Peter Lunenfeld

Matthew Fuller: Peter Lunenfeld is from the Art Center School of Design in Pasadena, and, you can see from his bio in the program, the editor of the much renown media works pamphlet series from the MIT Press. He is also author of Snap to Grid one of the first books that I saw as really trying to work through an aesthetics of this particular medium, and also editor of the Digital Dialectic. In order to plug the books massively we have his fourth coming book Info, Techno, Demo with visuals by Mieke Gerritzen, coming out this autumn from MIT Press. Okay Peter.

Peter Lunenfeld: Matthew and Geert I’m very pleased to have a blazer on so that I look kind of like a demented English public school boy or my neighbor Michael Jackson. Maybe he’s innocent.

So, here we are at the first history of web design. So why not start with a quote from the first historian, Herodotus. “Men trust their ears less than their eyes”, which he wrote in the histories and is also the first advertising line for PowerPoint.

Following along with what Geert and Matthew were saying I’m going to problematize the whole question of a first decade. So the title of this is 19?? To 20?? The Long first decade of web design.

I think that we all agree that any history of web design should start with a picture of Tim Berners-Lee. I think any historical talk should start with a black and white picture. For those of you who need color, there you are. And it’s suppose to run from Tim to I don’t know Joshua Davis. I really like the recursive nature of this; I’m speaking on a podium showing a picture of Joshua Davis speaking on a podium showing a picture of Joshua Davis. Here’s another one screaming. I like that.

So basically this history we’re here for is from the first screen shot, this is actually 1993, this is the first recorded screen shot that we have of Berners-Lee’s browser to Praystation or whatever you want to fill in the blank. Sign post along the way of course would include things like the financing by venture capitalist of Netscape and the perverse fun of the Webbys. We’re going to have to have a diversity from the information overload of the original Yahoo! home page, to the information degree zero of Google. From net artist like, here’s “Backbone” to the dotcommers of Razorfish. I couldn’t quite figure out what I was going to represent Razorfish with; this is a typical kind of overload, a specially designed table from (Nilus?) in Philadelphia for their San Francisco office. Maybe this is better. This comes from, which sells historical artifacts from the stock market, and they say beautifully engraved certificate from the Razorfish Company, this historic document was printed by the United States Bank Note Corporation and has an ornate border around it with a vignette of the famous Razorfish logo. So in other words it is now of course utterly valueless except for collectors of bank notes and various forms of commercial script.

This history is going to run from twisted copper to wireless broadband, from primitive gifs to complex animations. Over the next two days, other speakers may offer you detailed histories of the evolution of the medium. They will follow Berners-Lee’s development of the web as a means to distribute physics papers at CERN, through the release of the first alpha version of the NCSA Mosaic browser for X-Windows in 93, and then on to the frenzy around the spinning off of Mosaic’s development team, lead by Marc Andreesen, to form Netscape in 1994. They will discuss with insiders’ knowledge the browser wars, which I’ve already mentioned; the successive releases of HTML, XML and XHTML; the move from static page design and tables to Cascading Style Sheets (CSS); the often invisible, and I do hope this comes up, but no less crucial design features that enhanced searchability and ranking. I think that that is something that almost never gets discussed in terms of web design itself, but as we all know those are things that absolutely have a huge impact on how a page lives in the world. There are debates over liquid versus fixed layout schemas; and of course that perennial favorite, the use and abuse of Flash.

All of these and more did indeed characterize the first decade of web design that was advertised as the theme of this conference. But, I’m going to propose a different periodization of the history of web design. I posit that the bounding figures are not Marc Andreesen and whomever may be the hot web designer of moment, but rather Mikhail Gorbachev and Osama Bin Laden, and that we are talking about a long decade, the twelve years from 1989 to 2001.

Before I get to Gorbachev and bin Laden, though, I’d like to talk about someone far lesser known, a girl named Paris. In contrast to these giant historical figures I just mentioned, Paris is quite small, she’s only around thirty centimeters, just shy of a foot.

Paris is an I-Girl, and the “I” stands not for internet, as it so often did in the 90s, but instead for “International”. The I-Girls are “globally hip dolls with names such as Rio, Sahara, and Aspen,” who “come with trendy clothing and accessories… everything needed for fun and intriguing adventures all over the world.” The reason I bring her up in this context is that Paris is a web designer, complete with a laptop and other techno accessories.

Now the I-Girls are not Barbie, and Paris was only in release for the Christmas season of 2002, but I put her forward as almost as much justification for this conference as any other would. By the way they no longer release images of Paris so if you’re searching for her laptop its not there. This is another I-Girl I don’t know if it’s Rio, Sahara or Aspen, which aren’t those names for porn stars? Her manufacturer, the Lanard Toy Company, has a global reach: corporate headquarters in Hong Kong, production facilities in mainland China, a design studio in Southern California (a short drive from BMW’s Designworks and Nokia’s Design Studio), offices in New York and London. In short, Paris is not an inside joke for Webby winners, but rather the result of a reasoned calculation that she and her profession would appeal to the aspiration of “tweeners” world-wide (tweeners being that key demographic between childhood and adolescence). Part of what I’ll be discussing this morning is how the less-than-glamorous business of hacking together html code, gathering assets from clients, and interminable scheduling and roll-out meetings could be thought glamorous enough to compete with Malibu Barbie for the hearts and minds of ten year old girls from Athens, Greece to Athens, Georgia.

In short, what was it about the myth of web design, as opposed to its actual practice, that could create the incentive to produce Paris, the I-Girl? Posing this question moves us from the realm of history to that of meta-history. I’m working on my next media work pamphlet with the science fiction author and futurist Bruce Sterling. Its called shaping things and it’s about industrial design. One of the things Bruce and I have been talking about in the development of this book is his concept of metahistory, which he defines as quote “a cultural thesis on the subject of what gone by, what comes next, and what that’s all supposed to mean”. For me metahistories are the sustaining cultural narratives we construct to give us sense of historical place and meaning.

Now, Sterling is talking about vast, historical sweeps, but I think there is room for what I would call micro-meta-histories, and that’s what I’m about to offer here. Web design was the perfect profession for the New Gilded Age of the 1990s, offering the “creative individual” both aesthetic and commercial rewards.

Let’s unpack this in reverse order. The first thing to remember about web design was that it was thought to be a profession with unlimited earning potential, however ludicrous that seems now. With stock options beckoning and high salaries for students just out of or dropping out of school, the Go-Go years of the tech boom offered plenty of jobs that also promised a “post-economic” future. This is one of my favorite silicon valley words; being post-economic means having made so much money that you no longer had to think about money. It was a dream at the time.

But web design also offered a chance to feed the aesthetic side, to escape the circuit board layouts of engineering and the financial spreadsheets of venture capital, allowing the individual to craft things and experiences at which others marvel. That phrase, “the creative individual,” is also key, for who among Generations X, Y and M (the upcoming Mobile or Millennial generations) didn’t, or doesn’t still, fancy themselves “creative?”

The commodification of creativity, and its subsumption into the overarching economic meta-histories of the past quarter century, attached itself to web design. As one of the self-proclaimed early true believers in New York’s Silicon Alley, the then editor of if any of you remember that, noted about her first forays into designing for the web, “It was so new, so exciting. It was punk rock.”

The entire meta-historical mythos of the black jeans wearin’, funky haired coifin’, free pizza-scarfin’, Red Bull swillin’, Razor-scooter ridin’, XML codin’, loft dwellin’, option cashin’ web designer, jelled so perfectly that mass market magazines put them on their covers, whole neighborhoods branded themselves as “creative friendly,” Adopting Richard (Flora’s) notion of the creative class . . . endless loft re-conversions. And half of the advertisers on the 2000 Super Bowl of American football (which features the world’s highest advertising rates per thirty seconds) were dotcom companies. Half of which seem to feature their wild and wacky web designers and the fun they were having, and the money they were making, and the way they were changing the world.

Now given this level of hype and attention it is no wonder that more and more people wanted to get into this world, and something about the word “design” (again as opposed to “engineering” or “finance”) appealed to a huge array of people from other disciplines, or, quite frankly, no disciplines at all. So English majors picked up Web Design for Dummies, people in the marketing department tarted themselves up as, you remember this phrase? “on-line content providers,” and anyone with a computer and a friend who wanted a site built, decided to call themselves web designers. Now, this rebranding is entirely consistent with a lot of other cultural attributes – from the distinctly American fondness for self-creation, to the world wide flexibility of identity in the postmodern era, to, and of course this is really important, the democratizing impulse behind the development of the internet and the web and personal computing to begin with.

There is no denying that the expansion of access and opening of new modes of self-publishing and self-expression were part of what made the first decade of the web so exciting, but we should also remember that for many, this leap into design was also a leap into a void. For all the excitement of inventing the future and riding the economic and technological waves, legions of web designers frankly were not even sure what they were. They tried other names on for size, like “information architect”, or “site developer”, or even “experience maker” every once in awhile, a whole new set of ways to label and talk about, well, design as a process. They knew what the web was, because they used it, and read about how important it was in newspapers, and magazines, and heard about how it was changing the world from television and their friends, but “designer,” the second half of their new names for themselves, well, that was fuzzier. Part of the problem was the ignorance or elision of whole habits of mind, bodies of discourse, and modes of practice that ensued when a generation of people simply adopted the mantle of Designer. It was graphic design in particular that seemed both the inspiration for many of these self-nominated web designers and the unspoken, because unknown, other of the field. For all of the print designers who went on-line, there were thousands more who had no training in graphics or type, and perhaps even more to the point, didn’t even know that there were traditions and discourses from which they might learn.

The issue here is reminiscent of what happened to print designers more than a decade earlier with the advent of WYSIWIG printing and the rise of desktop publishing, but the added economic incentive (again, however farcical it seems in hindsight) encouraged an explosion of people who considered themselves designers, even if their understanding of processes and discourses of design were hazy at best. It was as if becoming a web designer was like becoming a parent: no licensing needed, just a little procreation. I think that the emergence of design as a mass preoccupation of this millennium owes at least some of its staying power to the democratizing of the design impulse. I admire the exclamation point that Mieke Gerritzen put on her book, EVERYONE IS A DESIGNER! but by temperament, I would have used a question mark.

By discussing the creative history of the web, like so many other inquiries into design, I’m going into what is in essence an interdisciplinary endeavor. As we’ve already alluded, the history of web design is partially an economic history. It is simply impossible to avoid the New Economy, its hype, and its downfall. We have to deal with technical histories of communications standards protocol, bandwidth issues, and the endless upgrades that bring on, what Simon (Pennig?) described to me more than a decade ago as “tool fatigue.” That sense that they just keep coming at you. There are the social histories of on-line communities, and the digital divides between the electronic haves and have-nots. There are the legal histories of copyright and copyleft, pornography and censorship, privacy and access. There are histories relevant to communication, mass media, advertising, and cultural studies. And, as we’ll be discussing soon, there is an aesthetic history of web design that includes strategies of information architectures, the dialectic with net.arts, and even the old divide between cool sites and sites that suck. I expect that we’ll be hearing aspects of these histories and more from the assembled speakers over the next two days, and I’m very much looking forward to the overlapping perspectives that should emerge from such discussions.

Well, here’s the tricky part, where I cede a certain primacy to the politico-economic histories of web design and return to those I-Men, the international figures of Gorbachev and bin Laden. Remember that Al Queda was forged in the battles against Soviet troops, and that those same battles contributed to the bankrupting and breakup of the USSR, so these two I-Men were mortal enemies. But it was their respective actions – allowing the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and plotting the destruction of the Twin Towers that delineate the long first decade of web design. I’m speaking of that period characterized as post-89 by people like Geert Lovink and myself. Now again, many here might object that the decade we’re discussing begins in 1994, when the web moved from text-only to incorporating images, and runs the standard ten years to 2004 (roughly from Netscape to now). But if we’re talking about 1989 to 2001, I’m arguing for a first decade that is twelve years long. Taking on the way historians characterize long and short centuries. The 19th century being a long century running from 1789 and the French Revolution to 1914 and the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. And the 20th Century being seen as a short century from 1914 to 1989. We should be proud of ourselves we’ve pack a lot of killing into a very short amount of time.

Now why 89? One reason, one justification is because that’s the year that Berners-Lee publishes his first paper on this, Information Management: A Proposal, which “derives a solution based on a distributed hypertext system.” It takes another four years to get to that image that you saw me start with. But I think that this is where it really begins. And to categorize the first decade of web design as coinciding with 1989 to 2001, allows us to start talking about it within a larger framework.

One unifying construct of that post-89 period was the belief that after the fall of the Wall and then the Soviet Union itself, not just communism but literally all other countervailing forces against market capitalism were vanquished, and not just for the moment but literally for all time. The market with a capital M was the Grail at the end of Francis Fukayama’s treatise The End of History, the market was the solution for all questions, the market would bring peace and prosperity, and would free itself from the tyranny of the business cycle and evolve, and again however ludicrous it sound in hindsight, there were apparently rational people who believed that this market would evolve into an entirely invisible, frictionless, perpetual motion machine that would take the name of the New Economy. Nothing exemplified the New Economy more than the ubiquity of the web, and so it was that the creation of this new medium in the service of the New Economy that became one of the most glamorous signifiers of the entire decade to follow. We will return to the height of the bubble in due time, but I want to get to the crash. The most important index for the New Economy was NASDAQ, an American market heavy on high technology firms. The NASDAQ crested in March of 2000, and within a year had lost more than half its value vaporizing trillions in paper profits. The stock market losses for AOL, Yahoo and Amazon alone amounted to $300 billion. Which before the fall of the dollar was actually a lot of money. The slide into recession continued worldwide for the next six months, but it was in September of 2001 that the markets took their next massive hit, and the newness of the New Economy had its last bits of hype sucked out of it.

I’m speaking, of course, about the events of September 11, 2001. For Americans, at least, the faith in the market to overcome all obstacles suffered a fatal blow that day, not simply with the vivid reminder that history hadn’t, in fact, ended, but also that all those high-flying young engineers, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs in their Casual-Friday-Every-Day chinos and polo shirts were now being edged out of the spotlight to prepare for the return of the Blue-Suited-Wingtip-Shod-Flag-Lapelled grown-ups (think Vice President Dick Cheney and, most pointedly, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld). Just to hammer home this point, I’ve always assumed, and am now actually gathering evidence that Rumsfeld has never actually received or sent out an email. He always has someone print them out. He responds either verbally or writes on it and then they send it back out. He does not actually have an email address himself. Yeah he’s a dinosaur in more ways than one, in so many ways; remember he held the same position in the 1970s under President Gerald Ford.

To close out this part of my discussion, I’d like to apologize if it seems my history is too relentlessly North American in its focus. After all, we are in Amsterdam discussing a worldwide medium invented by an Englishman working in Switzerland. But, if I overemphasized the US contexts here, I was not alone, and with historical distance, we can see that this first long decade is probably the last of such overwhelming dominance by the English language and American New Economy business models. The fact is that by 2005, the American and European markets are approaching saturation, with the coming decade’s growth forecast for India and China. Mandarin looks like it might well overtake English as the most used language on the net, but I doubt it will become the lingua franca. The first, long decade of web design is also an era defined by low bandwidth. Anyone who wants a model of the future of web design should not look to Seattle, but rather to Seoul. Korea now has a higher penetration of high-speed access than any other country in the world, and the web designers of tomorrow should travel to Seoul today just to get a flavor of what kinds of techno-cultural policies foster the next round of design innovation and adoption.

I want to switch over now from this kind of politico-economics to discussing what one could say are languages of praise and critique. In August of 1994, Glenn Davis put up a page that he claims inaugurated criticism on the web. It was a simple idea: post a link to a web page, change it every twenty-four hours, call it the Cool Site of the Day or CSotD (pronounced SEE-sought-DEE). So here are the first seventeen days of CSotD. It is perfect that the claimant to be the first web critic should have been, in fact, a booster. Part of the history of web design has to include an analysis of its critical languages, the discourses of praise and critique the web design community developed. Sites like Boxes and Arrows and Kaliber 10000 (better known as B&A and K10K) have developed as lively relatively sophisticated spaces for discourse about web design and the community. Both feature the web’s usual link-heavy resources of information, with B&A specializing in longer, essayistic approaches, and K10K offering a community hub and a place to show off tricks and secrets. SitePoint and A List Apart are just two of the almost endless sites worldwide that offer tutorials both technical and commercial (How to Deal with Clients is always a big topic). There are sites that deploy usability, as a club against what they see as “over-design,” like Jacob Nielson’s well-known and Vincent Flander’s directly titled The list is pretty much endless, of course, because like everything else web-driven, web design can be perfectly solipsistic, with sites about the subject referring the user to other sites that then refer them back to their starting point.

What languages of evaluation, then, could we use for a history of web design? Again, we hit the question of interdisciplinarity. It’s not the profit and loss statements of business, but that’s a part of it. It’s not the excavated discourses of the avant-garde that animated discussions of either. Nor can we restrict ourselves to the technical languages of coders, hackers, and human computer interface gurus – the common dialect of organizations like SIGGRAPH and SIGCHI, and communities like Slashdot and Linux. Perhaps first and foremost, the languages of praise and evaluation were lifted from other design discourses, graphic design in particular, and mediated, or better yet, remediate on the web.

Now, this could have been a very productive remediation. Graphic design discourse had gone through a remarkable period in that same 1989-2001 long decade with the emergence of post-structuralism and deconstruction as important meta-texts to which the theory and practice of an important group of designers responded. Though later than within film studies and less notably than within architectural discourse, the turn to theory in the post-89 period was nonetheless critically important for the development of graphic design. These were heady times for graphic design discourse with the death of the author running smack dab into the emergent notion of the designer as author, full fledged wars about legibility (from Katherine McCoy and the student work at Cranbrook to David Carson’s magazine Raygun), to the development of real design intellectuals in the US like J. Abbott Miller and Ellen Lupton, and the founding of magazines like Emigre by Zuzanna Licko and Rudy Van Derlans and Eye by the British design journalist Rick Poyner. But the kind of discourses that web design ended up appropriating was the most commercialized, the language of the Design Annual, the discourse of design journalism that concerned itself with the latest, the hippest, the newest, a language of the showcase and of promotion, rather than of any kind of real critique. Graphic design has always acknowledged its ephemerality, but at least there was a permanence to posters, napkins, and even annual reports (the sustaining bane of professional graphic designers everywhere). But a web designer (whether they embraced fixed or fluid layouts) was often left with only the most cursory “evidence” of his or her work. Sites morph, change, get re-skinned, and simply die off. Beyond Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive and its Way Back Machine and the occasional museum holdings, where will future historians turn? Well, I posit they will turn to the odd physical evidence of the kinds of books published by presses like Rockport, Rotovision, Adobe, New Riders, and Ginko. Books with titles like Web Sites That Work, Web Design Basics, Mapping Web Sites, Web Pages from Around the World, Webworks, the list goes on. So here’s just three: Cool Sites, Hot Sites, both of those from the early 90s, and then from 2000 on a book with almost a perfect title for this kind of work, Fresh Styles for Web Designers, Eye Candy from the Underground.

What these books promise in the way of permanence, of course, they sacrifice in terms of interactivity, and discursive complexity. Words that keep coming up are “top… radical… experimental… inspirational… virtual sandbox… exciting… dynamic… creative… interactive… expanding… comprehensive… enabling… award-winning… fun.” All of these words come out of just one book, Cool Sites, which promoted itself in just the same language it used to describe its subject: as “a status report from the far edge.” To reiterate: this is not the language of critique; it’s the language of hype. And, while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with hyping a new medium, eventually, the lack of complex responses comes back to haunt you. So many of the sites featured were, in fact, self-promotional sites for the designers, in other words what you had were books hyping the work of web designers hyping themselves. No wonder there is the quality of these kinds of publications being mementos before the mori.

The biggest of these books is a veritable doorstop. Taschen’s 1000 Favorite Websites announces that not only is it designed for “style surfing” but also that it is “a snapshot history.” Of all the books about web design it is both the worst, and somehow the most appropriate. It is the worst in that it offers no commentary, the work stripped of even the language of hype, so that the sites just jumble together with no aesthetic, technical, or critical apparatus to help guide the reader. The layout is abominable, page after page after page of rectangular screen grabs on a white background, a visual schema that reduces to a uniform dullness what innovation or enchantment these hapless sites might offer on the web itself. As for the criteria for inclusion, who can say? Advertising sites, art sites, fashion sites, industrial sites, self-promotional sites, they’re all just thrown together in one massive lump. But let’s invert the claims for this book as snapshot history, positing that instead it is snapshot evidence, grist for the historian’s mill rather than the result of any sort of historical investigation.

I want to close with a warning, not to those who would design the future, but instead to those who would write about the past. In 2000, Los Angeles finally hosted its first major symposium on This was quite a bit late, as the net.arts boom had been happening in Europe, especially Eastern Europe, for a few years, and the Dotcom Bubble had also increased the fever in the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley and New York’s Silicon Alley. But finally in 2000, at artist Natalie Bookchin’s invitation, an eclectic selection of artists, collectives, and activists came to at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It was the trio of Alexei Shulgin, Vuk Cosic, and Olia Lialina who defined the event. They put on a quintessential post-89 show, demonstrating how important had been to post-Soviet Russia and Central Europe and bringing a distinctive techno-fatalism to bear on the proceedings. But I did notice one thing. Here were these artists commenting in 2000 on a scene that had coalesced fewer than three years earlier, surrounded by adoring, fresh-scrubbed, West Coast art students, and what was the message? It was the same one that Andre Breton spread during the 60s about the surrealists in the 30s, and the same one that Situationists spread about the 60s in the 90s: “You should have been there, it was great, now it’s over.” That Shulgin, Cosic, and Lialina spoke with such nostalgia, so quickly on the heels of their own “brief moment in time” (to cage a Situationist phrase), struck me as odd at the time, a cutting off of possibilities rather than an opening up of them. I’m not here to argue today about the history of, but I will say that we face a similar danger, that in historicizing web design, we might end up proposing that we now live in the afterglow of its heroic moment. Having lived through the first decade of web design, however you want to cut it, I would caution early adopters to show some humility, and to say, that at least for myself, the most useful histories of practice are the ones that contribute to the future of that practice. Because what’s coming ought to be better than what’s left behind.

Thank you very much.