Thomas Byttebier

Freelance digital designer

Documenting digital design

One of my co-workers had the idea of opening a digital design library. He wanted to create a lasting collection of the most inspiring digital design out there. Spot-on interactions, beautiful visual design, perfect copy… It would be a place of inspiration right inside our studio, for everyone to dig into.

While I absolutely loved the idea, I told him it would be very tricky to do. Digital is a wild beast, hard to put into a cage. 

When designing a book, you control the form of the book. You control the grain of the paper. You control the colors. You control the coating of the cover, the size of the margins and the typeface it’s set in.

Ten years from now, the book’s main characteristics will be exactly like you designed them today.

But when designing websites, you don’t even control half of that. If you build it well, you control the content it publishes. And that’s about it.

Some may see your smooth animations. Some may see a grayscale version of the photos. Some may see the expanded navigation. Some may touch to navigate. Some may see a hi-res wide version. Heck, some may even listen to your website.

And the worst is: that’s the reality of today. We can’t even begin to guess how our digital products will be consumed tomorrow.

Earlier this week I wanted to demo an iPhone app a friend and I released back in 2009. It had a gimmicky way of scrolling through content. However, as the app is not available anymore, I could only demo static screenshots. I had to verbally explain the interaction. That just doesn’t work. I realized it would take me days to rehab a non-retina iPhone that could run the app the way it was designed for.

A few weeks before that, I wanted to glance back at a naive PHP web site I did as my graduation project back in 2002. The code appeared too outdated for today’s standards. It wouldn’t run. Interactions that took me weeks to design, seem gone forever.

I figured that if good design is timeless, we’re pretty much screwed in digital.

The uncontrollable nature of the web is one of its biggest assets. And the speed of evolution makes digital an extremely rewarding area to work in. But it equally makes some simple questions very hard to answer. Like how to preserve interactive websites, apps, games and software for future generations. How can we document interaction in a non-interactive way?

I first assumed a collection of videos could suffice, like it’s done to some extent on gallery websites. But now I’d like to push it further, make it richer, more real. The challenge really is how to get as close as possible to the product’s original user experience.

If we solve that, we’ll know how to create the digital design library inside our studio in the most fulfilling way. That’s quite something! So if you figured it out, I’d love to hear about it. 🙃