Indexes: Get me out of here!

Presentation during the 6th International Conference on Typography and Visual Communication. Thessaloniki July,8 2016.

       

   

[Original video published on Youtube in 2016]

   

INTRO   

My name is Nik Levantis and I am a creative working in the design and communication fields. I am also a technology enthusiast adopting early new trends and seeking new ways to move forwards. To get you know me a little better, I want to show you a recent post that I think will describe a lot about me.

You see, now that you have witnessed my free spirit I think you will better understand why I feel somehow imprisoned using all day countless heavy structured indexes especially on the web...

Nowadays, the Web is flooded with loads by alphabetical indexes, chronological indexes, indexes in order of relevance, of importance, menus, sub menus, all sorts of lists that we depend on in order to access information online. To me this is called death by indexes.

Don’t get me wrong though, I do believe that order plays a very important role in finding what we seek, and also that it is a vital quality in design, but I do believe that as users we currently suffer due to the extended usage of indexes online at the moment.

I think that stepping back a little and reflecting, all of us here today, upon the path we have taken shaping the WEB as we know it, and the way we behave in the digital world will give us the opportunity to refresh our understanding of the technologies we use every day and maybe even challenge as to think differently and seek for improvements. 

I have divided my presentation in three different parts. First, I am going to analyse how we got here in a short retrospection of the recent innovations in publishing. In my attempt here today to learn more about the future, I believe that a short reminder of the past will put things in a very interesting perspective.

PAST

I would like to start with my grandpa’s thirst to communicate and how it led him to learn how to type on a computer, even how to exchange emails, despite being a 90 year old who could barely walk without his cane. It wasn’t only his passion for communication that pushed him to overcome his tendency to the old habits, but also his memories from the past when as a journalist he had to deal with typography and typesetting. Printing has become drastically easier through the years that wouldn’t allow himself not to adjust.

I’m not sure if that was every journalist’s story back then, almost 70 years ago, but my grandfather was involved with typesetting a lot. To print a simple column typographers had to place countless digits, one by one, next to each other, on the printing machines of the time. If you wanted to use a bigger size font then you needed a whole new set of bigger digits, not to talk about the variety of weights and styles.

To picture this even better, they needed a huge room only to store all the variations of letter digits required for their publishing work.

Alongside my grand father’s computer skills, came a peculiar habit. He used to print out multiple copies of his texts. It was an excessive amount of waste of course, that I always considered emanated from his memories of publishing frustration. Somehow, I think, he was enjoying that the printer was doing all the work without his involvement.

Since we got rid of all the heavy machinery needed to print and numerous choices of weights and fonts became available at the push of a button, stored in a thin and light portable computer, not to mention mobile devices, you would consider that we became absolutely free. 

As if that wasn’t enough of a, paper started to become irrelevant, as the introduction of screen and the ability to publish online, without the need of paper, revolutionised communication, taking publishing even further.

But as often happens a new solution is also a problem about to emerge.

In the early days of the Internet we used the new screen-oriented medium only as receivers. The easiness of the tool led to an unprecedented information boom replacing encyclopaedias and creating an easy to access information hub. 

Then another revolution came along, one that would enable every user with access to the Internet to have a voice. So every single person became a potential publisher transforming communication online from an asymmetrical experience to a two-way symmetrical one.

Since the so called Web 2.0 was introduced almost 15 years ago there has been a major shift in publishing. The enablement  of millions of people to produce content online via blogging and social media platforms has taken the amount of information published daily off the charts. In 2010 Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said that “Every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation up until 2003. That’s something like five exabytes of data.” Every two days! I would imagine that even this figure is now already irrelevant.

So the recent developments in technology have caused an information boom. But how this change has affected publishing? 

In this part I want to try and analyse our behaviour today. How information age affects the way that the WEB works and looks like? Should we be happy about it?

PRESENT

I mentioned earlier that we aren’t as free as we seem to be, despite the technological revolution. This is mainly because all the information published online is produced through specific platforms under very strict formats. Those platforms have provided Internet users with the technology needed to publish but at the same time they limit our creativity by not providing any set of expressive tools. Take for example, Twitter. If you look at your timeline, all tweets look the same, We all use the same font the same weight, size etc. Even the way we react to someone else’s post is very constrained. What does a like or a dislike on Youtube really mean?

A facial expression could reveal so much more information about the audiences' reaction compared to a simple like or dislike don’t you think? Users of course are not to blame. The problem is that we are in need of those systems in order to communicate and in some cases we haven't even realised how much they limit our self-expression.

But people are creative and inventive too. We have started using letterforms in new ways, not only to write words. We have introduced emoticons (facial expressions using typographic elements), symbols such as hashtags, and other simple concepts such as the repetition of letters to emphasise on something. You would say that the repetition of letters in not really an innovation. But it is.

Imagine a newspaper 70 years ago with 20 or so exclamation marks on the header. They might not even had that many available digits of that size. It would be a complete waste of resources, they would never even have thought of doing something like that. Today, though, it doesn’t cost a thing. But sometimes, letters do not seem enough to express yourself. For example, how would you describe your mood today in a post more effectively than this

Limited expressive formats have led to the exaggeration of the available elements, as described before, but also to the invention of others, creating a very interesting blend of expressive tools. From the usage of image and emoticons to words and even repetitive patterns, letters exist among other expressive elements now. 

Copy culture is another symptom. If we like a post we can simply copy and paste it, without the need to synthesise,  expressing our selves through a new concept that one of sharing. And then others join us and re-share our post, boosting our message.

I took some time and made a visual of how a Twitter feed would look like if everyone was able to use any font they wanted. I tend to compare social media platforms to different printing machines. It helps me realise that those platforms provide customers with variations of the same kind of technology, that they are companies that fight each other in order to develop the most distinctive tool against the competition. As progress is being made, I can envision social media platforms enabling us to use richer expressive tools such as typography and design, advancing at the same time the culture of the digital world. In such a case, design and typography could end up being a concern of a much wider array of people.

Maybe that time will come, it’s just too early yet. For example a few weeks ago Apple presented the updated version of their messages application coming out this fall. I was very happy to realise that, among other effects, they will now be letting users to emphasise by altering a message’s text size, or even by using their own hand writing. It would be so exciting to affect how a digital message looks like, especially when you compare it to the current visually boring application. Maybe similar changes are coming to other platforms soon, as technological capabilities advance. Most of the time, social media are used for entertainment so it would be logical if these platforms were the first on the Internet to become more creative. I believe the industry would have a huge interest to help users be more expressive in their posts. 

But don’t get too excited already, because connecting with people isn’t the Web’s only purpose. There are limitations we haven’t overpassed yet and they are not strictly technological. I want to share an experience. I recently switched from handwritten notes keeping to organising my schedule digitally using one of the available apps. You see the advantage of having my schedule synched in all my devices through the Internet was enough to make me get rid of pen and paper. It wasn’t without sacrifice, though, because those notes were the last kind of information I was handwriting. After a few weeks when I was asked to sign a paper I got very surprised when I realised I almost felt uncomfortable holding a pen. 

So, although social media are the epicentre of communication online as people connect to read others and publish content themselves, they are not the whole web. Take for example Search, if all Google’s search results have to be identical to each other to ease one’s browsing experience (as with the printed yellow pages for example) it happens for a practical reason. Order is needed to make things work. Very strict publishing formats didn’t emerge because someone chose it or simply due to limited technology (as in the social media case), but because user experience alongside programming development demanded it.

This realisation leads to a question. Are we ready to loose our personal impact on the web for practicality’s shake? Is order going to become our only priority as the Internet grows bigger and bigger and the information we need to access is growing every day? This is an existential problem that simply shows how much we depend on technology. Experience has showed us, so far, that If we want to make our way through the web, this flooded by information tool, we need indexing to enable information browsing. There is no other way to access the information we are looking for. But this way, the web has gradually developed to a very dull, monstrous tool, an index of indexes that its nature of data storing threatens creativity.

For example, nowadays, when you are searching for a street’s name you won’t look for a street sign on a building but check out a maps application on your phone. I’m showing here a few street name signs from around the world compared to what we see when we look at a maps application. A lot of character has been lost there don’t you think? Bigger parts of our lives get digital as the time goes by. Is that how boring the future will look like?

Personally I don’t think there is such think as an enemy to creativity. If you are like me, you make a big mess during your inspiration process, when you are up in the air and you don’t let anything get you down. When nothing practical matters and your desk is covered with a lot of stuff, or your computer screen by endless open windows. But when the dust settles down and you find what you were looking for you do clear up your space leading to a sense of completeness. Yes order and creativity coexist. Sometimes not in the same person, but they do work together in life. So in theory I do believe we are going to find balance on the Web too, and I think I have an idea of how this is going to happen in practice. But first I want to talk about our own responsibility as designers. Until now I have talked about the impact that major companies have on the digital culture that as individuals we cannot affect drastically. But those companies do not control everything.

When I sit back and reflect upon our behaviour on the web all I see is that we are obsessed following similar patterns. We follow practises that are not always pleasant not even in line with our creative nature. I believe we have created excuses and the biggest ones are called User Interface and User Experience design. 

In the one hand, anyone who has access to any User Interface library is nowadays considered as a potential UI designer. We have ended up considering everything that looks the same and has the same three strikes button at the top as a menu, for example, to be a good and modern design. A good UX design, on the other hand, would be one that the user could feel totally unfamiliar with but still able to navigate through, using a navigation system that would include only absolutely necessary steps. Design is meant to create new experiences that the users do not need a map to navigate through, but naturally find what they are looking for. In contrast numerous websites, tend to copy the structure of other websites just to use familiar to the user procedures, no matter if they are useful or not.

In fact we are so used to producing similar structures (combining UI and UX) wether this is on websites or applications that those structures have almost become emblematic. I happened to come across this t-shirt the other day and I think it sums up my thought. What you see here? You recognise it right? A common website structure has become so recognisable that could even apply for a Unesco cultural heritage landmark. Is that our idea of design? All this time I am describing what a huge revolution we are going through right now and what endless possibilities we have compared to the industrial age publishing and what we end up with is one website structure being used across almost the whole Web?

Unfortunately, yes, because, we have surrendered. Me and you and everyone has surrendered to the indexing culture. We need to take heart and win back the battle as individuals. I said earlier that I understand why Google's results must be at some level identical to each other. I am hopeful about a change at social media but no-one else has any excuse. We act like we cannot break the pattern. If not us who else is going to think things differently? Every new website is identical to each other. Same menu ideas, same patterns you can see them everywhere, now even on t-shirt.

FUTURE

Hopefully by now you understand my frustration with the Web at it’s current state. I do believe that the situation is not sustainable which is a good thing because it means that change is inevitable. But to which direction?

Well that depends on us too. We should always question the norms whether we are on a dead end or not. We need to challenge our perceptions. Do all websites even need to scroll down? Can’t you make one scroll right, left, up? I am sure it is suitable to follow the technology available but have you never thought of something not possible with our means right now? How are we going to improve the surrounding environment if we don’t seek for the adventure of something new and ground breaking?

I do think there is a game changer right in the corner and it’s called Artificial Intelligence. Why? Because I hope that AI will clean up some space on the web by revolutionising the way we access data and maybe even –hopefully- by killing indexing. I mean, for example, that if the browser is able to limit the endless search results displayed one under the other to only a few reasonable choices then those available choices could easily be given character as they won’t compete to each other. If AI will manage to kill indexing it will be a huge win for creativity.

But beware there is a catch too. Artificial Intelligence might also kill you and me and everyone who will have become depended to what is available and won’t be able to think outside of the box. The true winner will be the one who can invent new ways to do things and will not rest upon the usual practises. 

Lastly, circling back to my grand father, I want to emphasise on something that shows the length we have walked the last few decades, but also reveals potential failures of Artificial Intelligence technology as it will develop. Wouldn’t it be very hard to explain the concept of auto correction, the one that pops up while we type in our keyboards, to my grand father who has spent countless hours typing on a typewriter? I mean 70 years ago they would need to type a whole new page from the beginning if they had made a mistake and now software corrects what we want to say, making sometimes mistakes on our behalf, and there is not even a way to correct that mistake. So we should always have in mind that the technology we rely upon might end upfailing us some time.

Thank you!