Design in Britain: New solutions for cyberspace

These days the cutting edge of design often means the world of new technologies, and UK firms are leading the way forward.

Britain has always been known for its innovative design. But over the past years, as organisations from car manufacturers to museums to television channels to independent record labels realise they have to develop an online presence, it's the UK's new media design houses that have provided brilliant solutions.

The industry has grown extraordinarily quickly. Lateral (www.lateral.net), for instance, which designs sites for The Spectator, Battersea Dogs' Home, EMI UK and Levi's Europe, started with six people in 1997; the firm now has 18 employees. Deep End (www.deepend.co.uk), which has designed sites for the VW Beetle, the Cartoon Network, Hoover and the Design Museum, was started by two people in 1994 and now employs 80.

A few of the UK's largest new media companies have recently been bought out, mainly by US competitors, such as Sunbather (now Razorfish) and Online Magic (now Agency.com, London).

"That's one survival method," admits Will Richards, art director of Bomb Productions (www.bomb. co.uk). Bomb handled the translation of the Channel 4 brand onto the Web, and co-produces all Channel 4 live chats with Stor Entertainment. But it's not necessarily the route UK new media firms have chosen to maintain their lead: small is better.

"We don't provide a whole-agency solution - we have no desire to do that sort of work," says Richards. "We push interactive entertainment, not e-commerce. We want to create a network of partners, of independent companies working together."

"We ask a database company to program some of our projects," says Hilla Neske of two-person design house Artificial Environments (www.ae-pro.com), which built a European site for sporting-goods maker Mizuno, and has done Flash animations for Boo.com and Greenpeace Digital. "Such outsourcing will mean smaller companies will be able to take over larger accounts in the future, as they can offer greater responsibility and reliability on a particular project."

New media design has already begun to influence rather than be influenced. "The Web is becoming a place that spawns design ideas, not recreating things done on other platforms, in other mediums," says Alistair Jeffs, Vice President (creative), at Agency.com. His firm designed the Compaq- sponsored MTV European Music Awards interactive voting site.

Installation design has drawn new technologies into the industry. Nykris Digital Design (www.nykris. co.uk/) has just created an interactive space for Malcolm McLaren, called The Casino of Authenticity and Karaoke, and is now working on the You Are Connected gallery of the @ Bristol millennium exhibition.

"We're looking at new ways of capturing data and integrating it in a museum environment," says Nykris director Nikki Barton. One innovation is sensor pads that register visitors' presence at an exhibit. "New media is at a stage that's very exciting - things are really starting to come together."

Other new technologies, including interactive TV and WAP (wireless application protocol), which allows delivery of multimedia content over mobile phones, will alter the industry still further. "We're at a crossroads in terms of design," says Hilla Neske. "The new technologies force designers to think in terms of time-based, dynamic images and animation, not static, downloadable pages."

The industry here has grown up in a very different way from that in the US, which - though nearly a decade older - is not necessarily more sophisticated. "California is regarded as the mecca for the Internet, but it's a technical mecca," says Jeffs. "The creative aspects there are quite limited."

Desiree Miloshevic, head of soon-to-launch MusicBank.net, describes the difference in this way: "The US has a technological aesthetic, the UK a futuristic aesthetic. If the US is lo-fi rock - atmospheric, trashy, Kids - Europe is drum-and-bass, iconic, idealised, Trainspotting..."

A little healthy fear of the US is no bad thing. "A lot of the innovation in the way the UK is developing new media design, especially on the Web, is due to us being scared of being left behind," explains Dorian Moore, technical director of Kleber Design Ltd, which does sites for several independent record labels.

"The British mind seems to be about building `small good things', not the biggest and most garish," he adds. "We're not as trapped in the commercially driven mindset as the Americans, and we still appreciate the value of innovation, rather than one-upmanship. The British aren't scared of making a statement, of being alternative, of standing out from the crowd."

The new media industry, no matter how peculiarly British, must continue to mature if it is to keep up with both consumers and competitors. Jeffs fears the UK's edge might be lost if we don't "get the industry and the educational system working together - going out and putting money behind programmes that let students know what works and what doesn't, so they're better able to face commercial reality."

"There are many companies at very different stages of development," adds Daniel Bonner, creative director of AKQA (www.akqa.com). which has designed sites for The Economist, Rover, Mini, Orange and others. "If the `New Media Age' was a day long, the majority of UK companies are still at the breakfast table. But the customer is awake and waiting for great services."

"We don't necessarily have the lead in terms of design for digital media," adds Matt Jones, creative lead at Sapient, a firm of information architects. In the US, he says, successful projects have had as their overriding concern "a multidisciplinary focus on the service and value a design provides".

"The majority of UK shops have followed a marketing-advertising-design specialist route and are only now - through alliance or restructuring - moving towards providing technical and strategic solutions to the client."

Matt Jones finishes with a warning: "To rest on the laurels of our designers' republic would be dangerous."

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