Nancy Flint and Professor John Sparrow,
University of Central England,
Birmingham, UK.

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A graphic designer's considerations

in multimedia application development

Nancy Flint

26 Bond Street, Stirchley, Birmingham B30 2LA

Prof. John Sparrow

University of Central England in Birmingham, Business School

Perry Barr, Birmingham B42 2SU


Over the last five years, the word 'multimedia' has infiltrated many aspects of everyday life, arising through a constant flow of technologically sophisticated, yet often speculative applications. However this pattern of development is changing, as multimedia is increasingly identified and interpreted in terms of its communicative potential. This has meant that those traditionally associated with the design of communications, i.e. graphic designers, have found themselves increasingly involved in a new and unique medium. This paper reports the major findings of a (PhD) study, which capture the considerations of a graphic designer, whilst designing two prototype multimedia applications. Detailed concurrent verbal protocols, sketches, and video recordings of the design process, are used to identify the graphic design considerations that are associated with multimedia application development. The considerations inherent in designing such applications, concern five classes of design decisions: Problem Solving, Graphical Representation, Multimedia Representation, Multimedia Design Management and Technical Issues. Each type of design decision figures as graphic designers consider the multimodal, multidimensional and dynamic nature of this medium, and combine to create a comprehensive, practical and flexible approach to multimedia design.

The promised potentials of multimedia are being increasing realised through advances in computer storage sizes, powers of compression, compatible formats and delivery systems, although it is now frequently recognised that in order for interactive multimedia to convey information and meaning effectively, and evolve its own identity alongside existing forms of communication such as print and television, consideration needs to be given to its 'design'.

Such considerations are particularly pertinent for graphic designers, as 'intermediates', creating patterns through which communication links are made between a design and its audience, (Frascara, 1988).

However, the multimodal and interactive nature of the medium poses a variety of new and unique issues for the graphic designer. For instance, as Coupland (1992) indicates:

"while the visual treatment of complex data is nothing new in graphic design, the shear volume of raw material and the necessity for configuring user access to that material is putting pressures on designers that their training has not prepared them for" (p.49)

This paper indicates some of the implications that this medium has upon graphic designers considerations, based upon the findings of my own PhD research. The particular methodology employed is first described, followed by an identification of the five classes of design decision which represent the considerations inherent in a graphic designer's approach to multimedia design.


The design process in more traditional contexts (e.g. print) has been studied in a variety of ways. There is a body of research that attempts to use particular taxonomies of design activities to contrast the impact of different technologies, levels of uncertainty etc. (e.g. Scrivener & Clark, 1994; Beheshti, 1993). Like all such positivist approaches, these studies look at the world in their own terms, and whilst they generate some useful insights (and in particular comparative information) they require a comprehensive initial classification scheme, and do not shed light on why designers are doing what they are, or what they are considering in altering their design strategies.

The alternative research philosophy (the qualitative approach) has also been adopted. Unstructured or semi-structured interviews have been used to obtain designers' retrospective accounts of their thinking (Schenk, 1989). Several studies have used a strategy where designers (or often actually design students), are given a fixed (prescribed) design brief and their thinking (over periods of time of perhaps one or two hours) closely analysed. (e.g. Dyson, 1994: Goldschmidt, 1991). In most cases sample sizes are limited (perhaps less then 20), although Akin (1979) studied the activities of a single designer in more depth, whilst undertaking a fixed design brief over several hours.

There is evidence to suggest that interviews with 'experts', may not be as revealing as approaches that elicit their thinking in the course of their activities (e.g. Ericsson & Simon, 1980). These verbal protocols are a rich source of data in studies of design (Eckersley, 1988; Schon, 1988). They can be combined with other records of the design process (e.g. sketches, see for example Wood, 1993) to provide additional insights. The present study is the most extensive design record used in a research study. It consists of verbal protocols, sketches, early prototypes and video recordings of a designer working upon multimedia applications over two 12 month periods.

The data has been used to develop a grounded-theory-based (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) account of the design process, i.e. possible interpretations of the design process are formed and progressively evaluated and reformulated in explaining later data. The 'final' framework of design considerations that appears to capture the design process is outlined below.

Overall, the research strategy is felt to have been the most appropriate, for general insights into how designers balance the various considerations in the course of multimedia application development.

A Graphic Designer's Considerations to Multimedia Application Development

The following description (see Figure.1), highlights those considerations which were felt to be particularly unique to multimedia, rather than attempting to detail every instance.

Problem Solving

This class of design decisions represents the considerations involved in the processes of problem-solution, many of which were common to existing design processes i.e. the generation, evaluation and subsequent re-definition of potential concepts and solutions (Kahney, 1986).

However, the newness of multimedia has meant that designers' knowledge of this medium, which underpins such processes and considerations, is based primarily upon experiences of previous examples (experiential knowledge), and not upon any established rules or conventions (declarative knowledge), or implicit approaches (procedural knowledge).

Consequently, the cyclic process of problem-solution was guided by less tangible points of reference i.e. constraints, goals and evaluatory criteria, and those which were used were often derived from existing media types e.g. books.

In addition, the increased number of media and user choices inherent in multimedia, resulted in an expanded problem space. This required heightened mental techniques such as memorisation, in order to manage the escalating amounts of information held in short term memory e.g. software variables and files names. Such `mental management techniques' were also crucial, as the time based/dynamic nature of the medium meant that components of the design were not always directly visible or available, and as such often had to be considered in their physical absence.

Alternative `types' of concept or solution were also identified, which were particular to multimedia, as they could only have existed through it's unique forms.

Graphical Representation

This class involves those considerations which a graphic designer employs in interpreting the content (concepts, information and meanings) and communicating it through 2-dimensional, static visual forms, to an audience or user. As such, many considerations within this class were common to graphic design, particularly as this practice is increasingly electronically-based following the advent of `DeskTop Publishing'.For example, as in current graphic design practice, the Graphical Representation of the content related both to individual conceptions and to their overall organisation, each of which were physically depicted through varying graphical treatments. The Graphical Representation of individual conceptions was considered in conjunction with the availability of potential `sources of examples', and `means of production', which determined whether a representation needed to be created as an original or could be derived through the manipulation of existing examples. Graphical organisation involved the differentiation of the content into relevant types of information, through `visual schemas', and the guidance of the audience's attention through `viewing orders'. However, the increased volumes of information and the dynamic nature of multimedia, required the development of `schemas' and `viewing orders' that could accommodate more complex, moving structures. Considerations were also affected by the addition of time-based computer effects to the existing body of electronic graphical treatments, creating shifts in thinking between the 2-dimensions of Graphical representation and the 4-dimensions of Multimedia Representation.

Multimedia Representation

The class of Multimedia Representation, illustrates the considerations involved in communicating the content through the integration of multiple media (image, type, video, animation and sound), and forms of interaction. Indeed, like Graphical Representation, this class involved considerations of `media type', `source' and `means of production', although the use of multiple media required an understanding of an increased range of issues, such as, the communicative potential of different media, the implications of copyright and the nature of contributing specialists e.g. video producers.

In a similar way to Graphical Representation, Multimedia Representation was also involved at both an individual conceptual level i.e. interactive form and at an overall functional level i.e. interface.

Interactive forms are interactive entities or components that arise from, and represent the content directly. Designing such forms required a consideration of how such forms were physically `operated' e.g. a mouse click, and the nature of the `event' or experience initiated. The dynamic, time-based nature of the medium initiated two further considerations; a form's `dynamic state' i.e. the state in which forms were left after use (active or non-active etc) and subsequently found when returned to or operated by other users, and the `orchestration' of different forms i.e. the timing, movement and positioning of forms in relation to one another.

Consideration for the interface on the other hand, was influenced by the content, but operated independently from it. It involved the overall `functions', `structures' and `navigation' of the multimedia piece and how these were represented to the user. An increasing awareness of the 'psychological perspectives' underlying the interface and its affect upon users, was also needed. For example, promoting an exploratory approach to a multimedia piece, required a modular/associative structure with suggestive `feedback' mechanisms, rather then a pre-defined, linear structure with more directive `feedback'.

Design Management

Design Management supports ways of managing the physical, as opposed to mental design process. Increases in media types and interactive choices, combined with an ever-changing diversity of required hardware and software, result in a highly complex and expanding design space. Consequently, the need for approaches through which to organise, routinise, and control the design as it developed was crucial. For instance, consideration was given to the management of components, through the development of appropriate and usable `filing systems', based upon individual component's `necessary qualities', and effective methods of file `updating'.

As the multimedia design developed it was managed through systems of progressive testing, through which both visual and functional aspects of the designs were sorted i.e. discarded/developed.

The development of routines, through an `identification of commonalities' and patterns, was also important in managing the design as it alleviated the mental and physical effort required in performing certain tasks e.g. applying standard `visual treatments'. In some cases, such routines would eventually evolve into proceduralised knowledge bases, enabling graphic designers to draw upon more implicit design approaches.

Also, an understanding of the representative language most appropriate for different tasks e.g. `exploring' a concept, `referencing' other sources or `communicating' concepts to colleagues, enabled the designs' development to be more effectively managed. This often meant using a mixture of existing languages e.g. sketching and storyboards, because the newness of the medium has meant that, as yet, it has not evolved its own unique ones.

Technical Issues

Technical Issues relate to the considerations involved in the physical implementation of a multimedia design. However as in graphic design, the physical implementation of the end-product was largely carried out by additional specialists i.e. a programmer (as opposed to a printer). Therefore this class of design decisions tended only to require a level of awareness, although this was reinforced through an identification of alternative advice and support. Being aware of such issues was important in anticipating potentials and restrictions effectively, which encouraged rich conceptualisation whilst also avoiding improbable solutions and ill-informed or premature evaluations.

Technical Issues could be broadly divided between those that related to hardware and those that related to software, although these did overlap. For example, `capturing' a clip of video, would require both a video camera (hardware) and a computer application to digitise the analogue video for screen (software). However, although such issues of hardware and software i.e. for `development and delivery', `transfer' `capture' and `implementation' were often supported by additional specialists, the `manipulation' of visual material was seen as the graphic designer's domain.

This description provides a brief indication of a graphic designer's considerations in designing multimedia applications, although an account of the way in which such classes of design decision may be interpreted and applied to the development of a multimedia design, are detailed in my own PhD thesis (to be published).


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