Interview with Mieke Gerritzen

Browserdays and other Design ventures. Five Browserdays Later – An Interim Report

A lot has happened since the Amsterdam-based designer Mieke Gerritzen and I came up with the idea to do a ‘Browserday’ in early 1998 ( After the design competition took place three times in Amsterdam (1998-2000), the event moved to New York (March 2001) and Berlin (December 2001). On May 17 2002 the Browserday will be back in Amsterdam. Four years after we had the initial idea Mieke and I sat behind our laptops and had an e-mail exchange to re-assess the concepts.

Initially a team of people organized the Browserday, with Jeanine Huizinga, David Garcia, Eric Kluitenberg and Marleen Stikker (amongst others) in the core team. The browserdays 1998-2000 were a collaboration between the Dutch organizations such as the Society for Old and New Media, De Balie, Paradiso, with involvement of the Rietveld, HKU and Sandberg design schools. In 2000 Mieke Gerritzen, the main force behind Browserday, took the competition on board of her new company, NL-Design and pushed the competition in an international direction. Even though the event from the start had the label ‘international’ it took some time to get design schools outside of the Netherlands interested. The next step was to try and see if the concept would also work outside of the safe and cozy environment of Amsterdam.

I attended the first two Browserdays in Amsterdam and then moved to Australia. However, my role in the Browserdays circus continued, helping to formulate the topics, doing research and compiling a (Xerox) reader of relevant texts related to the specific topic of each individual event. The core idea, for me, had always been to break open the new media design practice and put the designers in a multi-disciplinary environment. And show that designers, instead of merely being users, could intervene in the making of the applications they worked with. If it was true that tools were shaping the work, then it was also up to designers to directly contribute to technological developments. The browser was the Internet application par excellence. In a rapidly changing media environments ‘tools’ such as the browser were nowhere near neutral. Their technological parameters were cultural and economic in nature. Browsers are our windows to the world of information and communication. They are highly political applications as the initial clash of 1998 had shown. But the Browserday competition also proved that the browser concept, as such, could also be an incredible trigger for the techno-imagination. The politics and aesthetics of data navigation tools were going to be with us for a great part of the 21stcentury. That much was clear.

GL: Recently, the fifth Browserday took place in Berlin. Have you seen progress in the submissions over the 3 1/2 years the competition is now running? It is being said that 3 or 4 years is a long time in terms of technology development. Is that also the case for concepts and design proposals made by students?

MG: I don’t think 3 to 4 years is such a long time in terms of technological development. The technological revolutions never stop. As long as people stay working on it, technology will stay an endless growing fantasy. Of course technology need heavy dose of knowledge, but every new step forward will require new ideas and dreams of seamless possibilities. That’s what I mean with fantasy. Technology needs utopia; otherwise there is no drive for progress. The economy needs technical development to keep the market going on. It’s impossible to distinguish between short and long term development. Talking realistic, I think everything up till now is short-term development compare to the hundreds of thousands of years which will follow. In the millions of companies, institutes and laboratories are mostly people working in a hurry to serve their stockholders and clients. At the moment technical development is a strongly money-driven. The International Browserday is an educational (and entertaining) event focusing on technical developments. Its not related to money and as a result it is also not related to technical realism. It is related to technical development in terms of “fantasy”. It’s all about the public expression of creativity.
The International Browserday started in 1998 with the discontent over the old-fashioned desktop computer browsers. It was the time of the “browser war” between Microsoft and Netscape. Three Browserdays later (with its theme: “the end of the browser”) in 2000 we started a new direction, placing the browser issue outside the PCs. Many devices now have browsers, such as mobile phones, PDAs and other ‘wearable’ technologies.
During the years in which the event took place browsers have becoming a more and more independent product. The desktop computer is not the only machine anymore that is using a browser to navigate data environments and applications. The Browserday gives us also the possibility with every new topic to show a bit of history of technical development by theoretical papers and technical practice.
There is, and there is no progress in terms of the applications and work shown at the different browserdays. Progress is something you can see if people working for a long time on the same thing. But we are not living in the age of sustainability. The progress I saw at the browserday in Berlin is that students feel more responsible for social and political aspects of the world they live in. This is different compared to the first browserday, where more people try to come up with navigation system in the hope to become a millionaire, which was a somewhat normal expectation at the time.
Designers joined the digital technology development only 10 or 15 years ago. The browser is an interesting object to reflect on what is happening in the world of technology.
Another sort of progress I can see is that the Browserday competition is becoming part of the everyday curriculum at design schools. People know what we talking about, even tough it’s not a standardized format. How the Browserday program looks like is an open question.

GL: Some people told me that the browser demos as shown during the browserday remain a bit simple. Perhaps these critics have too high expectations. What would you call a good outcome for such an event?

MG: The format of browserday is three minutes. Students and young designers have exactly three minutes to show their demo design. Having only three minutes forces people to prepare their presentation very tightly. You can only show the very essential parts of your idea. It is about making choices. You have to look at your own work and pick out the most personal and characteristic part of the idea and use all the creativity you have to present this on a clear and special way to the public. The event is a show. It is what I would call event-education. The stage presentation is part of the design. Designers these days are more on stage than they have been in the past. Being a designer is getting close to becoming a pop star. I don’t know if this development is a positive one. On the other hand, designers are more forced to explain their design. If a designer has no strong vision about what he or she is making, their presentation will be weak. If he or she has a strong vision but no interesting work to show, their presentation is also weak. So both sides are important, which makes life of a designer not easier.
Browserday shows 30 presentations on one day and of course they are diverse. The presenters coming from all kind of disciplines and experience. Quality is different. But the real interesting ideas are short listed and shown again in more details at the same day. This means that the audience will see more and can think about the “better” ones. Though, browserday shows different quality but is never boring, because of the three minute format.
A good outcome for browserday is when the event shows at least a couple of interesting new navigation ideas. Another outcome I like is if there are some presentations that show more a statement about the position of the browser, a critical vision that shows the designer’s personal opinion. I also like it when there is a mix of disciplines and media. All these elements show the potential diversity of design, in a world, which increasingly looks the same. Browserday is not only about new media or technological development; it’s about opening up spaces for creative thinking—if only for a day.

GL: I have noticed a shift in your work and rhetoric, away from the dotcom-type businesses, towards issues related to design and new media education. Has the dotcom crash had an effect on the browserday and students’ expectations?

MG: Yes, more applications are critical towards information overload. I am happy that during the last browserday in Berlin there were more attendees than ever before. The Internet depression did not directly influence digital media education. Students are not used to make a lot of money and I’m glad they can study and do their experiments without the pressure of a money- driven structure. With the dotcom crash the new media development did not disappear I even expect a more interesting climate for new ideas soon. The hype is over and what is left are diehards who apart of just making money are probably more interested in the real issues which the digital world confronts us with.

GL: To what extend does the Browserday differ from popular Flash design competitions? Would you call a browser meta design? Where exactly would you say is the interface design aspect in browsers?

MG: Browsers are navigation systems and they all need a graphic user interface. For browserday we ask people to think about browsers in general. We invite people to come up with ideas how, where and which information you could get. That’s a big thing to ask. The design aspect here involves everything; before you can start with a concept you have to find out what you think about the existing browsers and about the function of a network. So here you can start being critical about the situation of the communication technology of today and you have to think about future possibilities. Here you start to create your own vision and take position on a new navigation idea. This is all part of the design. Next step is writing the concept and creating a demo presentation model. We ask for a demo design because these tiny free us our minds from the technical and commercial restrains. The Browserday is about ideas, not about sophisticated programming.
One of the important issues for browserday is that so much is happening all the time in the world of new devices, tools, economy and marketing strategies, hypes that at browserday these things are getting more clear and people get a chance to react on these development in a critical fashion. Browserday is an event unrelated to specific software or hardware platforms or standards. It is an educational event, which stresses the importance of both critical and visionary conceptual thinking. Later on, in their professional life students will use these conceptual skills. Schools should not stress too much emphasis on learning software as these packages are constantly changing. Software is becoming redundant in such a short time.
The interface design aspect of a browser is literally everything what makes people move in the digital sphere. If one is only using sound for navigation that’s interface design as well, or hardware but also the visuals. Design is a wide area. So is interface design, since it’s not clear how communication hardware will develop and where wireless technologies will go.

GL: Why do we stress the importance of the quality of software and talk all the time about the politics of Internet applications? Do people really care about such issues? Isn’t the excitement over such issues something of the mid and late nineties? How do students and schools respond to the very idea of building your own browser?

MG: The politics of Internet applications is only interesting for economic purposes. The last years digital media students and young designers were all very busy making money. Since the dotcom crash people are getting less interested in Internet in general. They shifted their attention to mobile devices or digital gadgets like MP3 players or new computers such as the new i-mac. Apple for instance has done many steps back and is more and more using outworn metaphor. They are only restyling…. but why? Because we don’t need more advanced, faster processors at the moment. Software runs perfect and we don’t need more memory. This means Apple focuses on the consumer instead of the professional market. They have started to restyle instead of further developing their products. For instance, software such as i-photo is just an easy-to-use photo album online, a shell for pictures. It all started with the launch of their new OS X operating system, which looks like an interface made out of ordinary future.
Students like to build their own browser. The idea is really funky but they are not very conscious about the politics of technology. Since 911 they are more critical. They want to make the world a better place, but only after I told them designers have this power and opportunity to change. They don’t need to further spread the unified global look, developed by marketing departments of large corporations. Recession is really good, in that respect.

GL: You have worked with a variety of schools and students from all over Europe and the United States. Could you tell something about the different schools and their models for new media pedagogy, which you find most inspiring?

There is no difference between Europe and the United States concerning design education. The whole Western world looks similar in that respect, both universities and art schools. All these institutes need to do is restructure, offer new courses, start new departments and of course every institute will do this in its own way. The teachers, their world, ideas and passion they bring in will make the real difference. People will create the characteristics of the educational environment. Special activities and events are important to force students to create vision and motivation. Learning is a never-ending process. Good teachers are still learning. If people are busy with interesting topics, coming from actual problems or tendencies in the world, we will forget about the bureaucracy and structures we have to deal with.
In the case of Browserday I found more difference between the Netherlands and Germany. In Germany I did not found so many critical or political people, they were more following the trends. The American and Dutch people were more conscious and critical, they try to make statements. In this case I was happy to see that in these moments of recession, people try to come up with ideas and visions instead of market-valuable products.
It’s always difficult to find students who are studying to find their message and their own visual language, maybe 3% of the students is really interested in their social environment. If you want to make a point in this world, you have to believe you can change the world. Nobody is talented. If you want to become a star you have to work and you have to study. It’s a fight with yourself. Most of the people and students are consuming, they have no ambition.
The Browserday is something you have to go for. It is not part of the regular curriculum. Browserday always presents a topic from the world of technical development connected to the actual situation of our social environment or our behavior. If students care they pick it this topic and start creating a new better world. This way of challenging people gives more motivated students than the regular program at universities and schools. It’s just a trick to find the people who feel responsible for their life and from others.
New Media education will become soon more interesting, the first generation digital designers and developers are graduated and are now able to teach. That will make a difference because up till now we could stimulate students to break walls, but the real experience now is coming from the new generation media designers.
I sometimes wonder why so many students are not working like crazy. I grew up with the idea of fighting and working to create a good and interesting life. Not all of them but most of the students are easy going. But life changed; there is more money. Most people only work 3 days a week instead of 5. There’s more time for entertainment and shopping. These changes in the work place are also influencing education. If people do not automatically have the need to learn we have to challenge them. That’s why I think event-education is important for the future. It’s a combination of learning and entertainment.

GL: It is obvious that students don’t need to be taught how to use this or that application. They often know more than the teacher. All right. They need to discover their own style, methodology, how to develop a concept, get the necessary critical theory to interpret the larger framework. But how does that translate into a curriculum?

MG: A curriculum should not be a list of soft- en hardware knowledge. The curriculum will be a list of projects and work. Software these days is developed for mass use, but to create special work you’ll need creativity and vision. Students need to know about software, stretch the limitations of it, they should control the software instead of software controls them. I don’t want to see software anymore if I look at their applications, unless its part of their concept. At the moment we live in the age of style poverty. Software generates too much images and styles created by tasteless people. I am sorry to say that but the evidence is overwhelming. People just use existing styles and do come to school anymore to develop their own design vocabulary. This is what makes the world so poor and boring. We are losing culture due to the homogenizing forces of globalization. What we need instead is subjective madness; a radical individualism which aims at esthetic singularity.

GL: How has the established design world responded to the Browserday events so far?

MG: The design world has reacted positive so far. People appreciate it; not only within design world, by the way. Browserday is a cross media event. It¹s a mix of technology, theatre, sound, design, art, theory and political statements. The diversity makes it a popular and entertaining event. Young designers and students who prepare their presentation also like it because they have the opportunity to present their ideas to a large audience. They really exercise and we help and stimulate them to show the strongest part of their concept.

GL: The browserday events could be called a structuralist design approach. Because of the emphasis on the power of applications the story telling aspect of design is getting a bit in the background. There is no idea in design as such. The application is the message. You also seem to distance yourself from the sixties approach in which design is being subordinated to social movements and abstract Marxist criticism.

MG: The browserday invites people to transform their vision into an application. To be honest, I am more interested in visions then applications–if they were to be separated. During a browserday we can show that designers are able to combine these two elements. The process of combining techniques and ideas is their story. Their presentations are showing a way of thinking, a way of looking to the world. An application has power if it has a message. I think browserday is already famous because of the critical and different look (engagement) at the world of technical and economical development.

By living in this world it will be always a struggle to deal with structures and systems. Browserday as an organization will try to be invisible. And I know its not possible, but we try I think being creative is the best in total freedom. So how can you create an environment where people will get inspiration, attention, freedom, context and information? For me most of the educational institutes are too much bureaucratic and rule-minded. Browserday at least will try to be a more open and a moving organization without a physical place, working and giving personal information via email and the web. Design for new media has proved to be a field in between the structure of organization and the system of technological possibilities. A browser represents information and it needs a system and structure to make this happen. To come up with extreme and new ideas you need to be free of too much influence coming from the bureaucratic over structured society we live in.

GL: Your not a big fan of theory, is that right? You don’t seem to care so much about the latest fashions in cultural studies, post-colonial theory, visual culture or critical contemporary arts. You are not fond of the banal Bauhaus comparison either. Where should new media design students get their inspiration from, presumed they want to read texts in the first place?

MG: Theory may be important for theorists. But for designers or people doing creative practice it is more important to develop theory out of their own experiences. They don’t need all this information from books and history. There is a difference between reading and hearing statements, and creating them yourself. Designers are practitioners and they find out themselves what their ‘message’ is. They probably express this in their own language, which won’t be text. This keeps the way open to develop their own theory, shown through their work. I stimulate the development of strong, new, visual languages and by knowing too much of written theories it doesn’t help creating new work and mentalities. People should concentrate and be self-confidential when they create their work. Too much influence from others is no good. Of course it would be naïve if they remained unaware about the context of their own work. But they will know if they are the type of person to analyze. And they always get help of theorists. In fact, they should more often work together.
Yes, I am not so much interested in the latest fashion of whatever. Fashion is important if we look to the world in general. But fashion is first and foremost an economic factor. It is mass manufactured. There is also fashion in theory and this indicates that no that many people thinking different. People who created a new and special theory or visual or technical thing are not part of fashion but show a new personal and characteristic view. That’s what I’m interested in. Not in fashionable mass taste or knowledge.