Designers, marketers dazzled — and frazzled — with profusion of new apps

The proliferation of new design tools, and umpteen upgrades, represents an opportunity for designers and marketers, but also a huge challenge, said members of an expert FITC 2009 panel.

Communicating with the Screen Generation was the title of the roundtable.

Participants were high-profile designers, developers and marketers presenting at the Flash in the Can (FITC) 2009 conference held in Toronto earlier this week.

VIDEO: Communicating with the Screen Generation

“As development shops or agencies we deal with obsolescence all the time,” said Geoff Whitlock, president, Life Capture Interactive Inc., a Toronto digital marketing agency specializing in interactive Web development.

“You have to be constantly learning, constantly renewing your skill sets, or you can get overwhelmed very quickly.”

Panellists suggested that quite often newer iterations of popular design tools are pushed into the market much too quickly.

For instance Whitlock – whose company uses a broad range of Adobe products in much of its creative work – said he didn’t quite appreciate the upgrade from Adobe Creative Suite 3 (CS3) to CS4  happening so fast. 

Adobe Creative Suite is a collection of graphic design, video editing, and Web development applications – including Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat, InDesign – based on various technologies (for instance, PostScript, PDF, and Flash). CS4 was announced on September 23, 2008 and officially released on October 15, 2008.

The challenges caused posed by new versions of software apps being released much too soon is something other designers have commented on as well.

Apart from the “learning curve” issue, there are financial considerations as well, as author and graphic designer Gary Criley noted in his blog.

Software, Criley said, represents one of the biggest expenses incurred by small design shops — especially one-person shops.  

Adobe Creative Suite is quite costly, although you can save a lot by buying the bundle, he said. “But unlike spending money on plant or equipment, which [could] pay for itself over the years, there seems to be a major software upgrade almost annually.”

Apart from the cost, it’s the sheer profusion of tools and versions that make it difficult to keep up, other experts say.

And the issue isn’t that today’s tools are more complex, Whitlock noted.  In fact, thanks to the efforts of open source communities, code has become easier to use, he said, with more plug-ins that developers can take advantage of.

“There’s just so much available today that wasn’t available before.”

Current trends – Beam me up Scotty

And the great side of having so many compelling options is it enables companies, do things that just weren’t possible before to publicize their brand or message, noted Lee Brimelow, platform evangelist at San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe Systems Inc.

For instance, he cited the augmented reality feature on General Electric’s mini-site that showcases the firm’s newest power management technologies.

The Web site has a bold graphic on it. When you print off a sheet from with this graphic and hold it up to a Web cam, GE’s augmented reality program builds a 3-D hologram on the screen.

By moving the paper you can look at different views of the 3-D model, zooming in and out, and in some cases cause the model to react to other inputs (like blowing into the microphone). 

GE Augmented Reality/Smartgrid picked-up three awards – Best in Show, Best Experimental Flash and Best Flash Visual Design – at the 2009 FITC Awards.

Brimelow also cited the Topps 3D Live baseball card as an example of the “really cool stuff” being done with augmented reality.

Collectors who hold the special card in front of a Web cam would see a three-dimensional avatar of the player on the computer screen. When you rotate the card, the figure rotates in full perspective.  

This is the ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ version of a baseball card that would get kids to buy more, according to Steve Grimes, chief digital officer at Topps.

Apart from augmented reality, the clamour for rich Internet applications is another big trend, especially over the past couple of years, Brimelow noted.

“People now expect the functionality of a desktop app on the browser and the mobile phone,” he said.

That’s where technologies such as Adobe Flex come into play, he said.

Flex is a collection of Adobe technologies for deploying rich Internet apps based on Flash across multiple devices.

But because compelling tools are available it doesn’t mean they’re always appropriate.

We recommend people only use Flash where it makes sense, said Brimelow. He acknowledged that with certain sites where static pages are needed, “gratuitous use of Flash can be annoying.”

Variety is the blight of life?

Suiting the applications to audience can tough, especially when your audience (or clients) vary radically from day to day.

This was a challenge faced by another panellist, Joshua Hirsch who heads the development team at Big Spaceship, a digital creative agency in Brooklyn.

He recalled how earlier this year, Big Spaceship created Terminator Salvation for Sony Pictures.

It’s a real-time multiplayer online video game featuring 3D graphics and full motion video – and packed with explosive warfare and sinister machines that take you deep into a post-apocalyptic land.

“No sooner was Terminator Salvation launched, than we had another project to targeting 6-8 year old girls,” Hirsch recalled.

Talk about variety!

He said it’s imperative for his agency to keep closely attuned to what audiences want, as there’s so much choice out there — so many ways clients can want to consume media.

“It’s so easy to be motivated by what we think is cool,” Hirsch said, “and to lose sight of customer needs.”

At times customers are very articulate about these needs, he said, recalling his firm’s campaign for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.

“They came to us said our audience is newly wed, overfed, and nearly dead. They said they wanted to reach other people.”

Listening to your audience

Tailoring content to audience is also crucially important to the success of Life Capture Interactive.

“We go after many different audiences,” said Life Capture Interactive’s Whitlock, and “and design content the way they want it — not necessarily how we see it on the screen.”

Whitlock said his firm is Internet agnostic and audience agnostic, and adapts its strategy and delivery channels to audience needs.  

It’s preferable for multiple facets of a client project to be handled by the same shop, he said, and that’s certainly what his firm aspires to do.

“We’d rather handle everything, and control the relationship with the client. We want to be that central body that recommends technologies and approaches.”

The fragmented approach adopted by some advertising and marketing execs – who see things in silos — is fraught with challenges, he said. “There’s their marketing company, their Web development company, mobile development company, and so on … if they have to go to four different shops, it’s convoluted and the message gets lost.”

Instead he commended the perspective of the younger generation of marketers, who are getting control over spend in all these areas, and see them as one.

Sometimes, he said his firm encounters stiff resistance to a cross-platform approach even though it’s best for the campaign.

Big Spaceship’s Hirsch echoed this view. In some companies, he said, the approach to a campaign depends on a single person, who may be rooted in traditional ideas and unwilling to move forward.

“For instance, we hung out at an agency in New York to talk about how we like to work. We said it’s old fashioned to think of a 30-second TV spot as the centre of the campaign, but got into a heated discussion with the person in charge who said: you’ve got to start with TV.”

Such conservatism isn’t necessarily a characteristic of larger firms, Hirsch said, noting that big firms such as Nike and GE are leading the way when it comes to new technologies, such as augmented reality.

Panellists spoke of how the push to have applications developed for multiple screens is getting a boost with the Open Screen project.

The project is an industry-wide initiative, led by Adobe, which seeks to enable delivery of rich Internet applications anywhere and across multiple devices.

Project participants include BBC, Cisco, Comcast, Intel, LG Electronics, Motorola, MTV Networks, NBC Universal, Palm, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and other telecom and media firms.

“We’ve been waiting for Open Screen for a long time,” Whitlock said. He rued the sharp segmentation between TV, Web site and mobile phones.

While many marketing campaigns try to use one channel to drive audiences to another, ideally that’s not how it should work.

“We want to get rid of the middle piece, enabling one pipe to be delivered to multiple screens – we’re waiting to implement that.”

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