Posted on January 21, 2008
But can you tell a story?
Can you do great narrative storytelling purely in XHTML and CSS? Or do you need Flash?
This provocative question stems from a recent blog post by Khoi Vinh, design director for nytimes.com. He didn’t come straight out and ask that, but pretty close:
One simple reason for this — especially in journalism — is that there are very few people who are well-versed in both techniques.
In the comments on Vinh’s post, Jeff Croft wrote:
By and large, Web standards-oriented designers aren’t traditionally trained graphic designer. Rather, they are computer geeks who got into design via the Web. There’s nothing wrong with this, and obviously there are exceptions — but I think this is a fair generalization to make.
Someone who is not a computer programmer, but who is very detail-oriented in a textual way — a copy editor (subeditor), for example — might feel much more comfortable in the code environment. The visual and highly tactile editing environment in Flash might prove harder for that type of person to learn and to use. Visual thinking vs. textual, word-based thinking. Left brain, right brain.
What Vinh’s post does not quite get at, though, is the crux of storytelling.
I’ve been struggling with this with my journalism students this year, because I’m determined to make this group into better journalistic storytellers.
We’re talking about plot and character and arc of story.
We are not talking about interface design.
What Vinh is talking about — if I’m not wrong — is how the physical treatment of the story materials advances or enhances the narrative itself. What’s a bit difficult to wrap your brain around is that we are not talking about magazine layout vs. newspaper layout vs. bound book. We are talking about something more like, “Which was better, the book or the movie?” But NOT QUITE that extreme, because both the code approach and the Flash approach are digital and appear on a screen 12-18 inches from your face.
Actually, I should rephrase this argument: not enough Web standards-minded designers are thinking narratively in the way that our Flash-fluent colleagues are. … There’s very little narrative design being done with these tools …
Now, you may be wondering, “What kind of ‘narrative design’ is being done with Flash that is not being done with code?” I would direct you toward The Whale Hunt, a unique and stunning online package produced by code genius Jonathan Harris and photographer Andrew Moore. (Yes, I said code genius, not Flash genius — because this is CODE in Flash.)
You might also wonder, “What kind of narrative is using Flash when it should not be?” In that case, I would ask you to look at the excellent news package Not Just a Number by journalists Sean Connelley and Katy Newton. Many aspects of this package are served very, very well by Flash. But enclosing the entire interface in Flash is, to me, a partial illustration of what Vinh is looking at: A lot of this could have been done in code, outside Flash.
The package’s homicide map, however, is a classic use of Flash’s layering and loading, which can be imitated in pure code but with an inferior result, in my opinion.
Beyond the interface
In many packages such as Red Hot Rails (San Jose Mercury News), we see an appealing Flash wrapper employed to bundle together a collection of story pieces: four video segments, a photo gallery, an animated graphic, and a “throw me out into limbo” link to the text story. This is a collection of narratives, not a narrative itself. It’s like a bento box, a Japanese lunch, where all the items are unified by a pretty container — but I think the narrative needs to become more like a bouillabaisse or paella, with the story elements influencing one another in a more integrated fashion.
The “Not Just a Number” package is a lot like a bento box too.
“The Whale Hunt” is much more like paella.
However, do you consider “The Whale Hunt” to be a narrative? Does it have a narrative train, a storyline? Does the suspense build? Does it create a dialogue with the audience, raising and answering questions, holding you in thrall, leading you on and on to a satisfying ending?
I’m in agreement with Vinh that the split between those who design in Flash and those who design in code is holding back the development, the evolution, of digital and interactive narratives. A better integration of the two techniques will improve and expand the journalist’s options for telling stories. (A recent example of integration is The New York Times’s Baghdad neighborhoods package; best demonstrated on a detail page such as Adhamiya: A Sunni Island Stranded in Shiite East Baghdad.)
I would add, however, that we all (designers, reporters, editors, photojournalists) need to think outside the bento box, the chapter model, the container — and yet, most challenging, we must keep the story, the idea of story, in front of everything.
One story can lead us to ask for another story, and another (think of Shahrazad in The Arabian Nights). The introduction to Train Jumping achieves this perfectly — you are eager to hear more. But a collection, an array, will not have the same effect of sparking our interest and drawing us in. After the brilliant intro, “Train Jumping” invites us to “experience the lives of the train jumpers in seven chapters below.” I’m gone, outta here, done. They lost me.
But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence. Then her sister Dinarzad said, “What a lovely story!” Shahrazad replied, “You have heard nothing yet. Tomorrow night I shall tell you something stranger and more amazing if the king spares me and lets me live!” (Husain Haddawy, p. 37, Knopf 1990 edition.)