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New Medium Is His Message

A Discussion With Roger Black on Designing for the Internet

June 02, 1997|Greg Miller

Roger Black, one of the most influential designers in print media, spent the 1970s and '80s shaping the looks of such magazines as Esquire, Rolling Stone and Newsweek.

But the 1990s delivered something previous generations of designers only dreamed about: a new medium that offers a new creative landscape. The Internet, Black says, is the first medium "that puts designers in the driver's seat."

So in 1994, Black launched Interactive Bureau, a Web site design firm with offices in New York and San Francisco.

Early clients included USA Today and the Discovery Channel. Lately, the 48-year-old guru has been working with high-profile sites such as MSNBC and @Home Network, a Redwood City, Calif.-based company providing content to cable TV Internet services.

Online publications have been critical of Black, portraying him as a carpetbagger trying to drag out-of-date analog sensibilities into the digital age. But Black has been unfazed, and this year he released a book called "Web Sites That Work"(Adobe Press).

On a recent rainy morning in Silicon Valley, he spoke with Times Silicon Valley correspondent Greg Miller about the good and bad of Web site design. Wearing all black, and surrounded by modular black furniture, he spoke in quick bursts, pausing occasionally to illustrate points by calling up Web sites on his computer.


Question: In your book, you say that Web sites are even more dependent on good design than other media, including print. Why?

Answer: Mostly it's because we haven't defined the medium yet.

In television, there are viewers; in print, there are readers. But I don't think anybody likes the term [computer] "users." The fact that we're not sure of the nomenclature is an indication that we've not defined the medium. We don't know what it is.

Design is trying to Band-Aid the medium together. Design is the way you lead people to whatever the content is. In books or magazines or TV, people take the navigation for granted. You know how to surf channels or turn pages. On the Internet, you just keep thrashing.

[Black opens a parody Web site,, full of nonsensical graphics and pages randomly linked to one another.]

See, this is making fun of the navigation problem. Design is attempting to strap together little pieces of medium and make it clear to the user what's going on. It's the first medium where the designer is in the driver's seat. That's not true in print, and certainly not true in film.


Q: Is the Web an entirely new frontier in design, or do the old rules still apply?

A: Both. It is a totally new frontier, mostly because of the interactivity. But since we haven't understood what it is, all we've got are the old rules.


Q: What are the most common mistakes of Web site design?

A: The No. 1 mistake is people don't put content on the surface. Time after time you get sites that just say, "Welcome." Oh, shut up!

It takes so long to go to a page that if there's no reward, if you don't get a chuckle or get some useful information, it's not worth it. You feel like you're wasting your time.

Maybe the No. 2 problem is too much on the surface. I was at a conference where someone offered this sarcastic advice to designers: "When you're designing a page, always use the fastest processors, the biggest monitors and a T1 line."

But designers often do use those things, and when you go home and you only have a 14.4 modem, forget it. It's a real annoying thing to use the Internet right now.


Q: So there's either too much content or not enough. Is that why you argue that the Web desperately needs editors?

A: That's the whole thing. A lot of experts think that people want to be their own editors on the Web. I don't know where they get this. Editors are essential, because they filter. People want more editors!

I don't believe push technology will change the way we get news, because it's all commodity news bathing you. [Push technology enables computer users to have information delivered to their PCs, instead of retrieving it themselves.] It doesn't offer any perspective. You get that from editors.


Q: But that sounds like the traditional, top-down mentality that so many of the Web's founders revile. Online publications have been very critical of you for suggesting these things.

A: This is what I call the Marxist-Leninist attitude. So much of this reminds me of SDS [Students for Democratic Society, a leftist group] in the '60s. It's so much inflexible ideology. If you diverge from the party line, go join the Trotskyists. These people tend to be very elitist.


Q: But are they wrong?

A: They're not entirely wrong. Take chat. It can be fun to follow chat, and there are newsgroups that are really informative. But if you step out, then try to go back, there are 258 postings you missed. What are you supposed to do?

Wouldn't it be great if an editor could tell you all you really need to read is No. 201 and you're done, or provide a summary.

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