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Digital content for Web 2.0

Years ago it cost far more to add an image to a document than text. With today's advances in digital image processing and special effects it costs the same cost for full colour images, as it is for text. Why then do we overburden our web sites with text?

Illuminated Bible

It's time we came out of the dark ages!

Even back in the days when texts were all hand scribed, it was far more expensive to add images than type text.

But every author knows, there is nothing more boring than a vast expanse of text. Breaking it up with an image or two makes it far easier to extract the information.

A page of images alone with no text, can be equally confusing. They work best together - images and text. Breaking text up into bite-sized blocks that are easy to read also helps the reader. So, we have two digital art functions at work here - Text layout as well as Images - what we'll refer to here as "digital content".

So what is Layout ?

Generally we begin with a heading, designed to be relevant to the content but attention grabbing and this is usually in a larger bolder typeface. The information usually starts with an overview that is explained more and more as we go through the text. To make it easier to read, we organise the text into paragraphs. If we take our eyes off the page, we can easily find where we left off by returning to the last paragraph.

The Internet adopted all these cultural conventions but because pages were no longer turned but scrolled with a mouse, viewer behaviour has altered and this is reflected in layout changes. Todays web pages are usually constructed around an "F" pattern rather than the old simple left to right-top to bottom, book page layout.

The F browsing pattern.

We visually scan a web page differently to a book page. We scan the top row where the page title is, first. Next we look down the left side because that's where the navigation buttons are. If we don't find them there, we look elsewhere on the page. Finally before we settle down to actually read we scan the central area of the page (maybe hoping to skip the introduction at the top and get straight to the information?)

This might not see important but when you consider the importance of advertising on the Internet and the huge income streams it produces, this knowledge can mean the difference between an advertisement earning $100 a year and $100 a month. Do this on every page in a 50 page website and it can mean placing an advertisement in that "F-track" can make you a fortune.

So the page layout itself has become a factor in digital art design, driven by the ability to generate income through advertising. A viewer will return to pages that are pleasantly laid out with the sort of material they like. If the publisher gets paid every time a viewer clicks on an advertisement (what is termed "PPC" for Pay Per Click advertising) anything that brings people to that web page repeatedly is a huge bonus.

Digital Image manipulation

The static side of digital art was driven, initially by the advertising industry. Photographic images could be altered to the point where they became surreal and the advertising industry were quick to utilise this. Who could forget those classic TDK ads of the 1990s.

The TDK ads of the 1990s were classic photo manipulation.

This photo manipulation done by the Australian advertising agency Belgiovane Williams Mackay Advertising agency for TDK and released in 1999 epitomises the way the advertising sector was to use image manipulation as it's own art form.

Conventional art viewed digital art as a means of making cheap copies of the masters works and a direct threat, loomimg in the future but The cinema was another area where digital art was allowed to flourish. Special effects were time consuming processes that quickly blew out any film's budget. Digital art was able to change all that.

Using greenscreen

Chroma key compositing. is a technique where the subject is filmed against a single coloured backdrop which is then laid over another image. By digitally turning the single colour transparent (in this case green) the underlying background shows through. Above, Iman Crossman, an Obama impersonator, is able to appear in the Presidential Office. Creating these backgrounds digitally allows for fantastic worlds as a backdrop, complete with moving effects that could not be done with conventional painting.

Digital Animation and CGI

The animation industry was quick to use digital animation. Alterations could be done on the fly without having to paint up new transparencies. Feature length animated movies that used to take years to create, could now be done in months. As rendering has improved, the division between real and digital imagery is becoming blurred. The film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" was filmed with a soap plunger, a tap and a variety of other handy props as Roger Rabbit. The CGI crews later substituted Roger.

A scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Today's computing power has enabled us to mix CGI and real images together almost flawlessly, giving special effects the are literally out of this world. Today, every film features some CGI work.

The Video Gaming influence

You might think that the video game industry would have been the largest single influence for furthering graphic animation but if anything, it has not propelled the art to new heights. In most games, the graphics have actually not been state of the art, when the game was released. Game designers have been driven by sales and remained content to use yesterday's technologies rather than outlay funds on developing new ones. Partly this is due to the viewer's computing power being required for input as well as output. In a video, the entire computer processor's power can be devoted to output, allowing far more complex rendering effects.

One development does stand out in digital art and the gaming sector. A game called "The Sims"that allowed the player to manipulate cyber-people in a cyber world, was released for sale. For a while it sold a few copies but nothing too spectacular until something happened that sent it's sales through the roof, forming whole Sim-player communities all around the world.

Sims 2 Screenshot

Suddenly this game leapt to the top of all the sales charts.

Hackers found a way into the game engine and spread the word. Soon the game designers, quick to recognise a market, published software to modify the characters and the objects they interacted with; something that had never happened in a computer game before. An entire cyber community formed where people designed their own input and traded the modifications amongst other players. User input drove the Sims community; the ability to have effective input into their internet experience. Successive improvements have not increased the popularity of the Sims. In fact, the player numbers declined. The resources required to run the improved graphics, made the game slower and on some machines, it just didn't run at all. The essence of the game was not the graphics, it was the ability to interact with the characters.

The Future?.

When this site first went live, Facebook was just becoming popular and the experts were predicting that static sites (like this one) would die out and social networking would take over. That hasn't happened. The Internet as a whole has eaten into the TV, Radio, Print Media and even the telephone markets, providing an ever wider variety of viewer options. Facebook and twitter have become cheaper substitutes for phone calls to friends and relations, especially where distance is involved.

Partly because the old media forced us to endure advertising to get to the content, people have moved to the Internet for their information. A website that forces advertising on it's viewers is soon lost in favour for one that uses targeted advertising that is closely related to the content topic and is displayed where the viewer can choose to leave it. Today TV stations are struggling to raise revenue from their advertising. Newspapers and magazines are closing down due to poor sales and colossal overheads compared to online media. Some are opting for "Pay for content" sites but these will eventually fade out too as people realise they can get the same or equivalent content elsewhere for free.

For too long, the news has been disseminated by large conglomerates who. although they have claimed to be unbiased, have exhibited an influence over what was considered important, what was printed about it and what was released to the public. This has pleased the governments of the day but times are changing, the Internet has given the public a direct line to the source. Various governments have tried to introduce filters to control the Internet and met with huge opposition from the public. As long as the Internet remains free (in terms of "Free speech"), it will continue to evolve.

An Internet filtering protest in Turkey

A mass protest in Turkey to stop their government introducing Internet filtering. Similar protests have occurred in Australia, USA, UK and every free speech country where filtering has been proposed. Most governments have opted to monitor Internet traffic rather than restrict it.

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