Some reflections on the festival, the people, and the country I’ve spent my last week enjoying.
OFFF is an interactive festival, exhibit, and about as close to a design industry trade show as you’re going to find. 2004 was its fourth year, and the first in Valencia (the prior years have run in Barcelona from what I hear).
The interesting thing about OFFF is that it brings together a bunch of people that could be labelled as ‘digital artists’, but doesn’t discriminate about each specialty. There were video and audio people, web people, a lot of Flash people, and the kind of artistes that do work in any media they can get away with and do it well enough to make you weep a river of green tears.
Notably, the catchline for OFFF 2004 was: “I am not a digital artist, I am a _______”. It was up to each individual to fill in the blanks. When interviewed I think I produced the blandest of possible answers (“user interface something-or-other”) but the point was more to showcase the diversity of the field, and bring together the different specialties and celebrate the differences.
What kept occuring to me was that I was a representative of only one small piece of the overall pie; the context of the festival was largely web design, and the people who attended were undoubtedly supremely talented. The web is a large place though, and you and I and everyone else liable to read this represent the smallest of small fractions of those who use it, create it, and live it. There are other people doing it who don’t see things the same way as you or I.
For example: I was one of the few presenters who used a Mac, and every PC there seemed to be using Internet Explorer exclusively. The audience at SXSW was, by contrast, about 85% Mac. I don’t think I saw a single browser by the Mozilla organization gracing any screen other than my own. There was no wireless; internet access for the conference was handled by a set of PCs in a ‘wired room’ which all ran IE.
Some of this is just cultural difference. Spain is a country lax on software licensing, I heard from some individuals. The pirated CDs and movies for sale in the open on the streets of the tourist areas seemed to confirm this. (DVDs of the movies playing in theaters were for sale right outside the theater, in some cases.) Why this supports a monoculture when so much great open source software is legitimately available, I don’t know; perhaps there’s a correlation if awareness of the alternatives is lower.
Macs are undeniably expensive outside of the US, and Mac prices are all wrapped up in hardware which, at last check, you couldn’t duplicate digitally. Ask me some time how many Canadian dollars I’ve invested in Apple so far in my less-than-a-year of conversion. And wireless is popular in the US and growing in Canada, but it’s still an emerging technology elsewhere. I’m glad I brought my ethernet cable (and even more glad that the conference had some North American to European power cables that allowed me to actually plug in; the 34% on my battery when I arrived wasn’t going to last through the presentation.)
But when it comes down to it, a lot of the non-technology-oriented mindset results from the technology and tools used to build the final product being seen as incidental to many people. Flash is popular amongst designers because cross-browser issues are non-existent. It has an authoring environment that allows for intuitive, true WYSIWYG design. CSS has no equivalent for either of these. ‘Markup’ and ‘coding’ are concepts that get in the way of a designer’s ability to design.
Though more of the world is buying into standards-based design, it’s becoming more apparent that standards are moving to the background as a tool and a way of getting things done, and more attention is being focused on the work itself. This is a good change, but there’s still a vast difference between understanding the benefits of standards, and using them in your work. The reality is that proper browser support requires hacks and clever workarounds, and these are the sort of things that seem like mystical voodoo to those who just want to get the job done.
I have no conclusions, only anecdotes. I was exposed to a different way of thinking this past week that represents how a large portion of those creating for the web view what they do. It’s easy to forget they exist, but they’ll be the majority for a time yet. Perhaps there needs to be more focus by those people on the technology itself, but perhaps there needs to be more focus on the actual work by those of us who get it.
The recent standards backlash has been a healthy wake up call. Perhaps now would be a good time to quit obsessing over the latest validation war and start talking about the final product a little more.