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A Bandwidth Perspective on Design

By Jack Powers
Posted: October 15, 1996 | Updated: December 27, 1996

In talking about multimedia design, I often use the computer science concept of bandwidth to describe the capacity of communications signals that are carried over a given publishing format. For a signal processing expert, bandwidth means the range of frequencies that a channel can carry; for example, a telephone line delivers from 300 to 3000 cycles per second, not the full range of audible sound but good enough to call your mom or order a pizza.

In publishing, we have many formats with many different bandwidths. The giant news ticker in Time Square is a low bandwidth display format: low resolution characters (albeit 6 feet tall) with no lower case, let alone typography, to enhance the message. Old-fashioned telegrams and new-fangled pocket pagers also fall into this category of bare essential graphic design, as do the thankfully now defunct dot matrix printers that used to screech out dim monospaced reports from creaky DOS machines .

All communications media development is leading us toward broader and broader publication bandwidths. The lowliest administrative assistants in the bowels of the hugest government bureaucracies now have high resolution laser printers on their desks loaded with dozens of fonts in hundreds of sizes; their organization charts and reengineering memoranda are enhanced with typography that was the monopoly of graphic arts experts (like me) just a generation ago.

Beyond typography, of course, comes the image: the illustration and the photograph that explain and enforce the idea. See how an ad in the Yellow Pages that carries a logo, a piece of corny clip art or a muddy snapshot communicates more than the standard text-only listing, even if it does use bold face and italic typefaces.

Broaden the bandwidth even more by adding color and improving the resolution. National Geographic’s editors pay a lot of attention to the text, but the experience wouldn’t be the same without those gorgeous photographs. Combining the typography, art and photography well also enhances the volume of information transmitted. Compare the publishing bandwidths--the number of ideas communicated-- between the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. For better or worse, the full color broadsheet with pictures, infographics, colored type, tints, boxes and rules transmits more ideas than the two dozen headlines and great gray columns of the old fashioned broadsheet.

In designing multimedia, most people stop at the print elements of type, art and photos. Most web sites and far too many CD-ROMs are nothing but printed pages plastered up onto the CRT tube. But digital publications have quite a few more tools to increase the publishing bandwidth.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a picture that moves is worth a thousand more. Animation increases the information flow by showing images over time: the cylinders of a car engine firing in sequence, the glowing navigation button on a web site, or the morphing of a monkey into a man are concepts much harder to express in words than in moving pictures. Similarly, audio and video clips expand the publishing channel with inflections, nuance and slices of experience on the digital page.

These TV components obviously give multimedia publications broader bandwidth than print. But shoveling TV onto a disk or web site still doesn’t take full advantage of the unique design advantage of new media: participation. In the best multimedia, the author only writes half the experience, the rest is brought to the publication by the readers searching, linking and fine tuning the pages to fit their needs and expectations.

Hyperlinked texts, searchable databases and algorithmic editorial presentations add the component of participation to the text. Virtual reality, in which the reader is given a three-dimensional environment to explore, is a participative illustration. On-line shopping and purchasing routines, newsgroups and chat lines and multi-player video games draw readers into the experience and draw experience from the readers to create a vivid publishing event. Participative texts get more communications bang for the buck by leveraging their content with the reader’s personal interaction.

We see the effects of participation on publication bandwidth in conventional media every day. The very small bandwidth of the novel--26 letters of the alphabet strung together in a line a few hundred pages long--forces the reader to participate, to visualize the action and personify the characters. Old-time radio heros were often more vivid than their television successors because much of the action took place in the listener’s head. And even television, the broadest bandwidth publishing format, has been transformed as the three-network broadcast model has been displaced by the 100 channel remote control surfing experience.

In multimedia, we have a huge bandwidth available to throw type, images, sound and video onto the page. But because that page is pumped through a computer, we have the much more interesting opportunity to draw our audiences into participative texts that speak uniquely to the needs of each reader.\\



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