Fast Forward

As readers of our September issue may recall, over the summer I spent some time on the campus of Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., where I received a quick immersion in the university's work in the field of media. While media studies pervade almost every aspect of the school, its hub is the Center for Media Design, a three-year-old project that got kick-started with a $20 million endowment from Eli Lilly and Co., the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant. The school just received a second $20 million grant from Lilly to continue its research and development on new uses of media to drive all areas of commerce and education, including an eHealth initiative. Major media corporations, including Microsoft, Sony, Time Warner, and Viacom, have begun using the Center for a wide range of research about how people use media. Like many of them, I was attracted by the publication of the school's Middletown Studies, which chronicle and analyze how average Americans spend time with media, and how changes in media technology impact that.

Lest you think this is just another plug for BSU, here's the light-bulb-over-the-head anecdote that is the reason for this month's column. I was in the Center's reception area talking to a few of the professors when I looked up at the sign on the wall and realized I was sitting in a center for "media design." The next thing that popped out of my mouth must have sounded incredibly naïve to the academics: "What's media design?"

I had just spent the better part of a day touring the campus' media labs and facilities and speaking to professors and deans spanning several of the university's colleges. I had also spent a quarter of a century covering what I thought to be all facets of media. Not once had I ever considered the concept of media design. Even more perplexing, over the years I've met with the leaders of major media conglomerates, agencies, marketers, and leading researchers and innovators, and not once had any of them even uttered the phrase "media design."

But there I sat in the offices of a major academic institution devoted to the subject, backed by $40 million in grants from a major pharmaceutical marketer. So, as I often do when I'm sitting on college campuses, I felt ignorant. I also felt curious. Media design, I learned, is a lot like industrial design. In a nutshell, it is research and development on the form and function of media and how people interact with them. Media design looks at how people use -- or don't use -- existing media designs and envisions how new media content, formats, and platforms should be designed. It's not simply about how an individual media component should be designed; in an age of increasing concurrent media usage, it's about how media forms are consumed in conjunction with one another.

If you're in the media business and you don't think this is relevant to you, consider what a leading media designer has to say about it: "These days, your interface is your brand." By "interface," the designer, Dale Herigstad, creative director of Schematic and the subject of a profile in this issue, means the way media are designed and whether they are engaging enough to hold your attention and get you involved with a media outlet, its content, and even its advertising.

If you're like me, that raises a million new questions. Why are Google's stark naked interface and Yahoo!'s rich page design both so compelling when they appear to be so different? Why did Apple's iPod work when its Newton didn't? Why does TiVo work when video-on-demand frequently doesn't? And what happens when the same media content spreads across a multitude of markedly different media formats? We can't answer all those questions in this issue, but we hope to answer many of them in future ones.

For now, the short answer might be the same one given by design visionary Buckminster Fuller a half a century ago: "Form follows function." To understand the form, we must first understand the function.

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