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An interactive presentation on the role of a designer in multimedia development

Susan Perry
Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia
This paper describes some of the difficulties experienced as a designer involved in producing interactive multimedia projects used in Computer Based Learning (CBL) in an academic environment. In order to relate my experiences in this presentation, my approach has been to construct a conversation with an imaginary colleague called Harmon. Harmon was engineered by Living Images, a Perth based company who specialise in the production of three dimensional theatrical videos and training environments. The conversation incorporates real questions posed by the ongoing everyday situations brought to the surface whilst working on these projects.


The Computing Centre at Curtin University has been involved in the use of computers in education since 1980. The use of CBL and several innovations including a software library of educational programs (now available on Internet) were established and encouraged by the Director, John Winship. In 1992 The Department of Education, Employment and Training (DEET) awarded the department a grant to allow a group of academics from various departments to have access to time release from lecturing for developing CBL. This enabled them to learn the fundamentals of multimedia production in order to produce individual CBL projects using state of the art hardware and software. The Computing Centre supplied the expertise in designing and implementing the programs and the project was successful in that it resulted in several CBL programs being completed and up and running throughout the University (Phillips, 1993).

Figure 1 hieroglyphic graphic

The conversation

S:Hi Harmon, you're looking pleased with yourself this morning, what's new?
H:I've just discovered this new hieroglyphic software package and I've been trying it out. Look, I've used it on your paper. Don't you think it looks good?
S:Harmon, how are we ever going to work as a team if you don't discuss these things first. What is it you're trying to say anyway?
H:Put the bird in the basket before the viper attacks it and it gets eaten by the vulture!
S:Well according to this manual you've said "dookje" - doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Apparently Catherine Roehrig here says that hieroglyphic writing is more than picture writing, it's a combination of symbols which make up sounds. It's a bit like designing a multimedia project really.
H:What do you mean?
S:Well, in order to get the full picture many things have to be taken into consideration. Firstly, you need to look at what is meant by the word design.
H:That's easy, you're a Graphic designer. You design pictures and make things look good.
S:Well yes, you're partly right. The word Design comes from the French word dessin which means to draw or make marks on paper and this has traditionally been associated with anyone who is working in the field of graphics or visual imagery. Conversely, the word design in other areas such as engineering and science has come to mean the structural formation of a project. In order to create a successful multimedia project the role of a designer is one where they must be able to incorporate the two, both structure and visual communication.
H:But the structural part is the role of the programmer. We write the programs and tell others how to use them.
S:Traditionally perhaps, but Ted Nelson who invented the word 'hypermedia' to describe the production and combination of animation, text, sound and graphics for retrieval, display and storage on a computer, stressed the point that 'Learning to program has no more to do with designing interactive software than learning to touch type has to do with writing poetry'. He then went on to say, 'Creating successful hypermedia, like making feature movies, depends on applying the arts of communication design to both the content and the structure of the program.' (Cotton & Oliver, 1993).
H:Huh, so the programmer is irrelevant then?
S:No, basically, what he's saying is that no one thing is independent of the other. Without strong communication and design in the content and structure areas, the design of the interface will fall apart.
H:But there's a standard way of producing computer programs, as there are standards for writing a book.
S:Yes, but the technological drive to access new experiences and retrieve information more quickly has caused the development of a whole new set of perceptions and interactions within our culture. These need to be addressed when designing for multimedia.
H:Like what?
S:Well for instance, the essence of multimedia is associative thinking - the ability to link information together in ways that are meaningful to the user. Instead of imposing artificial constraints on the retrieval of information, the ultimate multimedia program should use present cultural nuances and icons allowing the user to endlessly discover through association.
H:That's all well and good but what about the constraints of the current software and hardware we're using. Do you know how slowly that first program we put together ran in that lab of VXs? Poor Nick had to spend billions of hours reprogramming the thing to run faster. The amount of graphics didn't help either!
S:Hm, yes. Both issues are a problem especially at the pace things are changing, but the issue there was one of longevity. Ultimately the program will become a series of programs possibly ending up on a CD-ROM disc, so the decision is 'Do we compromise now for speed with low end, highly compressed graphics and redo them later or maintain the best quality we can achieve allowing for further production later down the track?' This seems to be a recurring theme in even the latest projects we are handling.
H:How much testing was done on each of the projects?
S:Quite a bit. On the latest projects Recreation Perth (Cameron, 1993) and Mitochondria (Slack-Smith, 1993) testing by students and other end users has been comprehensive at every stage of the design. This cut down on a considerable amount of time spent in redoing graphical images and navigation structures. By observing the students first hand and how they interact with the interface, it enabled us to quickly change any icons or part of the navigational structure before the project went too far.
H:Hm, yea, I remember the early days of er, well, shall we say 'lack of communication' within the development team.
S:Every new medium has its learning curve, Harmon, and people are no exception. (PAUSE for water break).
H:Speaking of which, I'm dying of thirst. How come you get to drink water over there and I don't?
S:Oops, sorry Harmon, lack of finance!
S:Yes, I know it's frustrating Harmon but design is usually the last thing taken into account when the budgeting is allocated.
H:So what would you say is a fair ratio?
S:80% towards the design and 20% to the actual programming of the finished project.
H:Whoa, that's a bit steep isn't it. How's a programmer supposed to survive on that?
S:Programming is not considered a separate entity here. The design team should consist of the content expert, graphic designer, programmer and project manager. The team should work together on the design resulting in a final project ready for programming. This approach eliminates a lot of time wasting in the long run.
H:It doesn't seem to have worked that way for us. There are some weeks we hardly speak to each other about what's going on!
S:Yes, I agree. Unfortunately, because of the nature of our particular set up, tasking is split between development for CBL and support for the rest of the University - which is very frustrating when deadlines have to be met. (Phillips, 1993)
H:So, what's the answer?
S:We are working on improvements for 1994!
H:Well don't wait too long, a person could die of thirst waiting for things around here!
S:Speaking of which, our time has run out Harmon!

Software and hardware list

The platform used for delivery and production of the projects shown here was the Macintosh. The authoring software was Supercard 1.6 and the artwork was produced using Photoshop, 2.5.1, Painter 2.0, Aldus Freehand 3.0, Macromind Director, Quicktime and Adobe Premiere.


Cotton, Bob & Oliver, Richard (1993). Understanding hypermedia. London: Phaidon Press.

Roukes, Nicholas (1988). Design synectics. Massachusetts: Davies Publications.

Neumark, Norie (1993). Interactive journeys: Making room to move in the cultural territories of interactivity. FISEA.

Arnheim, Rudolf (1969). Visual thinking. University of California Press.

Laurel, Brenda (Ed). (1991). The art of human-computer interface design. Addison Wesley.

Phillips, Rob (1993). Producing interactive multimedia computer based learning projects in a tertiary education setting. Computing Centre, Curtin University of Technology.

Phillips, Rob (1993). Managing computer based learning projects at Curtin University. Computing Centre, Curtin University of Technology.

Author: Susan Perry, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth, WA 6001. Tel. 351 2965 Fax. 351 2673. Email: sue@icaras.curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Perry, S. (1994). An interactive presentation on the role of a designer in multimedia development. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 406-408. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/np/perry.html

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