by Allison Hunter
a cutting-edge group of digital literati, print is dead. Long live 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
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.
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
ebr 3.0: The Post view comes with funky extras that remain hidden until
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.
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.
2.0: "Threads," which linked to related ebr material,
were embedded in new essays as they were posted.
2.0: Burdick tied in a literary reference (the text as textile)
with a "pullthread" linked to the top of the screen.
Burdick's 7 Graphic-Design
Imagine the possibilities, but work within limitations.
Be open to input and always willing to revise.
A collaboration is only as good as the contributors; when
the contributors are good, the richness expands exponentially.
Never underestimate the value of programmers, who can be the
creative contributors rather than strict technicians.
Don't try to throw every idea you have into each project.
Edit, edit, edit; simplify but don't reduce.
The availability and interest of mercenary programmers is
in direct correlation to the state of their economy.
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.)
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
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.
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
"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."
Hunter is a Web designer and artist whose project Signmakers was
reviewed in ebr
Branda, Altadena, CA; firstname.lastname@example.org
Anne Burdick, Los Angeles (323) 982-0150; email@example.com;
Tabbi, Chicago; firstname.lastname@example.org
Tomasula, South Bend, IN; Steve.A.Tomasla.email@example.com
quarterly (800) 944-9021; www.emigre.com
Medium is the Massage, by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore,
Gingko Press; 160 pages, $10.36 from Amazon.com
Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing,
by Jay David Bolter (check Amazon.com
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.
A Primer of Potential Literature, edited by Warren F. Motte,
Dalkey Archive Press; 224 pages, $10.47 from Amazon.com
Other Online Journals
the digerati meet the literati; www.altx.com
Narrative: Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative; millennium.arts.kuleuven.ac.be/narrative/index_main.cfm
Studies in World Literary Genres; paradoxa.com
Latte: A Journal of Pros, Poetry & Art; www.literal-latte.com
Social Networks; switch.sjsu.edu