Weaving Knoxville's Webscapes

In just five years, online designers have seen the rise and rapid evolution of an entirely new field

Imagine the poor soul, the cruelly-imagined protagonist in some post-modern sci-fi allegory, who found himself removed from his own space-time continuum and transplanted mere decades hence into our own dimensional plane.

Never mind all of the standard science fictional reverse anachronisms, the industrial-age innocent thrust into a world of spaceships and laser guns. Our hapless hero would confront a far more perplexing conundrum, that of comprehending the vast and infinitely mutable possibilities of the Internet and all of its attendant phenomena—dot-com companies; email and e-commerce; and a never-ending onslaught of website addresses, sites for every conceivable commercial product or public institution or corporate entity.

It's easy to forget that only a decade ago, a reference to http://metropulse.com would have drawn little more than puzzled stares. Today, it's taken for granted that any reputable, legitimate enterprise (such as this newspaper, natch) must surely have a website. And with that assumption has evolved a new discipline and a new skill set, an admixture of graphic creation and marketing expertise and technological know-how that is the art of web design.

"Initially, it was a bit like when desktop publishing came out," says Susan Metros of the University of Tennessee's Innovative Technology Center. "Everyone thought 'Great, we can do our own publishing.' Everyone thought they could do their own web design. Then they found out it's not that simple. You've to know layout and design; you've got to know cognitive psychology; you've got to know computers."

Metros calls Knoxville "a nice area for design. There's good quality work, and a good client base." But like anywhere else, the evolution of web design has been a fast-moving and very recent phenomenon. A local web design entrepreneur, Kurt Jenkins of Knoxville's Digital Media Graphics remembers that instructors in his early '90's University of Tennessee graphic design courses eschewed the integration of high-tech media into the curriculum.

"The design department was limited then, and all the teachers were in the mind of teaching everything by hand," Jenkins chuckles. "They would tell us, 'Not all of you will be able to work at a place with computers.'"

Today, the graphic design students and faculty avail themselves of a computer lab, courses on programming basics, and advanced instruction in web design. That evolution is important in large part because of the diverse skill sets web design demands.

"I divide web design into two components: what you make happen and how you make it happen," says Seth Johnson, a UT MFA candidate who teaches a web design class at the college. "It's more than just computer science. You want students to understand why they design what they do."

Young designers such as Johnson and Jenkins acquired their computer facility by osmosis rather than formal training, learning the ropes of programming gradually as the Internet increasingly became a focus of attention. Early web design was mostly static, much akin to constructing a series of online brochures.

The designer's primary tool was hypertext markup Language, or HTML, a basic computer language that allows the programmer to lay out text and visuals by means of "tags"—simple commands and symbols. (The command to highlight a word in bold, for instance: word.)

"HTML is the markup language, the shorthand that tells the computer how to do something," explains Michael Haynes, former local freelance designer. "Initially, you had to have a better working knowledge of the language. Now, there's software that permits you to lay things out like you could with desktop publishing."

Johnson notes that from HTML evolved the so-called WYSIWYG ("What you see is what you get") programs, software like Macromedia's "Dreamweaver" or Adobe's "Pagemill" that constitute the programming equivalent of a point-and-shoot camera. "They write code for you," he says. "You lay it out how you want it, and the program turns it into code. But a fluent designer has to know HTML, because even the WYSIWYG's occasionally have to be adapted to suit your context."

But more than simply serving as de facto crutches for designers with crippled programming skills, the new technologies have created new possibilities, visual and interactive capabilities that have refigured websites as something much more than staid online bulletin board notices. "There's more interactivity between the user and the page," says Haynes.

Those interactive features include database-driven queries—user commands that can trigger a host of simultaneous functions, essential to e-commerce and the like—and Macromedia's Flash program, which permits the user to download relatively sophisticated animation and moving-screen sequences from websites equipped for the program.

"The static website is old news; the dynamic site is the way of the future," says April Cox of Knoxville's Webcentric. "Old sites were essentially like business cards. Now, you've got a world of emerging technologies; you can have live chat-rooms with company reps, bar code scanners that take you directly from a catalog to a website, mailing list functions that permit you to collect names for a specific marketing effort..."

All of which points to the reality that web design itself is an increasingly complicated affair. Some companies, such as local design firm the Robin Easter Design Group, outsource a certain portion of their "back-end" (more technical) programming functions. "Programming skills are still a must," says Easter Group art director Kenneth White. "We would use outside subcontractors only on more complicated database-driven technologies."

Says Haynes, large-scale design operations may have very specialized division of labor, with separate programmers, designers and content editors. Too often, however, smaller and less reputable "guerrilla" design outfits and freelancers are guilty of applying limited skills to the limitless prospects of web design.

"There are lots of pure programmers doing design work, something they're not really known for being good at," says Haynes. "There's lots of bad work, lots of bad design. I did an awful lot of redesigning for people when I was a freelancer."

Haynes says there will always be room for accomplished freelancers, given the glut of demand for web design and the dearth of outlets to satisfy it. Increasingly, however, he believes better-organized commercial interests such as Webcentric and Robin Easter will be the axis upon which the world of web design turns.

"The future of web design will probably resemble the history of other commercial design," Haynes says. "The people with the client base, the people with organization."

Web design requires myriad skills, and therefore web designers have roots in any number of disciplines and industries: marketing, graphic design, computer programming, etc. What's important is that designers comprehend that the process is a holistic one; that they are capable of learning new skills as well as understanding their weaknesses. Says an employee at one local design firm, "No one is a complete jack-of-all trades. There are few people [who] can grasp all the nuances of both the technical and creative aspects."

Scarcely two years old, West Knoxville's Webcentric is the cyber-child of former University of Tennessee students Tim Thomas (a business student) and Mishi Saravi (computer science.) And as befits its founders' respective backgrounds, Webcentric has built an estimable level of technical and programming expertise on a sturdy foundation of marketing savvy.

"There's a whole psychology behind web design that most people leave out," says Cox, the company's director of Internet design and marketing. "There are art students out there who do it very cheaply, for $20 a page. That makes it tough to compete sometimes, because we take it very seriously."

Secreted away in the rear of a small shopping center on Kingston Pike, the company's more than 10,000 square feet of space play host to more than just programmers and graphic designers; Webcentric also offers educational outreach to help clients understand and maintain their websites, as well as hosting facilities, which enable them to satisfy all of their Net needs and avoid the extraneous hassle of an Internet service provider.

"Our objective was to take design, hosting and Internet marketing and add education and customer service," says Cox. "We don't outsource any services. We strive for a high level of continuity and standardization.

"A website is no different than your house," she continues. "There are whole books available that talk about the feng shui of websites."

Cox stresses that no level of creativity or marketing expertise is sufficient without traffic, however; Webcentric employs a full-time marketing consultant whose job is to "get traffic to people's website, to get people on more search engines, and get them on the right search engines.

"It's a matter of placement, too. Internet users have an average three-second attention span. Search engines are the most effective method of online marketing, provided you're in the top ten. You have to have the right key words, the right number of key words, and the right content to reflect those key words."

Kurt Jenkins and partner Wade Austin were design students at the dawn of Internet consciousness at the University of Tennessee; the two sold computers their senior year in college, and collaborated on CD-ROM and video projects in the classroom. Upon graduating, they essayed a far more ambitious endeavor in founding Digital Media Graphics in the Old City.

"We did a little bit of everything at first," says Jenkins, seated in the spacey, comfortable office above the O.C.'s High Resolution. "Then we made a conscious effort to concentrate on the Internet after that first year."

"Really, demand pushed us that way," adds Austin. "There was no demand for web design at first, but it didn't take long until the Net was the number one thing. Our timing was right; we hit right at the transition from traditional design to digital design."

Both men agree that therein lies the strength of their firm—that DMG was founded by graphic artists who learned the lingua franca of computers even as they learned the principles of design.

"We did everything in code at the beginning, and not too many people around can say that," says Jenkins. "We were designers who learned the technology, which I think is a lot better than coming at it from the other side. A designer who can relinquish a certain amount of control and work in the liquid environment of computers has a huge advantage."

Over the last six years, the DMG duo has witnessed the evolutions in both attitude—from prevailing skepticism to Internet proliferation—and design—from static design to dynamic sites and interactive commerce. And they've gained new adeptness with the ever-changing tools of the trade.

"We're on a learning curve that doesn't end," laughs Jenkins. "We outsource a small portion of the back-end work. But the majority of the websites we do, we do 100 percent of the job."

Traditional design firms discovered a new imperative in the 1990s, that of adapting their services to meet the demands of an increasingly Net-savvy clientele. Companies like the Robin Easter Design Group in the Old City, or Morris Creative Group in the nearby L&N Station building downtown have done so, and both of those firms estimate that 10 to 20 percent of their business is now web-related, rather than traditional print design.

"It was a necessity; I came here in '98 and told Robin the web was something we had to do as a sideline," says White of Robin Easter, who handles both the programming and artistic side of web design. "It's something our existing clients wanted us to do; there's a huge market, and it's increasing steadily."

To White's way of thinking, much web design suffers from a lack of both creativity and professionalism. "The state of the art is pretty bad," White says. "We want to bring a higher design standard to the work we do.

"When you look at sites, pages tend to look like long lists of words. There's little differentiation between them, a generic style. We employ creativity to differentiate sites, to add a human element, to give people a mood, an experience."

Like many companies whose Internet forays sprang from a well of design expertise, the Easter group outsources certain programming chores. White says he often recommends specific database-driven technologies, however, and pays heed to issues of creativity and symmetry even on the back end of programming.

"We try to make sure the 'mood' carries through even through databases; issues of color, headings of pages, key words. On a real estate site, would you want a selection feature geared toward individual preferences, or a list of everything you have?"

Founded about the same time as Robin Easter Design Group, the 10-year-old Morris Creative Group also began as a standard print graphic design company. "But because of the economy and the web, a lot of the business is moving this way," says web designer Jaques Palin, a South African expatriate who's been with the company just over two years.

"People realize now it's something you must have, like business cards or letterhead. People in my age group [Palin is 28] don't look at brochures; we look at websites."

Now devoting perhaps one-fifth of their energies to the web, Morris Creative proposes that potential clients turn all of their design considerations over to the firm. "We want to create a whole package, from the website to business cards. It makes for a consistent style."

As a commercial designer, Palin divides websites broadly into two categories: strictly informational sites, and e-commerce sites that are, in effect, "electronic salesmen."

"You're doing business on computer, in a digital shop," Palin says. "You've got sites where you can view and order products, pay bills, submit bills, and that's where database technology comes in. It's the processing tool.

"There are lots of people who say they construct the more sophisticated sites, but they really can't. If you want to have e-commerce, it takes a little investment. And it is an investment—in the future of your business."

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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