As WiFi comes to more subway platforms around New York City every day, some New Yorkers who once looked to SVA’s iconic subway posters for creative inspiration may soon be looking at their smartphones, too. Earlier this month SVA’s website—a showcase for student, alumni and faculty artwork as well as SVA subway posters—was re-launched in a responsive design. SVA Close caught up with Michael Walsh, SVA’s director of design and digital media, and John Carlin, CEO of Funny Garbage, the New York interactive media firm behind the new sva.edu.
What were the goals for the new website?
MW: Accessibility is the main one. We know more and more people are visiting the site from their cell phone or tablet. With the new design, people have easier, faster access to all the content that SVA.edu offers, whatever the device.
JC: We wanted to make sure the site worked on phones as well as tablets and PCs because that’s how many people first search and see things online. We also wanted to use state of the art responsive technology to reinforce that contemporary design at SVA is about functionality as well as appearance. We also took the opportunity to streamline and improve the overall look and feel—and to keep it in synch with SVA’s new branding.
The new site is meant to give users the best possible experience of SVA.edu. What’s the technology behind it?
MW: With responsive design, there are five versions of a website: desktop, mobile/portrait, mobile/landscape, tablet/portrait, and tablet/landscape. You can see how this works on your desktop computer, if you visit sva.edu and resize your browser window. As the window gets smaller, you’ll see all five versions.
JC: With responsive, you have to design so that the basic elements automatically rearrange based on the device, screen dimension and orientation. The challenge obviously is that it still has to look good and function in all these different viewports.
What aspect of the mobile experience are you happiest with?
MW: The main navigation works well, and the type is clear and legible. These things sound very simple, but they are much more problematic when you have to design for five form factors.
JC: Funny Garbage is very pleased that the complex navigation of the SVA site is completely accessible on the mobile view so people can find anything they want, on the go.
What were some of the challenges of translating SVA’s desktop site into a mobile experience?
MW: As with any design project, the smaller the space you are working with, the more carefully each element has to be considered. A desktop site offers all kinds of contextual information—sort of like peripheral vision— that can’t fit on a mobile screen. Simplicity becomes a necessity. That can be freeing, but it doesn’t come easily.
JC: The main challenge was to make a site with complex menus and a huge number of pages function on a small mobile screen in an intuitive way that preserved the great design SVA is known for.
What are some of the things we’ll be able to do on our phones in the next five years than we can’t now?
MW: As far as SVA is concerned, applying online and registering for classes are both on the horizon. Aspects of augmented, mediated and virtual reality will be explored, but it’s not clear yet how they will be part of our users’ experience. To answer the question another way, many people will have to learn how to put their phones down and pay attention to what is happening around them.
JC: The fact that we still call them phones is already an anachronism. They are devices that resemble computers or some new form of communication contraption beyond anything Alexander Bell or the geniuses at Bell labs would have recognized in the last century. I imagine the physical nature of what we call phones will shrink to almost nothing and new forms of interaction that are emerging such as voice and gesture will rapidly take over. Our bodies will become more enmeshed in the digital experience rather than viewing it as something external to us or merely a communication device such as a traditional phone.
How should artists and entrepreneurs be thinking about the mobile web?
MW: As Eric Corriel, SVA’s lead web designer and developer, has said, the nature of the mobile web makes it, quite possibly, the most accessible and widespread medium ever invented. If artists are traditionally interested in repurposing and subverting mediums, then this raises questions like, “What does beauty look like on a mobile device?” and, “How can mobile web be used to reimagine what the Internet and virtual experiences should be?” If entrepreneurs are traditionally interested in innovation, then that raises questions like, “How can I use the most accessible medium ever to help as many people as I can?”
JC: When I teach or lecture at SVA, I always try to provoke students to think about and create things that were not possible in the 20th century. That is their unique opportunity. But it is hard to be creative on a high level without getting caught up in the criteria and context of the past. So the mobile web is one of the early glimpses of what a new world of creative expression might be. Individuals or small companies can make casual mobile games that become worth billions of dollars. Artists and all kinds of creative people can produce work and distribute it with an ease and complexity that was never possible before.
Jean Cocteau had this great quote that movies will only become a great medium when a camera and projector are as ubiquitous as a pen and paper. That moment has only just begun.
Michael, you spent many years working on magazines. How does that experience guide you on a project like this?
MW: I’ve had rich experiences with some of the greatest editors, writers, photographers, illustrators, artists and art directors around, and I suppose some of that was bound to rub off!
John, as co-founder of Red Hot (the international not-for-profit organization dedicated to fighting AIDS through music and pop culture) and as an attorney who’s represented clients from Jonathan Demme to Art Spiegelman, you’ve been at the forefront of innovative media and technology for years. What makes the mobile web so important?
JC: My personal evolution from making pro-social traditional media through Red Hot to digital design through Funny Garbage has been to adapt to rapidly changing types of behavior enabled by technology. While the albums that Red Hot makes are still fairly similar, the way people listen to them and access all kind of information through the web has evolved in a radical way.
Observe how rapidly the biggest digital companies in the world—Google, Facebook and Apple—have evolved from desktop products and services to mobile-centric experiences. The web is now something that we live in and not just something we access from time to time. In the end, it’s not the device; it’s the ubiquity of digital experiences that define the era we live in.