JOSHUA DAVIS pioneered web design in the early 1990s and is now a master of the medium through his commercial work for Kioken in New York and experimental projects such as PrayStation for which he won the Prix Ars Electronica 2001, the prestigious digital art prize.
If it wasn’t for Joshua Davis, the internet would not only look completely different, but function differently too. Since its emergence in January 2000, his constantly evolving personal site Praystation has become an icon of web design. Now one of the world’s most influential digital artists and web designers, Davis divides his time between PrayStation experiments and paying projects for Kioken, the New York web design consultancy where his commercial clients include Barneys department stores, Sony and Lucent Technologies.
Born in San Diego in 1971, Davis is one of the first generation of web designers: pioneers, who taught themselves how to use the technology as it was developing thereby defining the ground rules of digital design. Davis was introduced to the internet by a design student friend at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he studied illustration and art history. After a year of working on illustration by day and HTML at night, Davis ran out of cash and was offered a job writing HTML for Pratt’s web site. He dropped out of Pratt in his junior year to eke out a living in the then-fledgling field of web design.
Davis has since become a role model for younger web designers: not only for the quality of his creative work on PrayStation but because of his willingness to share ideas and innovations by releasing source files to other designers. Joshua Davis talks about his work so far and his future plans.
See Joshua Davis’ work at:
Q. You describe yourself as "a one man research and development web site" in your bio, what does that mean?
A. I think we get so overwhelmed when we view work online that we might have the inclination to fill our heads with doubt. We might say to ourselves that we can’t do certain things because we might tell ourselves that what we’re viewing is the work of multiple people. So I thought it was important to start off by saying that what you’re seeing is just the random work and thoughts of just one person. Then "research and development" really only applies to PrayStation - it’s just a sketchbook - a place where I work out ideas that might later get implemented into other project - whether they be of a corporate nature for Kioken or personal for Once Upon a Forest.
Q. Can you describe how you divide your time - and creative energy - between commercial projects at Kioken and experimental projects, such as PrayStation and Once Upon A Forest?
A. That’s hard to lay down. Most of my time is working out ideas on PrayStation. Then, six months later when a client is comfortable, some of my later explorations might get worked into something at Kioken. Ideas tend to get more abstract and used in more timely fashion when I set out to build something for Once Upon a Forest.
Q. What has been most satisfying to you about the phenomenal response to PrayStation, Once Upon A Forest and your other sites? Conversely, what has been least satisfying about it?
A. Travelling, giving presentations - because I get to meet other artists and designers who, more often than not, approach me and an ideas exchange might take place which then inspires me to create new things. As individuals we can only progress so far. I truly believe it’s the coming together aspect which keep the boundaries always moving a little wider. However, with any form of recognition comes criticism, and because I try to keep pretty humble and grounded I do tend to take criticism pretty personally. The net can be so dangerous. I wonder if people realise that there is a person on the other end of an e-mail.
Q. When and how did you first become interested in design? Similarly, when and how did you become interested in digital technology?
Q. Given that the internet was only just emerging as a publishing medium when you were a student at Pratt, did you expect, at the time, to be able to develop a career in web design?
A. Not then and still not now. I still wonder if what I’m doing is a career in web design. I keep telling my wife that this is a hobby, and that it’s cheaper than golf (which is why I can justify to her why I keep paying money every month to keep doing this).
Q. As one of the first generation of web designers, you are a self-taught pioneer. What are the advantages of being self-taught? And the disadvantages?
A. Well, there was nothing to use as reference. Like the old skool graffiti artists, there were no books or tutorials on what proper path to take. You just needed to create your own sense of form and style from nothing. The disadvantages were, that it took forever, and you made mistakes, but from those mistakes came accidents, and in those accidents you found things. But at least you were working on something that was true and it was yours - however horrible or beautiful. I fear today that the disadvantage of not being self-taught is repetition. There are so many styles and movements which are re-hashed over and over again. I think this is because people don’t want to take the time to ignore everything and start from ground-zero.
Q. Looking back at your work so far, which were the key advances in technology which have enabled you to develop your creative work?
Q. Describe your working methods. How do you begin work on a new project, for example? Do you sketch, make notes, write code or go straight to the computer? And how does the process develop from then onwards?
A. I'm totally into free-flowing consciousness. I tend to NEVER sketch. I just sit down and start exploring ideas. Some nights will pass and I'll have made eighty builds of pure crap. Other nights I'll make sixty things and turn out with one good idea or exploration. I try to let the work lead me instead of the other way around. I guess I still want to explore, create accidents, make mistakes - and planning or sketching seems too serious and rigid for my taste.
Q. What was the rationale for launching so many experimental sites in PrayStation, Forest and Dreamless? What distinguished one from the others? And when you had an idea for a new project, how did you decide which site it would go on?
A. I guess I felt like getting into character - creating a scenario - and letting the boundaries of a fictitious character and fictitious environment unfold. And it seemed that this exploration needed to exist in different domains (websites). So this act of getting into character made the content creation for the sites extremely easy because there were some aspects of colour, movement and sound that only existed in certain characters. One character would do things that another character would never think of doing. Take Maruto, for example. I was unsure whether Maruto spoke English, so I stopped using type (primarily the English language) and just tried to convey things visually. PrayStation was about the communication and distribution of thoughts and source, so using the English language and stark type was a necessity.
Q. Can you describe how your work has progressed from project to project? Which projects are most satisfying to you and why?
A. My answer might not be what people might expect. Even today, PrayStation is my least favourite project, even though it gets the most visibility. PrayStation is the messy studio, scraps of paper scribbled on, paint tubes on the floor, dirty brushes, pencil shavings, etc. It’s the catalogue of random studies to later be re-tooled and used into something clean and presentable. Once Upon a Forest was that clean progress and evolution of something exciting for me. When one month’s project ended, lessons were learned, and then carried over into following months. While I enjoy making things with the team at Kioken - I see them more as tasks that need to be performed so that a client is happy, pays us and I then can afford to eat, pay my rent, wake up and make things for me.
Q. Why did you decide to merge all your sites into one space?
A. Maybe it was fate? The work - cyphen.com, praystation.com, once-upon-a-forest.com and dreamless.org - converged into one space which can be accessed from any of the domains. Just as fate brings people together time and time again, I think it was inevitable that four separate characters would come together to create a greater whole.
Q. A fascinating aspect of your creative projects is the generosity with which you have shared your thinking and techniques by releasing your source files to other designers. Why did you decide to do that? The benefit to other designers is obvious, what is the benefit to you?
A. I can only stretch my thinking so far. The benefit of giving stuff back is that people will take the ideas, add on to them and give them back to you. There might be things that someone thought of that you hadn’t thought to do. It’s the exchange of ideas and information, and it works for me, as much as it works for others.
Q. What inspires you and your work?
A. Nothing on the net. Mostly observations in life. Let me give you a recent discovery. Out here in Port Washington, New York, trees line most of the highways and service roads, but because there's this constant flow of traffic, cars and trucks shape and prune the trees. So while standing in the road, you notice that the trees create a perfect semi-circle over the road, like a tunnel. If a tree tried to grow a branch down towards the street, an oncoming truck would clip that branch. It’s almost as if the truck is saying: "You can’t be here!". I noticed that, in essence, the traffic and the trees have an understanding. Because of this they exist in tandem and shape each other, but keep the excess or fluff in check. The tree knows its boundaries and the trucks make sure they remember them. Creating objects or relationships in art, design or programming are no different. I’m inspired by these systems and relationships and try to bring them to my work.
Q. Which recent developments in technology are most exciting to you? Conversely, which aspects of current technology frustrate you most?
A. In college, I heard one of my instructors tell the class: "One day, the paint will be able to do what YOU want it to do." While I welcome and accept change and advances, I still feel like I still have quite a bit to uncover with what’s already here.
Q. What do you consider to be the main challenges facing web designers right now?
A. Learning what’s already been done, the hacks, the work-arounds, failing, succeeding etc. I know designers who still don’t know how to write HTML by hand. It’s like being a print designer and not wanting to know about typography or paper.
Q. What are your current projects?
A. Finishing my book - Flash to the Core - a semi-cult-religious-Buddhist-eastern twist on building projects. Please let it end soon. Working on building a black monolith kiosk with Once Upon A Forest and work for a museum installation. Shaping and screening a bunch of design-based skateboards (models, presstube, praystation, trueistrue, designgraphik and prate to start) I’ve been skating for eighteen years now and riding just keeps getting better. Running a selection of printed works. Running a Zakka (design bookstore in SoHo, NYC) exclusive T-Shirt co-lab. Teaching a net-art workshop in Aspen with Mark Tribe of Rhizome.org next year. Building an audio CD with Shapeshifter. The never ending grind of PrayStation and Once Upon A Forest updates. And the normal expectations of working on Kioken work - new stuff coming soon (which I of course can't talk about yet).
Q. How do you perceive the role of web design within the broader design community? Do you recognise parallels with other areas of design, such as typography and architecture? Or is it more closely aligned with technology?
A. Totally, I swear television commercials look more and more like web sites. Sci-Fi and Discovery Channel even have those great spots which have people interacting with the screen.
Q. What are your favorite web sites?
A. I don’t really surf that much. I take pride in burying myself in books and drawing ideas and inspiration from there. So here's a few good books:
The Mayan Prophecies by Adrian Gilbert
Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock
The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream by Paulo Coehlo
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte
Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch by Nancy Willard
geek love by Katherine Dunn