One of the pioneering generation of self-taught web designers, DANIEL BROWN is noted for the humour and playfulness of his interactive animations often inspired by nature.
Like many web designers Daniel Brown discovered the medium - and drew his early inspiration - from the video games he had played since childhood. He then sought to refine the frenzied, sometimes brutal aesthetics of those games by creating interactive images for the web which would have the same sensory effect on the user as listening to a beautiful piece of music.
Born in Liverpool in 1977, Brown grew up among computers, both by playing video games and watching his father at work as a pioneer of computer graphics. After his father left Liverpool, a family friend the late Roy Stringer, who worked in the Learning Methods Unit at the city's John Moores University, allowed Brown to use the computers there.
The Learning Methods Unit was then developing early interactive learning tools on CD-Rom and the internet. After Brown left school, Stringer gave him a job at Amaze, the design company spun out of the Unit. Brown also developed a personal site, www.noodlebox.com. When it was launched in 1997, noodlebox introduced a fluid, playfulness to web design, in contrast to the pragmatic, often sterile visual style which then dominated the medium.
Now based in London where he works for the SHOWstudio web site, Daniel Brown has harnessed subsequent advances in technology to imbue new work - such as Bits and Pieces - with light, texture and the illusion of three-dimensionality. Often inspired by nature, his projects have a spontaneity and freshness even when he revisits old themes like Flowers and Butterflies. His goal in his interactive work is to elicit an instinctive response from the user by making them forget the technology.
Daniel Brown has replaced noodlebox with Play/Create, a site on which he posts his experimental work and that of other designers. After participating in the Design Museum's Web Wizards exhibition in 2002, he featured in the Great Brits, the survey of new British design organised by the Design Museum and British Council in Paul Smith's Milan headquarters during the April 2003 Milan Furniture Fair. Daniel Brown won the Design Museum's Designer of the Year prize in 2004.
See Daniel Brown's work at:
Q. How would you describe what you do?
A. Many of the pieces are investigations into unique immersive interactive experiences. The idea was to use computer game-like technology, but to use it for more artistic and aesthetic purposes. Whereas games mostly deal with superficial male fantasies, my work aims to subtly portray emotion, beauty and aesthetics.
Q. When did you first become interested in computers? And how did that interest translate into digital art and design?
A. I mainly became involved with computers through playing games as a child. Later my imagination was inspired by seeing the work my father and his contemporaries were doing in the early days of computer graphics. I was practically born with computers around me and I think that gave me a different perception of them: not as tools that made existing tasks easier, but as fundamentally new media.
Q. You have often cited Roy Stringer of John Moores University's Learning Methods Unit as a mentor, how did he influence you and your work?
A. While I looked to my father for inspiration in my younger years, by the age of ten, he was abroad which meant I had no access to the more powerful computers then becoming available, such as the Apple Macintosh. Roy, as a family friend, invited me to use the computers in his office on evenings and weekends. It seems a very trivial gesture now but, back then, a basic Apple cost ￡7,000. Later, as I became more experienced at using the machines, Roy spotted potential in my work and became a mentor to me. Roy taught me two things, which almost seem contradictory, but in doing so ultimately defined how I work. One was to challenge everything, to investigate from the ground up and seek new and better ways of achieving things. The other was to make sure what I created was not simply pandering to superficiality. That was really necessary.
Q. The Amaze projects of the late 1990s, such as the MTV Music Mixer and Immunology, are now seen as landmarks in the development of digital media technology. What was your involvement with those projects and other early work with Amaze?
A. The MTV mixer was created in the early days of Amaze Research. Back then, Roy led a team experimenting with new user interfaces and methods of navigating information space. One of the ideas that had sprung out of Roy's work was the Navihedron, a device for authoring and navigating non-linear closed systems. We were playing with them in all kinds of ways. One of the nice examples we came up with for demonstrating the principle was to use sounds rather than abstract labels, and from that came the MTV mixer. Immunology, more formally, was one of the first products I believe was truly authored for non-linear media, rather than just taking an indexed version of the book onto CD-ROM. The author of the book on which it is based (also called Immunology, by David Male) actually worked with us to create fifteen new models of the information, so it truly gave the end users an ability to work through via whichever path suited them.
Q. Similarly, when you unveiled Noodlebox in 1997, what was your concept of the site? And did you have any sense of how influential it would be?
A. At the time, I had the feeling that web sites were still perceived as page-based, almost brochure-like experiences. Back then, it was claimed by designers that this was a limitation of the technology; but while I was inclined to agree that the technology leaned in that direction, it was being overlooked that other things were possible. I wanted to create an experience which was more engaging, more like a computer game to use, and more like a product in perception, like a CD of music that one can actually hold. The same way that people talk about music CDs, I wanted people to see Noodlebox as a piece of content rather than as a website.
Q. What is the inspiration for your work?
A. Whereas in the early days I took inspiration from the technology movement - a techno-Japanese-Bladerunner-style idea of the future - more recently I have looked to non-digital things for inspiration: film, fashion, photography and nature. I think that a lot of digital art is self-conscious. The medium and subject material are both "digital". I am trying to look past the notion of digital by taking it for granted. I see my work as more like an interactive short film or an interactive music video than as being "digital". I like the notion that people look at my work in the same way as they admire music: purely instinctively, rather than objectively. It should be entertaining, not intellectual.
Q. How conscious are you of the work of other digital artists and designers? Which have been most influential over you?
A. While I certainly support other online digital artists for stimulating the debate about what digital art and design is, I have never particularly looked to them for inspiration. In my youth, computer games meant much more to me. I even would go as far as to say that many computer games are art. More recently, the beauty and craftsmanship of fashion and photography have inspired the delicacy of my work. However, two people who have always inspired me are Golan Levin from MIT's Computational Aesthetics Group and James Tindall of www.thesquarerootof-1.com, who is a longtime friend. Although not strictly digital, the artist Bill Viola's Flat Screen work has inspired me because of the way it is presented as an enclosed product hanging on the wall: literally as a virtual window.
Q. Unlike many digital artists and designers, your education was vocational - in that you learnt on the job at the LMU and Amaze, rather than by studying at college - what are the advantages of being self-taught? And the disadvantages?
A. I think the formal education of digital art and design has some issues surrounding it. Essentially, students are required to learn two things at once: their craft and the use of the computer. I have rarely seen this handled well. Courses either focus on computer skills and don't fully investigate the issues surrounding art and design. Or they are focussed on art and design with some supplementary "How to make a website" programme attached. Invariably this leads to rather weak results and the only really good students I've seen coming out of these courses have obviously worked of their own initiative. Furthermore, I think that having learnt vocationally has given me a much more pragmatic instinct. Rather than calling upon established practise, Roy taught me how to look at things from all angles and to solve problems from first principles. I am a dedicated believer in lifelong learning, in always setting myself new things to learn. Whereas I fear universities give their students the idea that they leave with all the skills they'll ever need and set practises that don't lend themselves to true creativity.
Q. What do you see as the main challenges facing digital artists and designers?
A. I think the main challenge is recognition of the value of one's work. I recently had someone complain about my work, claiming it was bad because it wasn't obvious what the web site was trying to sell. I replied to this person politely, even advising him that it was a piece of art and wasn't a business and got the standard "You can't take criticism" in response! My point is this. What that person did was the equivalent of saying the a music CD was bad because it was useless at explaining economics. It's not meant to! Music is now a long established medium, which people understand how to appreciate. I don't think new media - as in what we are doing - yet has a language to be understood in such a way.
Q. How did joining SHOWstudio influence your work?
Joining SHOWstudio was a confirmation of a general direction I had been going in for a number of years. In the early era of CD-rom multimedia and the web, a lot of the good work was made by people with both design and technology skills. A very cottage industry. And this was understandable, after all, the only other option was to have work made by technicians that had no design sense; or technology projects ‘art directed’ by a designer still thinking in a print video medium. However, I felt there were limitations to that - I began to envisage projects with great audio, great photography, great animation and great illustration. But I was not a great musician, photographer, animator or illustrator. So by that point I felt in order to progress, I needed to specialise in interactivity, and bridge that gap between technology and artists in other fields. SHOWstudio came at a perfect time for that; and was exactly the kind of agenda Nick Knight (the photographer who founded it) was looking to pursue. Besides, apart from new media, my other passion was fashion, fashion branding and culture. So from that point on, I saw new media as a collaborative medium and not just an isolated field/industry as it had been.
Q. Can you describe the evolution of a recent project?
A. Overall, the interesting thing for me has been the transition of the web audience from a technically minded audience to a mass, populist one. My work has ironically shifted away from being obsessed with high technology and being technically advanced. The audience now wouldn’t necessarily even notice the amount of effort put into the technology behind a piece, and it still surprises me how people enjoy the simplest things in my work; the colour, the sound, the humour, the emotion. It’s those things I have focused on more recently. I am prepared to forego being cutting edge if necessary.
Q. How have advances in technology influenced your work?
A. The last two years have seen fantastic change. Camera phones and faster home computers means people can now engage and interact in visual, expressive ways - even a year ago the limit to online mass participation was text-input. The integration of powerful computers into the home environment through PlayStation, Microsoft and so forth has created an increasingly adult, cultured audience for a new interactive entertainment medium; exactly the people at whom the programming of SHOWstudio and play-create is aimed.
Q. Where do your find inspiration? From the work of other multimedia designers and artists? Or different fields?
A. Mostly different fields. Visually, the fashion industry has always produced the most stimulating imagery to me. You’ll find find my shelves filled with copies of Arena+, i-D, Jalouse, Pop and V. But there’s a flatness to it, a one-dimensionality of being stuck in a moment in time. People like Chris Cunningham and Michel Gondry have gone on to produce music video and time based work with as strong an engagement. It is these things, combined with interactive technology that is where I see Play/Create looking.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. Wrapping up several Play/Create and Software As Furniture pieces.
And two games, which are intended to be interactive music videos which parody the idea of what a computer game is. One of the games toys with the reality that playing computer games is merely physically making choreographed patterns on the screen despite any overlaid violent storyline. It looks at what success and challenge mean: when a game gets progressively harder as the user ‘succeeds’. On the Software As Furniture front, a long overdue interactive Flowers piece will continue the series.
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain