Flash Grows Up

Website design is dominated by one software application – Flash. Sean Ashcroft explains how its eighth and latest version is shaping our online experiences, for better or worse

There are murmurs that Flash 8 might just be the iteration that will usher this landmark software application’s passage into adulthood – and transport it, and us, to deep waters beyond our current online experience. There are others, however, who believe that 8 is luring designers into dangerous shallows.
Jon McVey – creative director of Seattle-based communications agency Zaaz (www.zaaz.com) – is a deep water man. “Since version 1.0, Flash has been battling the perception that it was the tool that created the animations on sites that just made you click Skip Intro,” says the Cumbria-born designer. “I think it’s only just coming out of that now. Finally it’s robust enough to build entire sites.”

A big part of Flash 8’s robustness stems from features such as its high-quality font-rendering engine, FlashType, and its vastly improved video codec, On2 VP6. “Video compression means you can use longer sequences without worrying about file sizes,” says Florian Schmitt, the 34-year-old director of London digital media company Hi-ReS! (www.hi-res.net). “It also means you can add quality.” (For examples of how these and other features are liberating Flash designers see the case studies boxouts).

But it is Flash 8’s filters and effects that hogged the headlines upon its release in September 2005, because these give designers access to results that, in prior versions, only hard-bitten hand coders could achieve.

“There are things we’ve been doing for years with Flash that pushed it to the edge, but with version 8 all that stuff is now a piece of cake,” confirms Joshua Hirsch, “minister of technology” with Brooklyn-based interactive agency Big Spaceship (www.bigspaceship.com). “We’re going to have to go with new things to get to that edge.”

McVey welcomes this simplicity. “We’ve just launched a Flash 8 site for Converse footwear (www.converse.com) and have made use of Flash 8’s dynamic blurring feature, so when you’re in one part of the site and launch something else you don’t lose the context of where you are because the background blurs out dynamically. In the past, you’d use two versions of the background image – one blurred – and transition between them. That doubled file sizes and took more time.”

Tellingly, though, McVey adds: “The Converse site isn’t about Flash, but about creating something more like an application in the way you interact with it. We’ve not used all Flash 8’s bells and whistles for the sake of it.”

And there’s the rub – for many leading interactive designers say Flash 8’s ease of use is promoting ill-considered design.

“I’ve yet to see a Flash 8 site that’s elegant and efficient, and I’m wondering if one really exists,” says New York-based Joshua Davis (www.joshuadavis.com), one of the world’s most influential digital artists and web designers. “Trying to do animation, graphics, video, interaction and use all these filters means it’s no longer about the project or client, but about how much shit you can stuff into one fucking website to show people you used Flash 8. You can’t just click a filter and call yourself a designer,” Davis says. “You should be able to build things in Flash that are elegant, that have a concept and whose interaction is appropriate. People should be able to look at that and not know what version of Flash was used. Just look at the work of Yugo Nakamura [www.yugop.com]. You have no idea if his work is authored in Flash 5, 6, 7 or 8. It’s about building appropriate interaction.” Schmitt gives a real-world insight into what Davis is talking about: “The Diesel site (see boxout) was one of the first sites we used Flash 8 on, and when we started we had all the buttons turned on, but as time went on these were gradually turned off, because they come at a price. The site was becoming so slow. Unless you use the effects very wisely they will kill performance.”
Davis continues: “People should focus on content and not really care about the technology that drives it. Flash has this weird thing in that people are always associated with its use. People come up to me and say ‘You’re that Flash guy’. It’s ridiculous.”

The essence of Flash for Davis is that, like Java, “you write once and run anywhere”. He adds: “In the past I’d spend half of my time writing code for the client and the other half writing code for the end-user. Flash eliminated all that. As long as people had the plug-in then what platform or browser they were on didn’t matter. That left me free to concentrate on creativity, and for me this is still the sole reason for using Flash.”

Hirsch’s take on Flash is that “with great power comes great responsibility”, a view likely to be endorsed by Flash co-creator Robert Tatsumi, who told Creative Review he is proud of Flash because “artists care about their work, and we were able to help them deliver work they could be proud of”.

Tatsumi – now an Adobe engineering manager – added: “Flash changed life for designers by giving them another outlet for their creative energies. This has been the most fulfiling part of Flash for me personally. I love to see all the beautiful creative things that designers and artists have created using Flash.”
Davis’ feature-lust offenders aside, Tatsumi can look forward to more fulfilling times ahead.


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