Oral History of Designing and Building Things on the Internet by Matthew Cook


I’ve found the oral history of the broader web industry surprisingly important. There are entire eras of web history that are mostly superfluous now, except when it comes to context. While unearthing trends and best practices of days gone by, blog posts and ancient RSS feeds don’t really give the full picture. Oral history is important because it sets the base for reactionary progress and appropriate adherence to tried and true practices.

For instance, finding a definition for “bare URL” is easy enough, but getting the story on why “www.” exists and what we would do differently with web addresses today if we could start over is another thing entirely. The type of insight required to speak intelligently about something like that comes from perspective across skill sets and time, and is invaluable when reinventing how things work—especially when you apply it to a project at hand.

Oral history in our industry isn’t important because it’s better than written or video blogged contributions. It’s important because it’s fast, contextual, and (again) reactionary. Oral history has the blessing of being recalled situationally, not just by keyword or search rankings.

It also creates vision that connects dots, whether there are dots or not, with the advent of new technologies. It gives context to things like the Apple keynote this week. Who is Kevin Lynch and what’s so interesting about him demoing the Apple watch? Why does it matter that he was the CTO of Macromedia? Why are all of the old Flash guys like, “Nooooo Kevin!”?

We all have gaps in our understanding of the internet and how the world of the wider web works (see what I did there?). Take for example a team working together out of a small agency, shouldering the redesign of an animation heavy website. Fair warning, it’s story time:

The Art Director has been designing sites since the 90’s, the Senior Designer has been in the industry since 2007, and the intern on the project just dropped out of college last year in hopes of getting a job; this is her 3rd project. There are a lot of potential directions this team could take, and at a brainstorming session they look to the Art Director to set them down the right path. As she looks out at her team, the Art Director realizes the gaps in understanding.

Her Senior Designer is thinking about what this site will look like as a suite of experiences across multiple devices. He’s excited about the incremental changes between screen sizes and is noodling on break points and how each platform’s design can best suit a particular user.

Next, she remembers how her intern laughed nervously over lunch yesterday while telling her that she’s never even learned how to design for a non-responsive site, and she’s nervous about the process and deliverables involved in doing anything outside of her wheelhouse.

Finally, she recognizes she’s imagining what this site would have looked like in Flash, and her sense of best-of-breed practice tends to flow step-by-step from what was fresh when she first started to what is cutting edge today. She has solid basis for where her ideas are coming from, and she’s thinking with a high amount of originality.

This is a super simplistic scenario that leaves out a lot of things to consider, but there’s a powerful dynamic here, and we’re not even thinking about how the developers could and should fit into this conversation. Some Art Directors would just steamroll the design conversation at this point and send everyone scurrying after tossing together some inspiration and sending it to everyone. A much more helpful choice would be to give context to the project.

Imagine the Art Director talking about how she sees what designers used to accomplish with Flash as the foundation for a lot of current animation-heavy interactive design. She fleshes out design for multiple screen resolutions and the changes in design processes she’s experienced and invites her team to think about what the next step forward from current trendy designs could be. Instead of sending her team around the internet for other site designs they like, equipped only with a few loose concepts, she’s given them almost 20 years of design history condensed down over lunch. She just cherry-picked the most salient pieces of relevant information to add intent and clarity of purpose.

There’s a tremendous amount of power that guidance like this can hold when it’s specific to audience and context. This rehearsed oral history helps us know why to do or not do something. What to do can be shepherded after.

So be a historian, and be ready to dispense wisdom in a way that isn’t preachy or condescending. Good historians don’t use gibberish. They speak in layman’s terms and explain jargon. They speak to the level of their least educated listener, and they call out potential while inviting contribution and inclusion. They also don’t presume to know the only or even the best solution for a given problem, even though they’re seasoned problem-solvers. Instead they shoulder the burden of informing the group, adding perspective, and responsibly ensuring success.

I’ve been been blessed by people who have dispensed this context beautifully, and also been cursed by other’s who are misinformed, careless, or belligerent leaders.

The nature of the internet and the speed of it’s change tends to give us grizzled, bearded ancients and organizational oracles. It’s given us leaders who have lived through multiple dynasties of technology, and occasionally stalwarts who refuse to leave a dying technology. We’ve also gotten plenty of sunshine soldiers and snake oil salesmen who pedal manipulative practices or contrived temporary results. All of these groups thrive on either sharing their own perception, or the lack of other’s perspective.

So, take it from someone who wasn’t really aware of what it took to build things on the internet before iPhones existed: talking others through the highs and lows of the internet’s history is really important and helpful. Fill in gaps. Breathe life into an industry that a lot of times feels like it’s more interested in sparkle, fresh, simple, innovative, disruptive…etc. Contextualize what’s important. The history of the internet and it’s designs, technology, and content is well documented, but history isn’t just facts. It’s how they are arranged and the perspective you communicate them with.