Essay :: Looking Back — Looking Ahead

An Open Letter to the Design Community

By Thomas Van Hare, Chairman, IPPA / Digital Minute

It doesn’t seem like all that long ago, really. This web thing started with such promise. For most of us, the revolution began on a tiny little desk, more often than not it was in a cubicle at some faceless bureaucracy, a place so dull and gray that its antithesis formed the basis of our hopes and dreams. For others, it began from the small closet-sized home office. For a few, it began in the lightness that is cornerstone of our imagination.

I think back on the early years. From 1994 through 1998, it seemed as if we were ignited with an enthusiasm born of the potential of our New Media. The world was changing and, as designers, we were in the driver’s seat. We abandoned the traditions of the workplace, the existing structures of commerce and the day-to-day challenges of living in the bureaucracy. We focused on creating a new world, not just for ourselves in the workplace, but for the rest of mankind. It seemed like a heady time and we approached it with unending energy, turning even the greatest obstacles into little more than speed bumps on the road to the digital revolution.

Global communications, information as a free resource and a new social order seemed just a click away. Behind it all were three driving forces as inexorable as our faith in the promise of the future — open capitalism, free democratic thought and trust in the goodness of man.

It was happening so fast. Month after month, a new technology, a new coding trick or some new plug-in emerged. We were all stressing out on the dreaded “learning curve.” Internet years began to be measured like dog years. And if that wasn’t fast enough, someone coined the term “Java Years” to describe a new, faster 45-day development cycle. Yet we forged ahead, our faith in the promise of what we were doing carrying us onward.

The Business of the Web

In the early days, people and businesses asked, “What’s e-mail?” By 1996, they were asking, “What’s this web thing?” Then they had to know it all. A new question emerged, “Am I being left behind?” Then, baldly going where everyone was already going, they demanded, “How do we make money with this?”

And there was money — lots of it. Internet projects sprang up left and right, budgets were fat, the promise of profits kept thousands of hungry venture capitalists at the trough. And if you had a DotCom in your company name, all you needed was the idea and you could get funding. Then you did the IPO and the price went up, and everyone got rich, no matter what was on your balance sheet.

A whole new generation of firms emerged — many of them cataloged right here in the IPPA’s own StudioONE list. Names like Razorfish, Agency.com, Icon Medialab, marchFIRST, and so many more emerged as global businesses with thousands of staff. A new workplace ethic was born. Budgets were fat, salaries were good and there was freedom to work in new ways, flexible hours, creative atmosphere, non-traditional meetings — even a new dress code emerged.

The Internet Professional Publishers Association (IPPA), once a small association of a few hundred designers in the Spring of 1995, grew to over 14,000 members by 2000, making it one of the largest design associations online, if not the largest.

The Crash of the 2000

Then it all seemed to crack. The Wall Street DotBomb crash of March 10, 2000, hit like a ton of bricks. Suddenly, if your company name had a DotCom at the end, your stock price plummeted, no matter what your profitability.  The IPPA’s membership went from 14,000 to 8,000 within the span of just six months (interestingly, by 2004, that number would increase back up to 17,000, surpassing its previous high).

Today, we are all well past that DotCom Doomsday, yet the damage done is immeasurable. The NASDAQ is still recovering and the economy is down. Tech stocks are seriously depressed. Many of the once high-flying Net stocks are as valuable as toilet paper. The companies that once defined the digital revolution are in layoffs and write-offs. The biggest was from marchFIRST, down over 30 percent of staff (from a high of over 10,000) and taking a 6.5 billion dollar write-off — that’s right, billion, not million.

Across the board, the DotCom Doomsday has taken its toll. Salaries are down, hiring freezes have iced the landscape, and the once “new work order” has adopted the old work world’s worst terminology: pink slips, cut-backs and red ink.

The emotional damage, however, was even greater than the financial.  For many designers, the layoffs and depression that followed were experienced in very personal ways.  Fortunes were lost, but more significantly, there seemed to be a crisis of confidence in the world of design.  It seemed as if the design community was being brought face-to-face with a basic question: was the digital revolution dead?

And into the gap stepped the technologists who failed to appreciate the true value of design.  Whereas before the designers drove the technology, from 2001 onward, the technologists would take the driver’s seat.

The Carcasses of our Shared Past

The landscape of the Net is littered with the carcasses of failed ventures. The death bleats of a thousand websites sing through a dozen URLs that track the DotCom downfall — the best of the lot is FuckedCompany.com. Companies like Boo.com are gone, and back again, but where to next? DrKoop.com is down and perhaps dead. Submarine.com went under. Razorfish fell into deep depression, ultimately merged with Avenue A, and then disappeared.  Agency.com went into layoffs. Organic is in cutbacks and on the path to the grave. marchFIRST is dead — the biggest and best had become little more than a footnote and a bankruptcy proceeding. And the New York Times and Wall Street Journal read like the DotCom Obituaries.

Yet there is a positive side. Somehow, despite the market climate, the landscape of global commerce has changed. Businesses all have e-mail. Almost everything is digital. The few designers who don’t use a computer are now termed, “designosaurs.” A lot of potential was realized. A lot of new technologies came into common use. And if you can stop to breathe the air, you will realize that we are better off than we used to be. A lot of businesses did make it to profitability. A good idea is still a good idea. And the revolution was, and is, and will be a success. The world did change, even if people remained, well, essentially the same.

Maybe it doesn’t matter that the once heady days of individualism and creative energy have steadied a bit. The design community has stopped running the race. Changes come much slower now and each generation of design philosophy and visual strategy evolves with more thought and consideration than ever before.

Looking Ahead to the Next Generation

Where do we go now with this IPPA thing?

We could do the same old thing. We could all look back with nostalgia, papering over the real issues with an ongoing search for the “next, cool thing”. But why? The world has changed. The market has changed. So too, we must all change.

Gone are the days when a new, hot, really neat design could catch the attention of the world’s design community. Our onetime excitement has become ennui. Day in, day out, it seems like it is “just another website.”

For businesses who once searched the IPPA rolls for hot design shops, budgets are gone or shrinking. Instead, the marketplace seems more careful, cautious and conservative. Interest has faded to dark humor and cynicism. The redesign industry, once almost half of the field, has all but dried up. The days of vast e-commerce empires are dying, gone the way of “Boo.com”.

There are a lot of things happening out there. Just not in the same old ways.

We are entering into a period of “evolution”, where we are considering what comes next in this great digital revolution. We recognize that to be of use, we all must change our basic model. For the past year, we’ve known it here at the IPPA / Digital Minute. As the principal and founder, I’ve taken a break from online media and answered a call from the White House to assist in the reconstruction of Iraq.  This seems hardly a break with time to think and consider what we should now become.

The Evolution of the IPPA / Digital Minute

From us, this is what you can expect. We know now that the DX Awards will be different. When we return to this — and it will be some time — the tone of this publication will be less about “What’s hot” and “How that design works.”  Instead, we will take a more thoughtful approach to this medium. We will remain ever focused on the commercial world and will strive to incorporate a new vision of the next generation.  We will try to help shape our understanding of design and this new medium so as to help lead the way through discussion and editorial thought.  More than ever, it is clear that the future will require a new way of doing business.  The next generation of the digital revolution will be even more exciting and unexpected than the last.

Today, we are still only 2% of the way into the digital revolution.

At IPPA / Digital Minute, our focus will remain on design and commerce. We will feature the best and brightest, the hottest studios and agencies and the most interesting works. We will talk about the business side of things, about the new world of design and the new directions that are emerging. We will focus on the future and on life. And we will take design to the next stage and ask ourselves what is the vision now, what is the future. We intend to stop being a spotlight and start being a lighthouse.

So stay tuned. We will be taking a long break — perhaps for several years — but we will return. We’ll be here. We’re heading into the new generation to catch a glimpse of the new revolution.

Thank you.