no.26 vol.7 autmn 1997

Mieke Gerritzen:

Keep it simple

Mieke Gerritzen's website designs, though radical and individual, avoid giving the user too many options. She works within the Web's bandwidth restrictions, but does not hesitate to use the latest computer technology when she thinks it clarifies content and helps navigation.

She likes to work in as much different media as she can get: print, television, cd-roms, and of course the web, where everything comes together. For this new electronic medium Mieke Gerritzen has made her most eye-catching designs, mainly because they're so different compared to what we know from browsing through the web's pages. Gerritzen is one of the very few graphic designers who has been successful in translating an ultimately print based aesthetic to on-screen media. And she did so first of all by remaining true to the foundation of her discipline: the graphic language of line and colour.

Coming from a background in graphic design for print, she is steeped in the Dutch design tradition of clarity with a highly personal edge. There is a strong link to the bright primary colours and bold lines used by Pieta Wart and Paul Schuitema and she doesn't belie her roots at the Amsterdam Rietveld Academy, where she studied with Rob Stirred of Wild Platen, the dean of Dutch politically inspired graphic design. After graduating from the 'Former Audio Visual' department of the Rietveld Academy, she designed books, catalogues and posters, mainly for cultural clients, and made her first web designs for the newly founded Digital City in Amsterdam in 1994.

Gerritzen uses her graphic language to design interfaces that function as clickable metaphors, such as the home page of the 'Tactical Media Network', a site that unites a diversity of groups and institutes dedicated to the free and democratic use of the internet. The home page makes visual references to manifesto's pasted on a wall, and to the plethora of acronyms that characterize the organizational culture of collective deliberation. The manifesto feel is also conspicuously designed in the pages for We Want More Bandwidth, a pressure group initiated by the Waag Society for Documenta X in Kassel this year. Gerritzen's graphic animation plays with formal references to the skull that once used to adorn the black flags of pirate ships, and ironizes the topic by using rather low-bandwith programming. The animated words on the last page of the manifesto for more bandwidth say: 'There is no more', stressing the argument while closing off the site.

In a way, Gerritzen matured to the web via television. At the VPRO, a Dutch broadcasting company with a long standing reputation of openness to experiment, she worked on leaders, print publications, cd-roms, and the website. VPRO's site is a conglomerate of web pages dedicated to different radio and television programmes with added content that is solely accessible on the web. Here Gerritzen could explore the possibilities for mixing media and finding visual languages for sometimes quite new formats, such as the 'web-radio' interface for 'Koud Zweet' ('cold sweat'), the web's affiliate of VPRO's pop music radio programmes. An interesting aspect of this kind of websites is that they are not primarily text or image oriented. 'Stortvloed' ('deluge'), the sites real-audio radio pages, are a visual mix between a radio front and a Billboard chart - click on the names and you can hear them or rate them. The site's appearance and structure have been kept simple, obviously for reasons of user friendliness, but also to make it easy to update.

More complex is the site for the Cinema Server, an on-line database under construction, for which Gerritzen made the initial graphic designs. When finished, it  will have information on thousands of films that can be accessed through a wide variety of search titles. It shows which films will be on tv in the near future and you can set your own preferences, which the server will memorize for future visits. The project is still being developed, mainly because the makers have to decide on how much they can ask from the user - and how much the user will want from them. Gerritzen: "You should be careful not to give the user too many options. You have to think hard about what is, in a given application, useful and desirable interaction. All too often interaction designers come up with hugely complicated constructions that - in theory - give the user an enormous wealth of possibilities. That is a typical misunderstanding of people, designers and clients, who have too much background knowledge about the information they're offering. The Cinema Server is a good example: we started off by finding as much search terms as possible, as much combinations of items we could think of, the most customized and adjustable interaction imaginable - of course you drive the user crazy with that. Mostly such things are a rigmarole! They're on the verge of what is technically feasible - of course that's what the boffins get their kicks from -, but for the average user it's mostly better to keep it simple. And flexible, so you can add onto it if later developments make that desirable."

In her dealings with interaction designers and editors, Mieke Gerritzen stresses the importance of the visual aspect of the interface design, something that she finds still needs quite some missionary work. "As a graphic designer of websites you are often confronted with more layers than you can handle in a clear and consistent way", she says, "The designer should be able to direct that, to organize the levels of content, otherwise things might get fuzzy." There often is a struggle between interaction designers and graphic designers about the best way to clarify certain structures of content. And the best way, is Gerritzen's persuasion, is to develop that structure from the image, from a visual concept. "The visual aspect is the most conspicuous, that's where all the structural decisions surface! So as a designer you should be able to steer the structure. Mostly the opposite happens: you design pictures to ornament a pre-existing tree structure. You're left figuring out how to find a visual solution for a theoretical framework. In digital media images, structure and organization of the information are very closely linked, so as a graphic designer you have - or must have - an editorial role. That role is often not granted to us; we come in when the structural work has already been done."

However, in her work on the Leestafel (Reading Table) for the Amsterdam based 'De Waag, Maatschappij voor Oude en Nieuwe Media' (Society for Old and New media') Gerritzen co-operated closely with the different specialists involved in the project. The Reading Table is a traditional piece of furniture for Dutch café's, a grand table with the daily newspapers and the weekly magazines, brought up to date by incorporating in it a number of computer screens to access the newer media. It is a truly hybrid product, merging old and new media in a device that touches on interior design, product design, interaction design and graphic design. The programmatic integration of these diverse disciplines has earned it the prestigious Rotterdam Design Prize. Gerritzen's work on the interface started off with the principal idea of overruling the existing graphic interfaces of the programmes that were being used in the terminals - Eudora for e-mail and Netscape for browsing the World Wide Web. The screens should have a 'local' aesthetic, and the interfaces should be stripped down to bare necessities. Gerritzen: "Users shouldn't be forced to look through the eyes of an American software house when they are having contact with Buenos Aires, Taiwan, Paris or the neighbours next door..." Another reason to 'crop' the existing interfaces, was that the Reading Table should be accessible to absolute beginners in cyberspace - the Society's café in the great hall of the Waag, a mediaeval city gate in the old centre of Amsterdam, is not a place were only geeks gather - the table would have to attract the general public to new media. Thus, the interface provides only the basic functions of the two programmes that work behind it: reading and sending e-mail, searching and browsing the web and accessing newsgroups. The graphic interface, a collaboration of Gerritzen, visual artist Janine Huizinga and programmer Rolf Pixley, presents itself as a narrative: the 'screensaver' consists of abstracted pages that are constantly being turned - it suggests a book that one can open and browse through. Bright colours and emphatically designed buttons, that explain themselves when mouse-pointed, are integrated to form a series of screen-wide surfaces from which one can operate the machine.

The reductionist interface has been criticized as a kind of 'My-First-Browser-design', a too simple version of 'the real thing'. But Gerritzen is confident that this interface and its visual appearance work perfectly for the specific context, where you can't cater to sophisticated demands without alienating people who are less well versed in the ways of the internet. "Customizing is fine", she states, "but you shouldn't be too much ahead of the crowd. When you devise very complex constructions - just because you can do it - you may find that most of it isn't used and in stead confuses your user. Then you obscure information in stead of making it accessible! That is what interfaces do that are primarily made from a technical point of departure. They're loose sets of functions that miss a binding element. The visual aspect is often underestimated, but it has its own functionality. And the logic of the image is not always identical with the logic of the structure. This lack of understanding of the special character of a visual language often leads to shallow translations, mere renderings of flow-charts. That is so boring!"


'Koudzweet' (Coldsweat) site for VPRO radio's pop music programmes. It features information on bands and music, and is a non-stop RealAudio web-radio station as well. By clicking on the charts, visitors can hear and rate the music.

Movement is very important in Gerritzen's sites. She uses the web's dynamisms to enliven the experience of reading a short introductory text or to keep a homepage from becoming cluttered with indexed information: the 'dial' on the index page of the 1995 on-line journal of the Ars Electronica Linz festival can be moved past the category titles along its perimeter. When a title is 'moused-over' a short animated text appears in a frame in the centre, giving basic information on a subject, before one decides to follow the link by clicking it.
Designed in co-operation with Marjolijn Ruyg, Michael van Eeden

A combination of animation and interaction, this activist site stirs an awareness campaign about the problem of bandwidth and internet functionality. The blinking words 'push' and 'more', encapsulated in an expanding circle, serve both as battle cry and as hotwords for going to the next page. On the last screen of the sequence the circle holds an animation that shows the words 'there is no more' respectively, rounding off the site while stressing the argument.
Designed in co-operation with: Yariv Alterfin, Jan van den Berg

Members-only site for VNU publishers, hosted by De Waag, Society for Old and New Media, Amsterdam. The club is a learning tool for publishers to gain insight in on-line media. It functions as an 'Intranet' through which members can exchange information and comments. 26,27: The interaction is enticed by awarding the most active members 'Gold cards', a reference also to the knowledge credit that is built up by using the site.
Designed in co-operation with: Michael van Eeden, Florien Kerkmeer

Homepage for the 'Tactical Media Network', hosted by De Waag Society.

Graphic interface for De Waag Society's 'Leestafel' (reading table)
The reading table in the Grand Café supplements the traditional supply of newspapers and magazines with four computer screens. 'Hidden' under the table is a small screen for children to play games on.
When not in use, the screens show animated sequences of pages with a colourful texture built from letters.
The Leestafel's Web interface is a customized browser interface that preserves only the basic functions. When moused-over, the buttons flip to show a brief explanation of their function.

The general interface for the reading table is concentrated in a row of dots for reading and writing mail, surfing the Web, accessing newsgroups or logging into a remote server by telnet.
Clicking the 'mail' button brings out a horde of postmen and ends up with a page through which the user can enter their own mailserver.
Clicking the link to the newsgroups menu collapses the interface, before presenting the newsgroup selection page.
An animation that floods the screen with small images is triggered by clicking the 'WWW' button.
Graphic design: Mieke Gerritzen, Janine Huizinga, in co-operation with: Caroline Nevejan, Marleen Stikker / De Waag (concept); Rolf Pixley (interface design, programming); Jaap Dijkman (furniture design)

max bruinsma