transition off of the legacy business models to make best use of this growing transition.

Bitten, and Hard

With all of this said, however, I’m all for the Wikinomics model. In fact, I can’t believe I’ve slept this long through the greatest social revolution of my lifetime!  Please understand that I’m a member of Generation X, right smack in the middle of it (born in 1971). I’ve come to hate the Baby Boomer’s generation just out of principle, since they started a social revolution and then quit once things actually got tough and looked like they required sacrifice. I’ve felt a little bad about not adopting the model of revolution that raises nothing but hackles. And I’m happy to say that this kind of social reorganization is something in which I see vast potential. I’m ready to join my cause, especially since real change is already coming about because of it.

The difficulty lies in finding that balance, and finding a way to avoid being totally ripped off in the process. There’s a level of trust in the collaborative process, but it would be nice if we could avoid the “…died penniless” epitaph. 

 Still, I have to say, the application of the Wikinomic model has definitely caught my interest. I’m already considering developing a white paper which outlines a way to completely revise the traditional Creative Agency model so that it works more on the principles of Wikinomics and less on the Command & Control structure. If I can find out how to streamline profits and increase ROI, I think I’ll have a meal ticket right there.  Of course it’ll be circulated as part of the Creative Commons, though. In a very real way, I have to trust in the ideology that the collective efforts of bored geniuses all around the globe will be able to open up possibilities beyond what I can see. And at its heart, that spirit of trust and cooperation is what Wikinomics is trying to build into the very way that the world does business.

Anyone want to start singing songs from Hair? No singing? That’s okay… I’ve got a kickin’ mashup between Sesame Street, Marilyn Manson, and Madonna to ‘Age of Aquarius’ I’ll share with you.

Okay, I don’t, but hopefully you get the point. The future is here. As Tapscott and Williams (Wikinomics, 2006) said,

“A power shift is underway, and a tough new business rule is emerging: Harness the new collaboration, or perish.”

References

  • Tapscott, D. & Williams, A. (2006). Wikinomics (Intro & chap. 1). New York: Portfolio.

Figures.

Robert Jordan died.

The author. The guy who was writing the WHEEL OF TIME series. Yeah, I’m showing my geek side here, but I’m already blogging about interactive communications, so ‘geek’ as a tag to describe me is sort of implied in the cosmic XML anyway.

Why is this important to know? 

The Wheel of Time is a series which is currently 11 or 12 volumes long, all books weighing in at the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire size or larger, all chronicalling the epic fantasy adventures of a gritty anti-hero fighting a reluctant and complicated battle against the forces of evil. Yeah. Huge monstrosities of fantasy adventure and action.

 Huge -unfinished- monstrosities, that is. I have to devote some serious time to finding out just what the heck is going to happen with the Wheel of Time series. Did Jordan write a farewell plan, letting us all in on his vision? Did he assign another writer to carry on the canon?

 This is important shit, man. I’ve been following this story for over a decade now. It’s not just entertainment anymore, it’s personal!

Condolences to the family 

 Of course the decent, human side of this geek does indeed grieve for the loss of such a brilliant author, and wishes to extend to the family of James Oliver Rigney, Jr. (Robert Jordan is a pen name) deep condolences in their time of loss. I’m sure they find it particularly ungratifying that their relative has died at the tender young age of 58 and all that folks like me can do is gripe about him finishing the series of books. However, it is precisely because of that series of books that I even know about Mr. Rigney in the first place, so please don’t think too unkindly of this humble net geek.

Time for me to see what information I can scare up from my contacts (nebulous to be certain) within the world of 6th Avenue’s publishers.

Why does this affect me? 

 Why do I care? Because back a few years when the text-based MUSHes (Multi-User Shared Hallucinations) ruled the ‘net, I was privileged to belong to a crew of online volunteer administrators who put together and ran the Tales of Ta’Veren MUSH. My ‘wizard handle’ was Balefire, for those who might remember the good old days of yore. And no, being a ‘wizard’ had nothing to do with the game, it was what the admin accounts were called, similar to the way that the administrators for World of Warcraft are called ‘GMs’ or ‘Gamemasters’. I would have preferred to be called a GM, but it wasn’t up to me.

We were responsible for coding and building the game’s infrastructure, and players would come and roll up characters and play out consensual Roleplay scenes as though they were characters in the thematic world of the Wheel of Time. Jordan wrote with such incredible details, the chief wizard, Saidar/Rhonda Peters actually created a Wheel of Time Concordance, to help fans keep facts and details straight. At the time, Book 4 had just come out and she could no longer update the Concordance. By the time of his death, Jordan had cranked out the 11th volume, and he got no less detailed or involved as time went on. Jordan is Tolkien-esque, but modern, gritty, and a hundred times as long.

Yeah, I’m a geek. But I sure hope that he passed the torch to someone. Either that, or we’ve got this generation’s version of Dickens’ THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD… unfinished upon his death, and everyone wanting to know the damned ending.

Tension Between Artistic Innovation and Intellectual Property Rights

We’ve been looking at mashups and convergence this week in ICM501, and Baharriat brought up an excellent point about the legality of shanghai-ing the original material for use within the mashups.

I’d like to talk for a bit about how wimpy I’ve become as an adult compared to the wild nature of my unfettered youth. It used to be that I really didn’t care about the intellectual property rights associated with different graphics and music available on the web. I just kind of went right on working until I got the inspired idea out in pixels for the world to see. Now, this was mid-1990’s so no one ever visited my excuses for websites, and there wasn’t exactly any kind of a social reaction to IP violations quite yet. Tasini vs. New York Times was still a precedent, which basically meant that as far as the U.S. Supreme Court was concerned, contracts regarding publication and republication rights were null and void when it came to reprinting or repurposing content for use on the web. Tasini didn’t last, however, and was later reversed as a precedent by some other case, if I’m recalling correctly.

Nowadays, I actually think twice about just grabbing things and working them. The internet has gotten a lot more civilized, and now that companies make their fortunes off of internet use and web-based marketing, the lawyers are watching the ‘net for copyright infringement. At least a little bit.

There’s still a sense of being able to get away with indiscriminate sourcing of original material for use in things like Mashups, usually tied to the idea that there’s so many folks out there using the Internet that true enforcement is absolutely impossible to regulate. And to a certain degree, this is true.

For myself now, however, I have to really consider where I stand on the use of access and violation of intellectual property rights. It doesn’t help that the legal industry is still struggling to catch up to the technological innovation of the internet and the web. Precedents are changing rapidly instead of settling out for long stretches of time as usually happens with case law. Jurisdiction is another issue, since the server which delivers the files requested might well lie outside of the country in which the web surfer is browsing.

I don’t know exactly what to think. As an artist myself, I feel that it’s simultaneously important for me to be able to work from inspiration regardless of source materials. As an artist, though, I would also be upset to find that someone had ripped off my work. An old college buddy of mine plagiarized one of my ideas for design homework. She got away with it, too, because although I raised a stink, the professor gave her credit for the homework anyway. I have to say that if it happened to me -now- the discussion would be taking place between the professor, the student, and the Dean of Students or the Student Disciplinary Board.

So I’m not sure how I feel. There’s got to be some kind of a change that’s going to happen in the realm of intellectual property laws, if only because in legal terms a law which is unenforceable is not considered to be a valid law, and it becomes almost impossible to regulate every aspect of the internet, if only because someone is working just as hard to create non-regulated workarounds, hacks, and pirated solutions.

I definitely think that this is something we need to consider carefully as future leaders of the interactive communications field. Whether we weigh in on the side of the legal precedents and rendering unto Michelangelo what is Michelangelo’s, or we opt for the free-for-all aspect of the earlier internet culture, we’re going to have to live with the consequences of one or the other, until someone finds a way to satisfy both.

Mashups

Placeholder for my post. I’m still trying to get the time to spend exploring the web to find some Mashups that are particular to my interests. I’ve got some ideas, but there just hasn’t been time to “surf” for me. I’ll tackle it tomorrow on my day off.

Technically “late” for the homework assignment, I hesitate to say that I’m really not motivated much by grades. But this ‘learning’ stuff is fun enough to make me do my homework even when my schedule hasn’t given me the time to do it properly.

At least I got my reaction paper done, though.

The Death of Design Professionalism, A Mixed Reaction

My first corporate job after getting my Bachelor’s was working as a Purchasing Agent for IBM as a full-time temporary employee. The purpose for having me on site was to provide temporary coverage in the purchasing agent role while the corporation reassigned, transferred, or laid off the full time employees who had miraculously managed to avoid IBM’s massive 1990’s layoffs.  My role was to be a corporate-sponsored bridge demolitionist, enabling the ultimate dismantling of the very corporate structure that employed me.  (Despite having every reason in the world to hate us, the full timers whose job functions we were allowing to be slowly destroyed harbored no overt ill will toward us. I can’t say I would have been as gracious in the reverse of the situation).

Ever since that time, I’ve adopted only one real hard and fast rule concerning my employment habits: never take a job whose ultimate goal is the destruction of that job itself.  I got to witness firsthand the human element affected by the dispassionate realignment of IBM’s internal business structures, and I never wanted to be in a similar position again. After reading a section of Negroponte’s 2003 article entitled Soft Architecture Machines I found myself reacting from a gut-level instinct with outright hostility. Let me explain.

Architecture and Design

The basic premise of the article surrounds the intention or desire to create an interactive technology which would essentially remove or reassign certain priorities in varying professions that traditionally rely on a “contracted expert” or “consultant” kind of model. Negroponte talked about Architecture, but he also used language broad enough to slam home for me when he wrote in broad strokes about professionalism in the world of Design.

The article spoke of what ultimately would severely lessen the role of the professional designer/architect by figuring out a way to create an interactive computer solution which would somehow make available the ‘expertise’ in creating the product (in Negroponte’s case, a house or domicile) and allow the final customer/end user to be able to harness those professional considerations to produce their own desired design. Negroponte immediately touched upon the idea that in order to being making a conceptual or algorythmic model of processing for the computer, we need to first evaluate the underlying component roles present when a professional architect does their thing.

I’m not buying it.

Not from a reaction point of thinking that it’s impossible, but more from the aspect of Pandora’s Box. Quite honestly, as a design professional myself, I look at the conceptual patterns and desires for empowerment of the individual in a subjective process such as design and I shudder away from it because I’m afraid. I’m scared that I’m once again back at IBM and now actively participating in the gradual disintegration of the very structure upon which up until now I’ve depended upon for my livelihood. It’s totally an emotional reaction, which doesn’t invalidate it but also doesn’t really give the ideas a fair shake.

I was slightly mollified by the notion that such a professional-replacing interface has yet to be successfully produced. I’m not surprised:  Aesthetics represents an extremely subjective arena of inquiry, even for only a theoretical model. The diehard professional in me likes to cling to the belief that the reason that I’m a graphic designer in the first place is because of the nebulous idea of ‘talent’. I persist in this emotional attachment even though I know full well that talent, if it even exists or is possible to quantify, only forms the barest minimum of the required skillsets that designers call into play. We are practiced after years and years of thinking visually, we have a corpus of experience behind us that informs us as to what kinds of solutions tend to be received by our clients as successful, and what sorts of things tend not to please the viewer. All of this comes from the accumulated experience of doing the job, however, so I really had to think… what, exactly, am I being paid for?

Damn you, Power Point!

Negroponte made another good point. He quotes Yona Friedman (1971), “With the elimination of the designer (the professional one) from the design process — by vulgarizing the ‘objective’ elements in the process, and by introducing a simply understood feedback concerning potential consequences of individual decisions on the whole  — the paternalistic character of the traditional design process will disappear.” (Emphasis mine). More simply phrased, if you give end users a way to begin to approach doing what the professional designers do, you will profoundly alter the role that the designers play. In Friedman’s way of thinking, you end up ultimately removing the professional from the model.

I have to say that I agree with Friedman, but only to a point. PowerPoint, to be precise. In my own professional experience, as PowerPoint has grown in acceptance among the general business world, the dialogue between my clients and I has also shifted. PowerPoint has given a tool to the non-designers which allows the formation of simple symbolic structures and gives a certain extremely limited degree of control over simple visual representations to those people who generally speaking can be assumed to have had no formal design or aesthetics training whatsoever.  The result of PowerPoint’s ubiquity on the culture of design professionals can be seen by the form that the client communication takes. Whereas prior to the saturation of the market with this “pseudo-design technology” my clients viewed me as a consultant and communicated with me by asking questions, nowadays my clients no longer ask me questions but instead tend to launch right into giving directives.

Gone are the days of the Dot-com boom when everyone knew that what made websites stand out and get results was how they looked. We were coming off of a time when everyone was discovering just how easy HTML coding was, and there were some pretty hideous examples of websites out there attempting to do business and generate revenue.  Back then, there was a certain mystique with which my clients would approach me. I was viewed as the keeper of a mystery, someone who did things with a computer that the average person didn’t know how to do.

Graphic Designers As the New Secretaries

Alas, with PowerPoint on every executive’s desktop, everyone feels like they’re an Art Director. My latest set of freelance assignments had less to do with producing top notch Creative material for various high-end agencies and clients, and was more of a stint being some Marketing professional’s secretary. Just like in days of old when executives dictated letters to their secretaries because they were the keepers of the keys to the typewriters, now I find myself being given several PowerPoint files and horribly amateur graphics and being told to “make them pretty.”

Gone is the aesthetic role of the professional designer in all but the highest positions, which are now surrounded by some of the most intense professional competition you’ll find. Here to stay, apparently, is a corporate culture which views graphic designers as ‘people who understand the computer’, not as ‘people who understand design’. That role, the role of one who understands design, is assigned mentally by each marketing executive whose .ppt files I have to translate magically into some other format or another to themselves.

 PowerPoint has definitely increased the user interaction between the marketing/account executive branches and the graphic designers and print specialists. I’m just not certain that opening up this profession to a level of user-direction like this is doing much in the way of helping the field of graphic design. In fact, I would personally argue from my own experiences that the graphic designer has been stripped even of the level of input into the overall process which could actually help the client achieve superlative results. Unless you feel like fighting for the right to make suggestions, graphic designers nowadays often find themselves wondering where this wonderful career is going to end up. I would be able to make a lot more money for myself as a designer if I were to kowtow to the growing trend and just try to sell my services as a secretary.  Perhaps in the future you’ll see the death of administrative assistants in favor of graphic designers assigned to various high level corporate functionaries. (Egads, let it not come to that!)

Variable Data Printing: Giving Negroponte a Fair Shake

I do have to concede, however, that my reaction to all of this is decidedly mixed. I can certainly think of some very positive possibilities that Negroponte touches on, even within the world of design professionals. However, the success is dependent upon the idea of only going so far down the garden path to user-driven experiences, and no farther. To illustrate what I mean, I’d like to point you to the field of Variable Data Printing, or VDP.

Variable Data Printing is something that is being offered in many places on the web which generated quite a bit of buzz a few years ago. Enough buzz that TracyLocke sent me for formal training to Boston to learn how to use a proprietary solution in the VDP industry, PageFlex.  What PageFlex does is allow you to create template forms that are posted online. End users come to your PageFlex-based site, and they can customize various aspects of the templates that you provide. The data on the page is Variable.

The real dream for VDP is that when it works well, it can completely simplify the ordering process. The proprietary server-software allows for the customization of the printed materials desired by the client, and the software not only generates the overall scheme of what is to be customized and what is to remain static, but it generates a high-resolution output file that can be handled in a few different ways, the most common of which involves being sent directly to a printer/output vendor who then immediately prints on demand the order and then ships it out.

Let’s think about this for a moment in terms of Negroponte. Looking at Variable Data Printing from Negroponte’s article, it becomes clear very quickly that the Pageflex solution (at least the one I was trained in, I confess I have not yet studied up on any new iterations of the software solution) doesn’t actually remove the design professional from the process. Instead it front-loads all of the design work because a designer is still needed to determine which kinds of templates will be offered, what aspects of them need to be customizeable, and every component piece needs to be aligned correctly and coded as user-selected variables.

Not an Exact Match

This doesn’t exactly work the way that Negroponte visualizes the ultimate non-professional solution. For one thing, it’s front-heavy, and the amount of variability is strictly controlled. I personally think that this is to its credit, however. By offering limited choices, professional and aesthetic standards can be maintained. What is needed, however, is some kind of AI algorhythm which understands the component pieces of the design process, or at the very least how the end user works.

In this case, the lack of Negroponte’s desired vision for a viable computer-based means for helping end users to make up their mind or extend their capacity for user input to cross into the professional design realms, this lack is not enough to make us abandon our hopes for PageFlex as an intermediary solution in the world of VDP. Instead, studying Negroponte’s proposed changes for the interaction model can be extrapolated by the designers of the template choices. One of the things that has always been limiting to non-design professionals is the fact that designers are partially being relied on for their imagination. It can be fairly straightforward to see things one way, but it can take an innovative and inventive design professional to be able to suggest solutions or options which not only weren’t explicitly called for in the project specifications, but also weren’t even imagined as possibilities.

To that end, the human component can be very adequately married within the PageFlex-type applications for VDP. However, what it requires is a broadening of the initial offerings of different templates and styles. Because not every user is going to be as skilled as another, there needs to be some level of variation which can allow those who require the hand-holding and slimmed down functionality that I, personally, always associate with Microsoft Products, as well as the talent-empowering robust and feature-rich interfaces that I have traditionally associated with Adobe products.

Still Yelling At the Folks in Marketing

The trouble with all of this is that these tools, being new avenues for how to go to business in the modern sense, need some form of evangelist or champion within any given organization who hopes to turn this product into a healthy return on investment. Because the tool is new, now, it lies outside the typical imagination of the folks who are usually responsible for getting the client to try (and pay for!) new technological advances: the marketing folks. That’s not to imply that marketing folks are unimaginitive, but rather that until someone has been exposed to not just the demo but also seen some practical applications in action, it doesn’t come up as an option.  That, then, is our role within the broader career field to come. We need to find a way to communicate the possibilities in meaningful fashion so that these new technologies can be put through their paces and the boundaries of the possible expanded for everyone.

Beyond what you can doodle with in PowerPoint.

Until that day, I retain my mixed feelings about Negroponte’s idea of stripping away the human professional from the design equation.  And I dread the concept of graphic designers ending up as the secretarial pool of the new millennium, seen not as guides to the world of visual aesthetics, but instead ‘tools’ themselves to compensate for the fact that most business executives don’t have a design eduction, but would really like to be able to tap into one as a form of internal advertising for attention to their projects and ideas.

Damn you, PowerPoint. Let’s hope tech like PageFlex can save the day.

References
Negroponte, N. (2003). Soft Architecture Machines (Selection). In Waldrip-Fruin & Montfort (Eds.), New Media Reader, Cambridge: MIT Press.