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February 12, 1996

Meteoric Rise of Web Site Designers


Graphic
The Digital Artistry Landscape
By TRIP GABRIEL

NEW YORK -- Until a year ago, Matt Pacetti, a 25-year-old graphic designer, had never been on the World Wide Web, but now he is the design director of Avalanche Systems, a 30-person agency in Manhattan that has created Web sites for NBC, Elektra records and Super Bowl XXX.

Despite such personal success, unusual for a graphic artist just a few years out of Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, Pacetti's allegiance to his career is shaky. "The future is very much up in the air," he said. "I think I'll always be in design, but I don't know how committed to Web design I am."

Pacetti's ambivalence is as typical as his nearly overnight rise in the field of Web site development, which has grown by leaps and bounds in the last year as the race to stake a claim to the Internet has riveted the computer industry.

Estimates of the number of sites on the rapidly expanding Web -- the highly popular graphics portion of the Internet -- range from 90,000 to 265,000. Overnight, every business from General Motors to the Schlitterbahn water park in New Braunfels, Texas, seems to have decided it needs a Web site. There might be a total of 16 million individual pages (about one screenful of information each). Someone has to design most of them.

Many are simply the work of hobbyists who have learned to use the Web's basic writing tool, HTML, or hypertext markup language, in a day or two by reading a book. They freelance, selling their services to friends and small businesses.

But increasingly, the demands of corporate clients for on-line versions of magazines or glitzy marketing sites that run hundreds of pages deep require the efforts of a Web team.

The group might include graphic designers, writers, HTML authors to assemble pages and "back end" programmers to give sites advanced capabilities, such as updating stock quotes or allowing visitors to download music. Project managers or producers oversee the efforts.

Pioneers in a profession that is regarded variously as a passing fad and a cutting-edge career with a limitless future, Web designers tend to focus on the immediate -- finishing a job, solving a technical problem, creating a dynamic effect by having something on the screen rotate or pulsate or transform itself into something else. Their resumes tend to be short and varied, their plans vague.

Nathan Shedroff, the creative director of Vivid Studios, a San Francisco company that created the Web site for the debut of Windows 95, said: "We're in the old guard because we've been doing this for more than a year and a half. Right before doing Web design we were doing interface design for on-line services and CD-ROMs. Back further, we did books."

The field has sprung into being so rapidly that no one has managed to count the new jobs created, or the amount of business generated. But Rick Spence, an on-line analyst at Dataquest, a research firm, estimated that, at the very least, "tens of millions" of dollars are spent on Web site development annually, involving tens of thousands of people.

A study by Forester Research found that the cost of creating and running a site for one year ranged from $304,000 for a corporate promotional site, to $1.3 million for an on-line publication, to nearly $3.4 million for a site offering catalogue shopping.

The arrival of big-spending clients has led advertising agencies to set up Web design divisions, and spurred the growth of independent studios.

"The number of new agencies and people with a clue is increasing so fast it's scary," said Kyle Shannon, a founder of Agency.com, a Web design company, and of the World Wide Web Artists Consortium, a 14-month-old professional group with 500 members.

At a meeting of the group last week in New York, one newcomer introduced himself as having been an astrophysicist "until December."

It is precisely the speed at which technology and fashions in multimedia change that gives many Web designers a sense of vertigo about their careers.

Everyone remembers when CD-ROMs were the wave of the future -- just two years ago. Venture capital chased small start-up companies. Hollywood discovered Silicon Valley. Then consumers showed a marked indifference to many of the titles, and even multimedia giants like Time Warner Inc. scaled back.

Now the excitement has shifted to the World Wide Web, and every billboard and glossy magazine advertisement trails the obligatory "http" Web address. Some developers worry about a backlash once corporations that have sunk serious money into sites fail to see much in return.

"The big companies will do it as R&D, to stay current," said Stu Rohrer, a Web producer who began working for commercial on-line services like Compuserve, a unit of H&R Block, in 1982.

"But I predict in the first half of this year a lot of people who did their Web site last year will say, 'That was nice, but let's not do it again.' "

He added, "There's a lot of danger of things drying up for people doing this kind of work."

Peter Seidler, the creative director and co-founder of Avalanche Systems, said that even if the Web's popularity cools, the skills acquired for its design could be upgraded for the next development.

"The ability to conceptualize information and render it interesting in digital form is going to change shape over the next 10 years, but the skills will continue to evolve," he said. "It's a great career move at this point."

Salaries range from no pay, for volunteers trying to learn skills, to $30,000 for a competent HTML. author, to $100,000 for a programmer familiar with CGI and Perl, the main computer languages used to connect the Web to data bases.

Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forester Research, predicted that in each of the next two years, salaries for Web artists and HTML authors would rise 10 percent, and for back-end programmers, 20 percent. "Talent is so much more in demand than there is supply," he said. "A lot of people think this stuff will fall flat on its face."

Bernoff disagreed. "I see vast increases in the amount of useful information on the Web and the amount of people it takes to create and develop that information," he said.

At Avalanche, a 15-month-old studio that is one of the hottest in New York, junior designers and programmers sit at a row of identical black desks with Power Macintoshes, their work surfaces cluttered with empty iced-tea bottles and Sony Discmans. They tend to be in their early 20s, and their life span and that of the personal computer roughly parallel each other. Their music of choice is often "ambient," the techy soundtrack of the rave scene.

The company occupies a loft with white brick walls and a stripped wood floor on Hudson Street on the fringe of Soho.

Pacetti, the design director, was working on a new look for Pathfinder, the sprawling Time Inc. Web site that features articles from the company's magazines.

"Right now the site is so visually cluttered people don't know where they're supposed to go," Pacetti said. "It's about organizing information, a standard design problem. How to create a flow for someone's eye."

A few seats away, Robin Schuldenfrei, an HTML author, was updating a site for the summer Olympic Games, hundreds of pages of biographies and press releases that are already on line as part of NBC's Web site.

"A lot of what I do is content organization," Ms. Schuldenfrei said. "Anybody can put up a home page. The Olympic site is 32 sports, and if you want to get the latest you shouldn't have to go six pages into it."

Ms. Schuldenfrei, 23, who graduated from Brown University with a degree in art history in June, worked for a summer during school in the Art Deco and Art Nouveau department at Sotheby's. But she found that HTML, which she had learned for a course in her senior year, was her most marketable skill.

"I was in the right place at the right time," she said. "The technology was just taking off. If I was at Sotheby's, I'd be faxing and photocopying all day."

It is HTML authors like Ms. Schuldenfrei, however, whose long-term prospects may be most limited. Already there are programs that bypass HTML and allow anyone to create Web pages. Last month Microsoft Corp. bought Vermeer Technologies, the maker of the leading automated program, Front Page. Reportedly Microsoft plans to include it in its best-selling suite of office software.

Leading developers are concluding that to attract and keep users, Web sites must offer sophisticated features, such as chat forums, customized searches of data bases and useful tools such as budget calculators. To build them requires a knowledge of programming languages such as Perl and, in the future, Java, a new language that is expected to light up Web sites like video games.

But this month at least, the Web is still a place where Bryant Wilms, 22, of Avalanchecan use the computer-design skills he acquired in college to insert a morphed -- combined -- image of Kate Moss and Johnny Depp into a Web site for "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." The image was first displayed on O'Brien's television show under the rubric "If they mated . . . ."

Wilms, who lives deep in the heart of Brooklyn, said he would prefer to live in Manhattan but found it too expensive. On the other hand, he said: "I practically live here now. We have some cots in the back."



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