Signal to Noise Ratio
Before the World Wide Web was a glimmer in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, I used to produce audiovisual shows for such clients as GE, Ford and KFC. I hard-wired two Sony TC-788 4-track quad reel-to-reel tape decks together to produce lavish sound and vision extravaganzas for annual retreats, sales meetings and the like.
In producing the shows, the enemy was noise—tape hiss. When you recorded too many tracks, the tapes would slowly and relentlessly add hiss to the content. Add more overdub tracks and you introduced more noise. Sound engineers called it the battle of signal to noise.
Jump forward to 2012 and those of us who design websites are fighting the battle all over again. Banner and Flash ads, “Like” and Twitter buttons, “Add This” links and “Download the App” buttons now infest so many web pages that we now have a visual metaphor for Lou Reed’s prophetic Metal Machine Music.
Interestingly, some of today’s most talented developers and designers are fighting back. Web designer and prolific blogger Jeffrey Zeldman earlier this month published a revelatory blog post that captured my imagination. In it, he makes his case for purity of type, white space and yes, voice. Zeldman writes:
Many people who’ve visited this site since the redesign have commented on the big type. It’s hard to miss. After all, words are practically the only feature I haven’t removed. Some of the people say they love it. Others are undecided. Many are still processing. A few say they hate it and suggest I’ve lost my mind—although nobody until you has suggested I simply didn’t have access to a computer and therefore didn’t know what I was designing. This design may be good, bad, or indifferent but it is not accidental.
Talented developers like Marco Arment, creator of the groundbreaking iPhone and iPad reading app, Instapaper, and elegant RSS “scrapers” like Reeder are aggressively stripping millions of web pages a day down to pure words on a backlit screen. Even Apple and Microsoft have joined in with Apple Safari’s “Reader” mode and Windows Metro interface stripping designers’ pages of all “noise.”
It’s a joy. You see, in this noisy ad and megamenu-infested realm we call the 2012 web, heaven help the well-meaning designer who gets between me and the story.