VIRTUAL VISIONS; A LOOK AT SOME WEB SITE SEERS WHO PACK SOME SERIOUS NET WORTH

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WHEN I/O 360 DISTRIBUTED ITS INTERAC-tive demo earlier this year (a downloadable version is available at http://www.io360.com), it violated all the "interface rules," admits Gong Szeto, one of five partners in this New York digital design studio. "I think people were saying, 'Where are the bevel buttons and the QuickTime movies?'" Szeto says of the simple but poetic b&w piece, which lists the firm's various capabilities in text that bobs back and forth like the numbers on a scale, all manipulated by a mouse clicking on a control bar. People were upset because it didn't resemble anything they'd seen before, he guesses. But when the promo piece won a Design Distinction Award from ID magazine, Szeto boasts, it was a "vindication."

The i/o counter-convention philosophy seems to have served this year-old digital firm well; it has expanded its client roster to include Web designs for Ogilvy & Mather and IBM, an interactive Web game called Riddler for Interactive Imaginations, and a pro bono site for the American Symphony Orchestra. The company has also done interactive work for Sony, Time Warner Interactive and Conde Nast New Media.

Enter the i/o site and it's easy to understand the distinctive point of view. A murky b&w staff portrait comes into view, headlined with "i/o 360" in hand-rendered script. A friendly introduction letter scrolls down with text studded with pictograms and visual grabs from various projects. Click on one of these visuals and you're linked to the story of its creation.

"They're not really icons," Szeto explains. "Those are edits out of a larger picture that are representative of different sections within the site. The way they're arranged on the page is never the same." Virtual reality environments are "more about the masturbation of technology rather than artistic exploration," Szeto explains. "We definitely try to veer away from that." For instance, when creating a prototype called Orion Hill, a new age Web shopping site, the client, iPro Corp., asked for a site with no resemblance to a mall. So i/o opted for an environment that captured the flavor of the retailers represented there, creating a hippie commune experience, with water color sketches and departments labeled Meeting Hall and the like-there's even a section for group prayers, all to accompany the catalogs' new age products.

I/o approached its design for IBM's Solutions for a Small Planet site on a more streamlined but equally inventive side (O&M Direct supplied the programming). In it, i/o adapted the TV and print ad campaigns, expounding on the idea of IBM's universality and its ability to provide global solutions to technological problems. For instance, instead of just digitizing the popular commercials (QuickTime commercials are available), i/o added hyperlink texts throughout the spots. When two Irish shepherds are discussing IBM in the rain, their dialogue mentions different places on earth. "Every time they referred to something other than IBM, it kicked you off the site," says Szeto, explaining how clicking on "Baaah," the background noise included in the script, will put you in The Official Sheep Home Page, an authentic site that offers sheep sound effects and links to other sheep-related topics.

"The conventional corporate wisdom is that you absolutely have to imprison your user in your site," Szeto says. That notion "is misguided and naive. The point is to get people to come back continually."

Szeto, a former architect who joined the firm in January, is in good company at i/o 360, which stands for input/output 360 degrees. The other partners-Arkadiusz Banasik, Robert Clyatt, Dindo Magallanes and Nam Szeto, brother of Gong-have backgrounds that cut across art, photography, design and computer programming.

Their rebellious spirit is also reflected in their take on traditional design navigation; while clarity is demanded by most clients, and usually is the best solution, Szeto admits, "there's also a clear side of me that says, 'F--k it'-hypertext is there and people should surf around and explore. That's the spirit of the Web."

TOTAL NEW YORK, A World Wide Web magazine that delivers a multimedia cultural tour of the city, is finding itself in an enviable situation-as one of the first online publishers, it's making ads for its advertisers who lack the wherewithal to create their own digital campaigns. "We're in a strangely privileged position," explains Andrew Wanliss-Orlebar, interface designer at Total New York, an online cross between magazine and The Village Voice, which features everything from audio clips of cabbies and subways to profiles of underground bands to nightclub listings. As a daily Internet publisher, Wanliss-Orlebar explains, "We can enter into a dialogue with a client and help them understand what makes a good site."

One of the overriding philosophies at Total New York (www.totalny.com) is to link the content from editorial to ads, and to insure that ads are packed with information or entertainment value. For instance, Wanliss-Orlebar explains that when the Manhattan restaurant Metropolis Cafe wanted to post menus for its interactive ad, Total New York suggested a concept that shows how the place changes throughout the day, morphing from a calm lunchtime eatery to a chic nightclub.

Total New York also linked an interview with Nobu, the owner of an eponymous popular Japanese restaurant, with an ad for the restaurant. Rather than presenting typical shots of glorious food spreads, the ad contains trivia on how to eat sushi and the comic tantrums people throw trying to get a table at this posh New York eatery.

It doesn't hurt that Sun Microsystems is a big sponsor of the site, using it as an incubator for its new multimedia authoring language, Java, and the accompanying browser, HotJava, which together are apparently making great strides in online animation, interactivity, audio and video.

And if all of this hyperlinking sounds confusing, Wanliss-Orlebar, who has a background in communication studies and design, stresses that it takes more than a graphic design degree to get a handle on this medium. "What you're crafting is not just pages but a process," he says, comparing that process to filmmaking. "You're designing the space between the pages as much as the pages themselves.

"Design here can be everything," he adds. "A badly designed site won't just look bad-people won't understand it. It can fail to even be a site."

PETER SEIDLER, CREATIVE DIRECTOR AT NEW YORK'S Avalanche Systems, an interactive design firm, has some strong notions of what works and what doesn't in Web site design, including the oft ignored, "Just because you can do it, doesn't mean you should do it."

Seidler is singling out the "blink feature," that "horrible html tag" that Avalanche used once in an NBC site in which a theme park sign flashed its message, befitting the arcade experience. "You go into some sites," he says, "and everything is blinking-it's like everyone screaming or making things really big. It's a horror show."

Screaming for attention certainly isn't in keeping with this year-old digital agency's style. With its Web Sites for Elektra Records, FAO Schwarz, NBC and Paper magazine (viewable through www.avsi.com), Avalanche strives for attention via inviting environments that evoke an "emotional presence," says Seidler. The point is to "create a complete experience; it's not just a clickstream." And that, he adds, "is really difficult in a cold electronic environment."

Enter the Elektra Entertainment Group site and wander around the company's New York office, rendered in bright pastels. Click your way down the hall and pop into the publicity department, where you can access band signings, press releases, tour schedules or new releases; these, in turn, can lead you to downloadable video and audio clips.

After photographing Elektra's New York highrise office, Seidler says they modified it to appear as a homey, one-story structure on the Web. "The record industry is really intimidating," he explains.

Seidler, a conceptual installation artist with an MFA from Cal Arts, was one of the founders of Avalanche, which opened last year with a staff of three. It's since grown to 20, a mix of designers and programmers who are constantly beta testing new technology and software.

While online purchases promise to explode the market, many companies still need a crash course on the Internet, Seidler believes, explaining how many clients still don't understand the Web's overall sense of community. The whole idea is "about a constant communication with the rest of the Net, and who else is out there," he says, noting how Avalanche tries to link every site with sites on related topics.

"Clients have to learn that what they have to sell is the community," he says. "And it's not even the product-they should give the product away. That's the

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