TECHNOLOGY AND ELECTRONIC MEDIA: The frontier spirit of Internet design

Jim Davies uncovers the avenues open to clients who want to develop an Internet concept

Jim Davies uncovers the avenues open to clients who want to develop an Internet concept

The Internet is like an unripened peach. Clients and advertisers are

aware of its potential and have their own idea of what it might one day

taste like, but it’s yet to mature to its juicy, succulent fullness. No-

one is sure where the technology will take the medium next; but one

thing’s for sure, change is inevitable.

Telecommunications companies are busy increasing the capacity and speed

of their lines, allowing more information to be pumped into our homes

and offices and new software applications, such as Java and Shockwave,

which will allow film sequences and animation to be played on the Net,

are starting to have an impact. ‘The idea of the World Wide Web is only

two-and-half-years old,’ Michael Crossman, the managing director of

Bates Dorland Interactive, says. ‘There’s been an amazing amount of

progress made in that time, and the next two years will see more rapid


In the relatively uncharted area of Website design, a frontier spirit

prevails. Companies offering very different sets of skills are busy

staking out their claims as the most suitable for servicing clients’

needs. First, there are the ‘new-media’ or ‘interactive’ departments

incorporated into existing advertising agencies. Bates Dorland

Interactive is unusual in that it operates as an autonomous company and

offers a complete service from strategy to design and implementation,

more akin to the US agency model. It has worked on a range of projects

including Carling, the Rover Group, Safeway and the Observer.

More typically, in-house interactive departments consist of a handful of

clued-up individuals who perhaps advise on and conceive Websites for

clients, but then farm the nut-and-bolts construction work out to

trusted programmers or specialist production outfits.

Graphic designers are making their presence felt too. Conversant with

technology and familiar with the thorny problems of aesthetics and

legibility, many feel they can successfully meet the demands of the new

discipline. ‘Specialist Web designers tend to favour a shiny computery

look,’ Michael Johnson, of the design company, Johnson Banks, reckons.

‘They’ll also get excited and say we can do this, we can animate that,

but rarely think about the overall design concept. If an existing client

of mine knows me, knows my graphics and is comfortable working with me,

it makes sense for my company to take on the electronic design as well.’

And that is just what he did for BT, which wanted its annual report

available on the Internet. Johnson, who had designed the original print

report in his typically humorous style, developed an interactive site

based on a board game, invigorating the potentially dull subject matter.

Johnson Banks - and other design companies who are similarly placed -

argue that because they are detached from the aesthetic norms of the

medium, they can design sites that are distinctive and effective. But

they need someone to do the donkey work for them, which is where they

starting running into difficulties. ‘Potentially, clients can have the

best of both worlds,’ Johnson says. ‘But you need to find someone you

can trust to pass your designs on to. Unfortunately, that particular

part of the industry is geek city, and it’s hard to find someone who

actually appreciates what you’re trying to do.’ He adds that many of his

ideas are met by nothing more than a sharp intake of breath.

Real Time Studio is one company to have recognised the niche Johnson is

talking about. ‘We are geared up to the requirements of production,’

Phil Jones, Real Time’s managing director, says. ‘It’s not so much the

glamorous design and concept side, as the nitty-gritty business of

making it work.’ Real Time works in tandem with ad agencies and design

groups developing concepts and getting them online. It helped Euro RSCG

Wnek Gosper put together a site for the Sci-Fi Channel, and is busy

creating credentials-based Websites for several leading ad agencies.

But it also works directly for clients. It was commissioned by the

Business Design Centre to produce the Website for the Campaign-sponsored

Multimedia ’96 exhibition, and has recently been signed up to BT’s

official roster of corporate communications companies. ‘The speed of

change in this area is fantastic,’ Jones says. ‘Equipment goes out of

date quickly, and you need to be able to offer a wide variety of skills.

Only the largest ad agencies can afford to make the kind of investment

in skills and technology that are necessary.’ The final option for

companies interested in establishing a presence on the Net is a

specialist new-media agency. There are plenty around, but as Nico

McDonald, an electronic production consultant, points out: ‘If you’re an

ad agency, new-media companies are problematic. They will always be

trying to do a part of your business for you.’

That’s certainly borne out by the diverse range of services at the new-

media hotshop, AKQA: strategic development, creative development,

implementation and launch, consumer and market research, competitive

monitoring, technology research and development, integration, management

reporting and media planning. Its impressive client list includes BMW,

the BBC, Carlton TV, Durex, Reuters and First Direct. ‘Yes, we’re in

competition with agencies’ interactive departments,’ Ajaz Ahmed,

managing partner at AKQA, admits. But, he argues that companies like his

are better placed to exploit the medium: ‘New media and the Internet are

new disciplines, and you’re not going to get the most out of it if you

treat it like TV or direct mail.’

Crossman, of Bates Interactive, not surprisingly, disagrees, believing

that with account directors a mere five yards down the corridor, his

set-up is more likely to contribute to a brand message that is

consistent across all media. ‘New-media agencies can easily dislocate

the core message,’ he claims. But perhaps not if they work alongside

traditional agencies, as Hyperinteractive did with Abbott Mead Vickers

BBDO on the successful Snickers Website. ‘That way the agency can

monitor the brand positioning and we can get on with designing an

interesting site,’ Hyperinteractive’s commercial director, Felix

Velarde, says. The joint effort seems to have worked, with the site

attracting a phenomenal number of hits a day.

At the moment, the battle for supremacy is being fought using canny PR

and a certain amount of bluster as much as real imagination and

expertise. The truth is, no-one is quite certain what’s around the

corner; what they do know is that they want a bite of a juicy and

potentially lucrative peach.

Designing the Internet, a three-day conference hosted by Design Agenda

in association with St Martin’s MA in Communication Design, is on 4, 5

and 6 July at the Cochrane Theatre, Southampton Row, London WC1B 4AP.

For details e-mail