This is the sixth in a series of posts about my new book, Designing Media

Neil Stevenson, March 2008

Neil brought a breath of fresh energy to IDEO when he joined in 2005, after editing the London based magazine, The Face. He assembled an amusing presentation about the history of the people behind the ideas that inform the process of human-centered design, rapid prototyping, brainstorming, and so on. His interview is set in IDEO’s location on a San Francisco pier.

Neil contrasts the way in which we consume media, either sitting back to luxuriate in the material that is offered, as in a beautifully produced magazine or a movie, or leaning forward to steer or click, as in a Web search or a message dialogue. His description of enjoying the luxury media as you would a warm bath is apt. And designing for those media is very different from designing for active participation—nobody sits back to watch Google.

Luxurious bath (Photo by Getty/Thomas Northcut)

It is dangerous to assume that the same version of content can be sent down different pipes, like print, Internet, or mobile phone; each pipe needs a design that suits both format and behavior. Neil tells the story of his own experiment with living in two parallel media worlds, one as an editor of a lavishly produced magazine and the other as the facilitator of user-generated content on an anonymous weekly email and Web site called Popbitch, about the private lives of celebrities. He points out that this kind of user-generated content, like Wikipedia, has to be created without financial rewards for the creators, as people prefer to donate their time to contribute, edit, or oversee the medium when they know that the organizers are also donating their efforts.

Screenshot from Popbitch

The design for Popbitch was aggressively all text. The Web site itself, even the logo, was done with ASCII art. Niel explains that it was deliberately kept as gritty and as cheap-looking as possible.

With celebrity journalism in Britain, if you are in possession of a saucy story about a celebrity, you can go to a tabloid newspaper and sell it and make a significant amount of money. For this Web site to get people to give stuff for free, it was important to look like an amateur operation. We deliberately designed it to look like a bedroom operation that was being done for love, not money. We got famously sued by several of the Spice Girls, David Beckham, and people like that. It became quite notorious for a while after we were outed in the Daily Mirror.

The legal challenges evaporated once the lawyers saw a list of assets, consisting of a few unsold T-shirts and an old laptop.

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