I really, really like Meadows’ discussion of walls. Dimensional and architectural metaphors may indeed be a much more helpful way to speak figuratively about web design than of print metaphors. (Indeed, the wall concept may be one part of Facebook’s success in social networking.) As Meadows discusses in chapter 3.4, walls subdivide space, they direct our observation and exploration, they obscure space and build mystery, and they can even help to define the purpose of a room (his examples of the plaza and the expressive interior wall are particularly powerful , I think). Of course, we also have the option to simply be like Melville’s Bartleby, staring vacuously through a window at a blank brick wall.
At any rate, I think that walls, which can help provide dimension and thus immersion, are an appropriate entry point for this discussion. Meadows writes:
“In short, use your walls as a writer uses punctuation, indentation, paragraph returns, or words themselves. Use walls to separate parts of the story and interaction” (176).
Along with this, Meadows reminds us that association and connection are just as important as division. Cool metaphors are nice, but a the most effective way to connect information is a simple visual cue: a word, a graphic, or a seemingly insignificant horizontal rule tag.
That brings me to a discussion of Meadows’ three principles: input/output, inside/outside, and open/closed. I’ll frame some of my discussion of these principles in my most recent design challenge–putting together a simple (read: minimal) but understandable menu system, and doing so without simply copy-pasting someone else’s flash creation. (Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that; however, I think I’ve learned more from struggling with what at first seemed to be a very simple task than I would have learned just pasting something in from a template.) I may seem to talk about hypertext menus a lot, but that’s because I think they’re so peculiar–they offer the reader total control over how the narrative’s plot is ordered, but they are also a construction of the author, an attempt to manage how much license the reader takes in how they perceive the organization of the site and thus how they explore it. The author-function continues to spin out of control!
- First, input/output: The recursive relationship here is really all about giving the reader a clear sense of change. My first menu design was a collage of four images at various levels of abstraction-there was no obvious input, and while the output is obvious (the content changes), without the clear input it’s chancey that the reader would figure it out in the first place. My second design was purely text-based, single-word hyperlinks to separate pages, with different options appearing in different sections. This was a more understandable system, but again, there was no clear output–no response. My current design included short horizontal rules between each section (and cleaning up fonts). This tiny addition generated a highly visible subdivision that you can see changing every time you click to a different section. The distinction between subdivisions of content pages and the content pages themselves was now perceivable; the change is clear, so when the reader inputs (clicks), there is a clear output (menu changes) which propels the reader to click again. Thus, principle 1.
- Second, inside/outside: I understand this element as having quite a bit to do with mimesis (Meadows discusses this on 162), with how immersive and sensory elements interact with knowledge and what’s already been internalized. In terms of the menu system, the inside-the-skull element is easy: the content, the navigation, the organization of the information relies quite a bit on what’s going on inside-the-skull, particularly the purposes that assorted audience members have for getting at the content in the first place. Outside-the skull has quite a bit to do with creating a sense of a world–this could be small things (like how IE7 automatically “clicks” when you hit a hyperlink; Mozilla does not, and I think it’s something worth adding for my menu), or it could be big things, like an entry point that uses a picture to give a physical, dimensional way of looking at the site itself. What is seen in that initial image helps to create a context, a way of understanding (in this case) how the information is divided, what’s most important, and so forth.
- Finally, open/closed: Indeterminacy and predictability can be problematic for this sort of site. At one level, readers need to find content quickly, easily, without getting lost. There must be a highly predictable closed system in place. At the same time, an open system is more interesting, more fun. I think this is where content may come in. There should be some mystery, some spontaneity with some elements, and with others, it’s a matter of having things updated–giving readers a reason to return, to explore for new behavior and new elements.
I think that my entry point offers a traceable path from observation to change; I designed it with that in mind, at least. The image is clearly a desktop, but there is some ambiguity as to what it’s got to do with the site. A tooltip offers some possibility for understanding as the reader’s mouse hovers over the image (unless they just plow right in and click ahead, expecting it to be some waste of their time). After an exploratory click comes modification: the screen changes, and the reader is “inside” the site. The system offers items, content in an effort to change the reader’s understanding of… well, a lot of things, I hope. The left-hand menu offers similar ambiguity to the entry image, and thus the cycle continues.
At least, that’s how i understand it. 🙂
Question: Other than feedback on my design at this point, I’m curious to hear what metaphor you think is most appropriate for websites. Are you comfortable with the print metaphor (“the page”), or does it cause problems for you? Is Meadows’ wall particularly helpful, or is there another one that you use when you design? (The word “web” itself is certainly full of implications here.)