InfoRomanticism on the Internet
Romantic sensibility in the design of online content
To state the painfully obvious: The internet is
becoming more data-intensive. This is both an inevitable and perpetual
reality. This amplifies the call of interface and interaction designers.
However, the skills to transform raw and visceral data into usable information
are useless without a core set of positive principles that imbue work
with a formal and functional resonance. These values may be deemed basic,
but this reaction only rests on the surface. The "basics"
must never be overlooked. And being mindful of these fundamental actions
in the design of online experiences leads to profound results:
- Conceptualize, conceptualize, conceptualize
- Collaborate or evaporate
- Consistently consult past and current examples
Conceptualize, conceptualize, conceptualize
Interface and interaction design is an iterative process. The iterations
stem from asking as many questions as possible no matter how moot or
pertinent: What is the nature of the data? What is trying to be said
with the data? What is trying to be done with the data? What data is
necessary? How much data is being dealt with?
To stimulate the visualization of potential answers,
apply the art of drawing. This takes the form of hard sketches. Other
synonyms include models, diagrams, renderings, thumbnails, storyboards,
flat prototypes, studies, and "wireframes" (a term that I
recently picked up). The benefit of drawing is to quickly provide a
relative map of elements, text and graphics, in a playful format to
expedite exploration of ideas. Drawing promotes an organic growth of
concepts. Toggling between risk-taking and discovery-making is inherent
here. Such a conceptual evolution provides an engaging platform to determine
distinction and relevance of a variety of approaches. This, in turn,
streamlines a concept's approval and translation into code.
Where to begin in conceptualizing an interface
and its interaction may be the first question, if not the most common.
With drawing, beginning anywhere is the liberating stroke.
Collaborate or evaporate
Interface and interaction design thrives on conversation. The interface
is a social construct that requires multiple perspectives, those of
information architects, specification producers, usability experts,
technologists and strategists. The body of knowledge that constitutes
interface and interaction design must complement those of other project
participants. The benefit of a multi-disciplinary approach is the rich
conceptual coverage of what is possible and how it can be realized.
In addition to the value of drawing as a communal
activity in conceptualization, another source to provoke dynamic collaboration
is what I peg as shared thought-logging. An intranet is ideal in this
case to quickly and easily post any issue or idea for open discussion
and decision-making. The search-engine company Google utilizes their
internal web in fostering and gathering thoughts about enhancements
and innovations by their employees:
"Google's idea search starts with an internal
Web page that takes minutes to set up. Using a program called Sparrow,
even Google employees without Internet savvy (there are a few) can create
a page of ideas. That enables the company to cast its net across its
300-plus employees." 
Channeling web technology for internal ideation
provides a means to create and capture conversations percolating in
peoples' heads at any given moment. The result is a true "community
Consistently consult past and current examples
Within the laboratory known as the Visible Language Workshop (VLW),
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which she founded
in 1973 and directed for 20 years, Muriel Cooper's "information
landscapes" is a benchmark example of envisioning information.
Data is imbued with the spatial properties of land represented by undulations,
embankments, openness and escalations. Geography is evident in Cooper's
imaginative take on how data can be experienced. Typography has become
interactive cinematography. Data has taken on an animated dimensional
character to evoke a sense of place.
Before the VLW, new ways of experiencing data
were created at the Office of Charles and Ray Eames. The Eameses' filmic
sense in describing a broad range of subjects from history to biology
was prolific and testifies to their imaginary fusion of art and technology
to educate people about the complex and subtle phenomenons of the world.
The enormous data found in the material and the immaterial was their
"As the Eameses were commissioned to convey
larger and more complex amounts of information in short periods of time,
they developed new media techniques. Their multiscreen presentations
and slide shows fulfilled their belief that learning should be a sensory
and pleasurable experience and that ordinary objects could convey lessons
about major social and cultural issues." 
Muriel Cooper's VLW and the Office of Charles
and Ray Eames, among other examples, are imaginary and passionate precursors
to current and future internet communications:
Inxight Software's "Hyperbolic Tree"
views information as growing-and-expanding branches of cells. The entrant
interacts with an extensive body of data consisting of interconnected
units that can be pushed-and-pulled to reveal or hide other connections
to other sibling units of data.
Morningstar's handling of quantitative data demonstrates
sensitivity in making complex investment data friendly and portable
in a very small space to non-investment savvy users. Thoughtful handling
of typography and color is used to show numerical definition and illicit
comparative relationships amongst diverse groups of data.
SmartMoney's "Map of the Market" initially
appears as a Cubist painting, but the pattern of colored rectilinear
fields is a quantitatively-generated representation of the market's
sectors in real time. The allure of its abstraction invites interaction,
for each sector leads to an array of links pertaining to the stocks
contained within its boundaries. The size of the stock field is determined
by its share of the sector.
Plumb Design's "Thinkmap" shows content-relationships
as animated macro-groups leading to related data. The motion-agitation
evokes a sense of vitality, for the data appears to be breathing, enticing
the user to interact with the data.
What the examples demonstrate is the value found in the fundamental
actions of conceptualization, collaboration and building upon the standards
of pioneers of visual communications. The examples also demonstrate
fusion of imagination and passion in actualizing a vivid experience
of information. The drivers of this romantic goal can be described by
the following challenges:
Pushing the Poetics of Data
- Being mindful of the internet as a pliable medium
for enhancing the voice of data
- Encouraging participation for self-discovery
with the data
- Facilitating wayfinding through dense and dynamic
bodies of data
Celebrating the Creature of Data
- Celebrating data as living information
- Treating data as a body, organic and evolutionary
and as an entity bigger than ourselves
The presentation of data fueled by technological
advancement and societal shifts continually inject excitement into the
Web. In as much as the Gutenberg Galaxy, the printed medium, stirred
a mass exploration of its communicative power. The Web, a digital medium,
has a character that also beckons exploration moreover. It is a brave
new canvas for the interface and interaction designer, whose endogenous
qualities of imagination and passion are needed to make data accessible
on both an aesthetic and pragmatic level. This is Romanticism with transforming
data into usable Information. Such Romanticism is vital in contributing
to the meliorism of the internet age and the information ages to come!
 "How Google Searches Itself" by Fara Warner, Fast Company
magazine, July 2002.
 James H. Billington 1997. The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy
of Invention. New York, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; pp. 15-26.