December 2001, www.howdesign.com

 
TECHNOLOGYDIGITAL DESIGN
Weaving the Web
by Allison Hunter

For a cutting-edge group of digital literati, print is dead. Long live the Web.

The Internet was supposed to annihilate the printed word. Instead, after 10 years of electronic publishing, the Web has merely imitated the "antiquated" medium. Until now. An unsatisfied and unpaid crew of writers, poets and critical theorists have enlisted a postmodern Web designer—who just happens to read and understand literary theory—to help them finally eliminate the vestiges of print.
    Anne Burdick is that designer.
A professor at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, and California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Burdick, 38, is an award-winning print and digital designer. She recently received the prestigious Leipzig Book Fair award, "The Most Beautiful Book in All the World," for her design of a dictionary of idioms written by obscure Austrian social critic named Karl Kraus.
    Even at $200 a pop, the 2,000 copies, printed in 1999, have sold out already. Unphased by this coup, the Los Angeles-based designer lives for the rush of future work.
    Her most recent project, redesigning the Web journal electronic book review (www.electronicbookreview.com) for the second time, began five years ago when editor Joe Tabbi discovered Burdick in the pages of Emigre magazine. When Burdick guest-edited two issues in 1995, she encouraged writers and designers to work more collaboratively. Burdick also incorporated literary theory into her design.
    "I hadn't seen designers reading people like Deleuze and Derrida before,"Tabbi says. He tracked down Burdick and convinced her to guest-edit two issues ebr. Then, Burdick accepted the unpaid position of design director.
    "I knew ebr was a place where writers were thinking about the visual form of their writing," Burdick says about the first time she saw the electronic journal dedicated to cutting-edge literary theory, creative fiction and art.
     Frequent guest-editor Steve Tomasula says it's hard to find groundbreaking designers like Burdick who also read literature. In addition to having a great eye for design, she actually cares about literary criticism. "She gets all the assumptions of literature, especially the kind of literature that ebr does. And ebr isn't afraid to use the ten-dollar word," Tomasula laughs.

 



ebr 3.0: Burdick's new interface, still very much a work-in-progress, performs the weave metaphor rather than illustrates it. The Weavemap view shows the entire journal at a glance. "You could scan the weavemap and get a visual tapestry of phrases and keywords," says Burdick, who is excited about "reading" ebr in a whole
new way.

ebr 3.0: The Post view comes with funky extras that remain hidden until activated.











A small red icon indicates the text has been "glossed," which means it's been commented on by a guest curator. If a user clicks on the icon, the gloss appears in the left-hand column.

 

 

 

When any grey highlighted words are clicked, the right column displays a "Linkmap" that can be "read" as poetry and used to find related material on the site.


ebr 2.0: Designer Anne Burdick's first bandwidth-friendly design for ebr relied on print to inform its "cover" splash page. From the beginning, Burdick played with the capabilities of the Net using a simple animated GIF. The word "book" flashed onscreen in three different typefaces that represented print history.


ebr 2.0: "Threads," which linked to related ebr material, were embedded in new essays as they were posted.

ebr 2.0: Burdick tied in a literary reference (the text as textile) with a "pullthread" linked to the top of the screen.






Anne Burdick's 7 Graphic-Design
Commandments

1. Imagine the possibilities, but work within limitations.

2. Be open to input and always willing to revise.

3. A collaboration is only as good as the contributors; when the contributors are good, the richness expands exponentially.

4. Never underestimate the value of programmers, who can be the creative contributors rather than strict technicians.

5. Don't try to throw every idea you have into each project.

6. Edit, edit, edit; simplify but don't reduce.

7. The availability and interest of mercenary programmers is in direct correlation to the state of their economy.



VERSION 2.0

Burdick launched ebr’s first official interface, ebr 2.0, in 1997. Until then, ebr had been put together by the contributing writers and programmers since its online debut in November 1995. Burdick began by teaching herself HTML, while using Microsoft Word to lay out early designs. (Today, her Web tools include Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and GoLive, and Macromedia Dreamweaver.)
  
 For 2.0, Burdick gave the ebr logo a face-lift by adding an animated GIF of the word "book." It appears in a succession of typefaces (Garamond, Trixie and Russel Square), which represent the various stages of print history: fine printing, typewriting and electronically displayed text. She also created an electronic "pull thread" which looked like a vertical dashed line at the bottom of text pages. The reader can "pull" or click on the end of this thread to move to the top of the screen.
    This textile metaphor also emphasized a woven relationship between past ebr topics and current articles. The ebr team envisioned a site where visitors could explore topics or ideas organically, moving freely between new and archived content. But after designing her second issue, Burdick realized that
relationship wasn't working. "We were not enabling the kind of weaving activity that we wanted to have at the site. We just had a picture of it," she explains. So Burdick decided to do something about it.
She asked ebr readers and contributors for feedback about the site—which led to an all-out deconstruction of her design. "There were media theorists, literary theorists, art historians and all kinds of people contributing to this discussion," Burdick recalls. "It just blew me away."
    Some comments included challenging questions: "How are we going to kill information?" One contributor read the database as a cultural producer: "The database is not only an archive, but also a kind of dialogic facilitator." Another suggested the use of hypertext to enable a literary deejay: "Play the links like a musical instrument. A personal Re-Mix. An Academic Re-Mix. Guest Re-Mixes. Mix-It Yourself." This concept became the metaphor for the newest interface.

 

 

VERSION 2.0

Burdick’s next step in reinventing ebr was to find a programmer who could understand her vision and make it a reality. Ewan Branda, an ace programmer, MIT graduate, architect and intellectual signed on for the job.
    Burdick knew she had found her man when Branda refused to add hyperlinks to her design without questioning their literary significance. "Wouldn’t a link at the end of every paragraph over-emphasize the role of the paragraph?" he asked. Burdick explains, "Here is a programmer who's thinking about literary and semantic repercussions of programming decisions. To me that’s just so exciting."
     With the help of Branda and graphic designer Sophie Dobrikei, Burdick has finally pushed the electronic medium into its own and away from the print paradigm. Using interactivity through Java technologies (JSP for front-end presentation, Servlets and Java components for back-end processing and data access), the main view of ebr 3.0 shows the entire journal at once. For the first time, readers can choose how they want to view the magazine content—by type of article, author, date, etc.
     But using a database-driven site comes with technical restrictions. When users look for a particular essay, they’ll have to recognize its title rewritten in sixteen-character shorthand—the limit for a database text field.
     Burdick compares this technical restriction to the constraints used by the members of experimental French literary group Oulipo who would, for example, write an entire novel without using the letter "e." In fact, Burdick says Oulipo is "the single most major influence" on the journal’s redesign.
     Other 3.0 innovations include "weavers," "glosses" and a "Linkmap." Weavers are members of the ebr community who are invited to comment directly on texts. Their comments, or "glosses," can take the form of sentences or hyperlinks, which can be read selectively.
     The first weaver, Steve Dietz, curator of new media at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, wove the "Music Sound Noise" issue which went live in November. Dietz, who has curated many online exhibits for the Walker, took the first stab at remixing literary posts and at glossing ebr essays and projects.
     "The pages are sent to the client with all glosses hidden, and to view them the user can click on a small ellipsis-type icon at the end of the paragraph," Branda explains.
     When the reader clicks on an ellipsis, a shorthand title appears in the column to the right. Clicking phrases in this Linkmap sprouts new links to other topics within the journal. If you click, say five times, you might find yourself reading a sort of poem such as "embodied memory…designwriting… hum a few bars…in order to memorize…text in his head."
     "I'm really interested in this idea of a wordmap and of alternative structures for writing. To me, that's a really interesting marriage between writing and design," Burdick says. "It's my favorite thing in the whole wide world."

Allison Hunter is a Web designer and artist whose project Signmakers was reviewed in ebr 11.

SOURCEBOX

Ewan Branda, Altadena, CA; ewan@datsun.net

Anne Burdick, Los Angeles (323) 982-0150; anne@burdickoffices.com; http://www.burdickoffices.com

Joe Tabbi, Chicago; jtabbi@uic.edu

Steve Tomasula, South Bend, IN; Steve.A.Tomasla.4@nd.edu

ADDITIONAL
RESOURCES

Print

Emigre magazine, quarterly (800) 944-9021; www.emigre.com

coverThe Medium is the Massage, by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, Gingko Press; 160 pages, $10.36 from Amazon.com

 

Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing, by Jay David Bolter (check Amazon.com for availability)



coverThe Oulipo Compendium, edited by Harry Mathews andAlastair Brotchie, Atlas Press; 335 pages, $19.99. Currently out of print, but you can have Amazon.com look for a used version.

coverOulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, edited by Warren F. Motte, Dalkey Archive Press; 224 pages, $10.47 from Amazon.com

 

Other Online Journals

Alt-X Network—where the digerati meet the literati; www.altx.com

Image [&] Narrative: Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative; millennium.arts.kuleuven.ac.be/narrative/index_main.cfm

Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres; paradoxa.com

Literal Latte: A Journal of Pros, Poetry & Art; www.literal-latte.com

Switch: Social Networks; switch.sjsu.edu