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The Ephemeral Nature of Design

Last Friday, Bert asked me to name a few cool projects we had created recently. My mind drew a blank. Not that we hadn’t made anything cool, far from it. It’s just very rare to ever look back. Once a project is delivered, we’re usually already too busy working on the next one to sit down and contemplate on our achievements. As they say over here: Out of sight, out of heart.

For the past fifteen years, I have, as a graphic designer, worked on all kinds of internet projects. And if there is one thing I understand, it’s that a lot of what I create is ephemeral. Some of the designers I know never wanted to make the switch to digital, because when you design for print, you at least have something substantial that you can touch and feel at the end of the day. With digital, everything remains virtual. Add to that, I work in a fast paced sector and much of what I create will soon quickly become outdated or obsolete.

One example of this are those banner ads that annoy website visitors to no end. Banners are probably one of the most visible yet anonymous things I regularly get to create. It’s quite often that I’ll come across creations I myself have worked on while visiting mainstream sites in Belgium, and in lesser part also the European ones. At the same time, I also know that in a week or two, it will disappear without a trace, never to be seen again by the public at large. And chances are, I probably never will too.

There is another dimension to the ephemeral nature of what I do. My field of work is in constant change, always evolving, always in perpetual revolution. It takes quite some effort to keep up, but it also poses a huge problem when archiving my creations. Even if I meticulously backup everything I do and make sure it’s safely stored, there is still no guarantee I’ll be able to access those very same files in ten years from now. Chances are, I probably won’t be able too.

Case in point is my graduation project created just over ten years ago. It’s slowly degrading with every passing year. It was an experiment in interactive storytelling. New media was truly new back then and I wanted a way of telling stories in an immersive way just like books and films still do. Making it was a huge headache as I was constantly hitting against the limits of the hardware and software I had available to me the time. Many problems of which have luckily disappeared since then, in part, thanks to Moores Law.

Ten years later and many of the source files have been lost to hard drive crashes. The source files I do still have can’t be accessed anymore. They were saved on state-of-the-art hard drives of the time, a technology that isn’t supported in this day and age. While the data on them may still be ok, I have no way of hooking them up to a modern computer anymore. Nor is format of the source files supported anymore. The application I created them in has long been discontinued.

While I did find the final release, the CD it was burnt on is also in a state of decay. Despite being protected from light all these years, the CD itself has become scarily transparent. You can see right through it and most CD drives can’t even read it anymore. So while I still could, I made a backup on a computer where it still did work. The next problem I faced was the software I created it in. Not only the source files, but the final output files aren’t supported anymore. The run-time I had created back then won’t run on the newer operating systems that have since followed. After quite some reconfiguring and almost crashing my computer entirely, I finally did get it to run, but only half of it worked. In other words, unless I can get my hands on vintage hardware and software, my graduation project is pretty much lost with time. Or recreate it from scratch.

I did manage to recover some of the videos I had created for my story and remixed them into short you can see above. Without the interactivity and context, it probably doesn’t make much sense. But considered as an abstract form of digital poetry, I think it might just work. The original version was about the city of Qin. In it, we follow four characters who struggle to survive and break free from a highly sanitized and impersonal society. It’s still sad though. If I still had access to the original source files, I could re render the 3D animations in better quality and higher resolution than what was possible at the time.

While I was searching through my archives for more stuff around Qin, my biggest surprise was finding some of papers I had written during my school years. One was about the prairie houses built by Frank Lloyd Write. Another was about an ambitious dream house I had designed for myself. Unlike many of my designs, they had withstood the test of time quite well. Maybe my fellow print designers were right. Not only is paper more tactile, it also has a better chance of outlasting its digital counterparts. And so while I still have the paper versions, even if I do find the digital source files, chances are that I won’t be able to open them either. They are worth posting online, but that does mean retyping everything over again.

Does it bother me? Not really. Just like with everything else in life, nothing lasts forever. The things worth saving will be saved and the rest will be left behind as technology progresses. As a result, I see myself as a designer that creates ephemeral things. I used to worry about not having an up to date portfolio. Now, I would rather concentrate on creating my own things. The Pangaea Expedition is one such example. If it stands the test of time of some of the other things I’ve created, well, that remains to be seen. One can only try.

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