We operate in a world of usability, design, and analytics tailored to solve business problems. We feed off our clients' energy and take inspiration from the things our users are trying to do with the stuff we design. We're excited to wow people. We're focused on the bottom line.
But what if you take design practices and a desire to wow 'em and apply it, not to solve a problem, but to ask a question?
That's what interactive artist Jonathan Harris has been doing for almost five years now. Check this out. It's called Universe. It's a way to browse streams of news topics as if they were constellations in the night sky:
Pretty cool, eh? What a radically different way to get your news. It does a nice job putting your finger on the pulse of the (English speaking) world and encouraging random walks from one bit of information to another. You see the relationships and feel the weight of certain topics based on their scale and the words around them.
Harris gets emotion and technology. He delivers the 'wow' and makes you think. There's a lot to draw inspiration from here.
But is his design successful? While we can browse and be inspired by Universe, it's not going to replace CNN.com as a regular news source. It's too technically heavy--the Java, the pop up, the buggy screens that don't always load, the lack of portability of the information visualized here. Navigation focuses on immediate relationships, but lacks a steady orientation. All these things frustrate you if you try to use Universe frequently.
This isn't entirely a fair criticism of Universe since usability and everyday use aren't necessarily Harris' goal. He wanted to ask, "What is the mythology of today? What are the great journeys?" He's asking questions (a function of art), not solving problems (a function of design).
But are there ways to take inspiration from this kind of work and translate them into business problems on the web? How would we do it while staying true to our web roots (i.e. standards)? A mix of this kind of inspiration with a healthy dose of practical design could produce some fresh experiences for our audiences.