Technofile

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The Independent Culture
"Here's Three Keyboard Shortcuts," writes Matthew Fuller. "Now Form a Multimedia Company." If you don't get it, you're not old enough. It makes a nice change to find a cultural reference, especially in the digital press, that is incomprehensible to people under 35. The original was a famous page in the punk fanzine Sniffin' Glue, which presented three chord diagrams and ordered the reader, "Now form a band".

Mute, the "art and technology newspaper" which carried Fuller's piece, looks nothing like a photocopied fanzine. It bears as close a resemblance as possible to the Financial Times: accuracy and complexity are the watchwords in hypermedia. Unlike guitars, computers don't produce a satisfying noise if mistreated; they just don't work. At first glance, you might not realise that the Web is the new rock'n'roll.

You wouldn't know it from leafing through Website Graphics: The Best of Global Site Design, a glossy album from Mediamatic, a Dutch new media magazine and publisher. It's published at pounds 29.95 by Thames & Hudson, giving us a book about hypermedia to look at while we wait for their CD-ROM art encyclopedia. A book in the hand is worth two multimedia titles in development.

The texts accompanying the pictures of the 40 featured sites are a mixed bag. Some try to get by on adjectival bluff, such as the one that describes a site's design as "beautiful, slightly mysterious, somewhat dysfunctional, yet very organic". Others know what they want to say. "The challenge facing designers working with new media is not about shifting paradigms, re-engineering, or 'being digital'," observes Clement Mok. "It is about using design to find order and opportunity in the disorder generated by the computing medium." Well said; and what goes for designers goes for the rest of us, whether we use words, images or computer code. It's rock'n'roll, but you have to dot your i's and cross your t's.

There's a European bias to the collection, offering welcome pointers to hypermedia in places where English is only the second language. The sites range from esoteric art projects to commercial ventures, such as the official Audi site, and educational exercises such as a children's guide to Norway. These are not patently the 40 best-designed sites on the Web, and some choices are more convincing than others, but the set does justice to the current state of the Web's art.

Its idea of the arts themselves is, of course, overwhelmingly visual, but writing gets its foot through the door with a crossover site by "media- artist" Merel Mirage. Poem * Navigator [sic] is based on half a dozen lines of verse written by Li Po, a Tang Dynasty poet, in 754AD. The English lines are linked to their Chinese pictograms in a labyrinthine architecture which externalises some of the work of reading poetry, making connections across the lines as well as along them. It also explores the meaning of the pictograms, beautifully rendered with shadows, so that they appear to hover above the surface of the screen, a uniform sea of cardiac red.

Pictograms satisfy the designer's hankering for icons, but for my money you can't beat the Latin alphabet as a way to set the Web on fire. After browsing through the book, the site I called up first was that of the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. The letters of the name download in random order, but whichever way they appear, they spell Neville Brody. Combined with intelligent layout, they make this site clear, strong, bold, and above all, tolerably fast. On close inspection, though, the finish is disappointing, with uninspired body text and stray files that don't load. It's a sorry thing to have to say about Web design, but the book is better than the real thing.

http://www.poptel.org.uk/technofile/

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