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Ad Lib: Web designer - tragic hero?
by Andrea Baker, Special to AdBanter.com


Consider the plight of the Web ad designer. Trained, more than likely, in commercial print design, he comes to work, his imagination ablaze with visual ideas in millions of colors. His inner child wants to play. And what does the Web give him to play with? The equivalent of a box of eight crayons and a plain piece of paper. No scissors, folding or glitter allowed.

To designers brought up in the world of print, the Web offers seemingly few design options. They are forced to drastically simplify their banners in order to speed up the amount of time it takes to squeeze through the electronic pipeline and onto a computer screen. (Telephone lines, ill-equipped for the monumental task presented by the Internet, seem so archaic now, so hopelessly 20th century.)

Accustomed to doing press checks where they discern even the most subtle variations in color, these designers chafe at the notion that different monitors see colors differently and that browsers can play havoc with their work.

Every design element is costly in terms of download time. So art directors must adopt a "depression-era" mentality: 'What design elements can we do without? How can we make-do with less?'

While load time is a huge factor, space is another. With the size of a typical ad only slightly bigger than a postage stamp is this the canvas that world-beating artists yearn for?

Clearly the life of an online ad designer is one only a tragic hero or artist-turned-profiteer would choose. Otherwise, what artist in his right mind would submit to such tyranny? I decided to find out.

I called Jim Mousner, president of Houston-based Origin Design. With an impressive track record in both print and online media, Mousner seemed a good target for interrogation.

In so many words, I asked Mousner how awful the life of a Web designer really is. But he didn't bite. "If you really understand the technology, you can go a long way toward transcending the Web's limitations," he said. "It's just like anything: The restrictions are only as great as you allow them to be. Of course, you have to follow the rules. You use Web-safe color palettes. You use graphic file formats that help you minimize file sizes. All that goes without saying. But the key, regardless of the medium of expression, is to come up with good, solid ideas and visuals that capture people's attention."
To Mousner, the creative part of design happens in the back-of-the-house space of the mind. "The Web forces you to prioritize the message and get it down to its essentials. Banner advertising is like a 30-second TV spot ... except you have only three seconds. You have to tell a story or send a message in a very short period of time. So you have to get down to the basics of what that message is."

Mousner says banner design is really not that different from designing for other media. "Everything has built-in limitations," he says. "Compare it to a newspaper ad, for example. Suppose you have to do a one-color, quarter-page ad. Certainly that's a limitation compared to getting to do a four-color brochure. But a really good creative person has the ability to make either assignment powerful and effective."

In art, as in science, elegance is often a byproduct of minimalism. A surfeit of lines, or numbers or animated frames only tends to boggle up the works. Mousner says that an animated banner sequence that seems to cry out for multiple frames can probably be reduced to just a few and be made stronger as a result.

According to Mousner, the exciting thing about banner advertising is how it can be part of a design "whole." Origin often pulls the visuals for its online work from offline materials and from the client site itself. "That way, the banner references the place that the user clicks to. When users go to the site, it "looks like" the ad they just left and thereby extends the visual impact. Banners draw people in with an immediacy that doesn't exist elsewhere. And I find that very exciting, very rewarding."



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