> This week, a startup company Mok founded will release
> _NetObjects_ -- a software tool that aims to take Web
> site design away from the HTML-slingers and put it into
> the hands of code-shy artists.
> Mok aims to make NetObjects a new "benchmark" -- the kind
> of "killer app" that becomes the nucleus for an entire
> industry. Though he's entering an already crowded field
> of site-creation tools, the designer's track record lends
> some credibility to his ambitions.
> To keep up, Mok has maintained his own company -- formerly
> Clement Mok Design and now _Studio Archetype_ -- in a
> state of flux.
> One thing that profoundly affected me in how I look at
> design was my tenure as part of the Mac team. Steve Jobs
> said, you have this incredible opportunity -- you being
> the Mac team -- to be the first to create this experience.
> By being the first you have the opportunity to set the
> standard and become the standard. So our orientation is
> not about what we create, but the process and thinking
> that what we're creating is a standard. If we accomplish
> that, and utilize that as our benchmark, and if we create
> a standard for people, that's a terrific sense of
By _SCOTT ROSENBERG_
if you work on a personal computer, odds are you use something designed by
Clement Mok every day. Mok has left his mark all over today's digital
landscape -- from his work with the original Macintosh team helping shape the
archetypal graphic interface to his design of the look and feel of the
Microsoft Network, from his identity-and-logo crafting for high-tech companies
to the royalty-free clip-art images he distributes on his own CD label.
Inspired less by traditional artists than by "information designers" like
Nigel Holmes, Edward Tufte and Richard Wurman, Mok brings clarity, order and a
dollop of style to the typically confusing and often ugly world of new media.
In his new book, "Designing Business: Multiple Media, Multiple Disciplines"
(Adobe Press, $60), Mok outlines a view of design that transcends pure
aesthetics; to design, according to Mok, is to organize consciously and
communicate effectively amid the accelerating chaos of the technological era.
Now Mok is turning his vision toward the Web -- a medium distinguished by
radical growth and speed but hardly by thoughtful, friendly design. This week,
a startup company Mok founded will release _NetObjects_ -- a software tool
that aims to take Web site design away from the HTML-slingers and put it into
the hands of code-shy artists.
Mok aims to make NetObjects a new "benchmark" -- the kind of "killer app"
that becomes the nucleus for an entire industry. Though he's entering an
already crowded field of site-creation tools, the designer's track record
lends some credibility to his ambitions.
To keep up, Mok has maintained his own company -- formerly Clement Mok Design
and now _Studio Archetype_ -- in a state of flux. We talked to him in his
refreshingly modest office in a penthouse studio on San Francisco's Townsend
Street, where he perches in a space-age Herman Miller office chair.
What is NetObjects?
We believe it's the Pagemaker or the Quark of Web site authoring. The
NetObjects tool looks at the site very much as a document -- as opposed to the
notion that a site is a collection of pages inside of folders, the way a lot
of the authoring tools out there do.
The big problem that a lot of non-technically oriented people have in
designing websites is that, sooner or later, you get tangled up in the file
system, whether you're in Unix or Mac or wherever.
We start instead by looking systematically at the information structure: Why
is the structure this way? What is it trying to hide? Or can we hide this?
We only generate the HTML documents at the end. But everything prior to
"publish" -- before we say, we will publish this, or "save this as..." -- is
really operating at an information-structure level, like "put this picture
over here." That's being described as coordinates and points. This is all the
result of the experience of the first round of the desktop publishing
revolution. Right now the Web is desktop publishing, the next generation.
I'd think that someone like you would look at today's Web interface, the
browser itself, and itch to improve it.
Yes. That's part of the tool, too. NetObjects allows the automated generation
of navigation and creation of graphical user interfaces -- not only the
function but also the look and feel of the buttons and the graphics. We
automate that entire process, so people can make those customizations easier
One of the points you make about the Web in "Designing Business" is that we
still haven't agreed on what basic terms like "back" mean: is it back to the
last page you were on, or back to the last page a designer designed a sequence
for? There's still so much ambiguity.
I'm not sure if I'm adding to the problem or solving the problem, but I am
looking at a way at least to create a framework that's consistent. I might not
give the user the right options at this point in time -- I'm quite cognizant
of the fact that I'm not -- but what we want to do is at least create a
consistent framework to use as a starting point. The fact that there's no
starting point is part of the problem.
How did you decide to enter the Web software field?
It started with some work we did for Wells Fargo bank -- an online authoring
system. We developed the product specification. We're not programmers. But we
ended up connecting with a former client of ours to do the implementation. The
amazing thing was, when we handed over the specification document, they said,
gee, that's really interesting, that's identical to the way we would look at
information structure and architecture. So we thought, okay, that's really
cool -- we're on the same wavelength. And when the metalanguage which
described this information structure was then reused for deployment on the
Web, that took two weeks. They were able to take fairly complex transactions
and interactivity and transport that to Net delivery.
So we spent some time defining the problem: Here's a piece of wonderful
technology. Who would use it? Why would anyone use it? How do we harness it?
Okay, I've got an idea -- why don't we use it so we can simplify the entire
authoring process? Now, when half of this studio's volume of work is in Web
development, and out of that development, 80 percent is just production,
wouldn't it be nice if we could cut that production time way down?
So sure enough, in a very short period of time we were able to publicize a
demo of the technology to get VC money. This was back in October or November.
So when I saw the ability to manage objects that way, I made the connection
with _"24 Hours in Cyberspace"_ and their need to publish. We basically used
that project as a proof of concept to show that this piece of technology is
capable of managing information structures and systems.
You titled your book "Designing Business," and NetObjects sounds like the
sort of business that was actually "designed." But don't most businesses just
grow haphazardly? Or are more business people beginning to think like
The buzzword "reengineering" is inherently about reworking, rethinking and
really redesigning. Companies are rethinking not only organizationally, but
looking at the premise of why they're in business and what business they're
in. So, in the broadest sense, yes, people are thinking that they have to go
But specifically, the act of designing is very foreign to most business
people. Most people feel self-deprecating about it. They don't know how it is
done -- they simply don't feel that they are the experts. In fact, some of
them intuitively know what it takes to design a business. They might not know
how to draw, though, and they have this fixed notion of what design is.
That it's graphic design.
When in fact you're orchestrating all the components of both the product and
communication as well as the perceptions that you want to present.
You've just gone through a redesign here, from Clement Mok Designs to Studio
Archetype. So this is something you're practicing yourself.
Practice what you preach -- it's very important. Our society and culture are
driven primarily on a project-to-project basis; that's how we tend to look at
our systems. And business looks at a quarterly basis: let's launch a product,
finish it and wrap this quarter up with great, terrific results. The criticism
that corporations have taken the short view is probably quite apropos. What I
have learned, even in running this business here, is that a business doesn't
have a beginning or end. By God, a business better not have an end! Four or
five years ago, I realized, OK, Clement, you'd better stop running your
business like a project, and look at it as an ongiong thing. That might be a
way to pull yourself into the long view.
You write about "The endless distractions that technology spews forth" and
how that gets in the way of the long view. Clearly that's accelerating. What
can we do to try to stay focused, without missing out on the good
Bottom line is, it's the discipline to question and constantly re-question
your goals and what you want to do. And being somewhat selfish. This studio --
not only me, but as a group -- is exposed to lots of new options. New
companies are always launching new widgets; you can do this even better! And
it's scary when you start to believe the press releases. So to be a student of
people is going to help us overcome the technology hype that always tends to
give you a nice buzz. Study how people behave around technology -- that would
be a counterbalance. You become incredibly skeptical. You see a demo, and you
think, "Okay, that's good and fast. What would I use it for?" That tends to
There's an interesting phenomenon I've observed over the past year and a
half: clients come to design and consulting firms just to sort of bounce
ideas. Because the multimedia industry made so many mistakes in the last round
of CD-ROMs and interactive television, in this round, I think, they've
stopped believing their own hype, and so they think, maybe we should bounce
this idea off someone who might actually use it.
Not a very accurate type of research, because we're all going to have our
biases going into it.
In "Designing Business" you say that interface design is more social science
than rocket science.
Because there's so many options and so much hype, the tendency is to solve
problems in one dimension. We say, okay, this is an interface issue, let's
solve it -- when in fact it's essentially the same problem manifesting itself
differently in different disciplines. A client comes to us and says, we have a
user interface problem on a particular project; users don't know that we're
the company behind it. Well, that's not a user interface problem, that's an
You write a lot about identity design. Coming up here, I had trouble finding
your office because you've got no number on the elevator button, just your
logo. On the one hand, you succeeded in getting me to learn and remember that
that's your logo; but you also bugged me and made me late. So is that a design
success or failure?
Before that we had a different company logo, a bear. And we found that it was
a great mnemonic device, and always a terrific piece of conversation. That
user experience of getting up here was very frustrating for some, but not all;
two out of ten would have problems getting here, usually as a result of our
not prompting people on the phone in advance. So is that a failure? I don't
know. If everything in the world is explicit, there's not a whole lot of room
for creativity. But some people would think that making someone go through
what you did was horrendous.
Your work is usually characterized by clarity and cleanness, but on the Web
today, there's this widespread aesthetic of chaos and deliberate misdirection.
Is that native to the medium, or just part of its immaturity?
I think that we're still in the experimental stage right now. Generally, I
hate things that I have to spend a lot of time figuring out. At the same time,
over these last four or five years working with the interactive media, both
in CDs and online, I've found that one of the most underutilized aesthetics is
that of randomness. The beauty of interactivity is a certain amount of
controlled randomness. Some of the most wonderful design out there is sort of
planned randomness, where you can control a certain amount of serendipitous
activity as well as serendipitous display of information. You're creating
connections that even the creator could not anticipate.
That's a more radical notion of interactivity: rather than seeing chaos as a
matter of a crazy look, you're talking about a deeper ceding of some control
to the larger Web environment and the people on it.
I still think that we're very primitive at trying to exploit that aspect of
the medium itself. We're still bringing our structured biases in the
execution. And hopefully we're learning from mistakes over and over again.
You were a creative director at Apple for five years and helped launch the
Mac. I see you stll have a Mac on your desk.
And a Windows laptop, too.
Apple has taken a lot of blows lately. How much trouble is the Mac in? Do you
think it's going to survive?
It will go away if Apple doesn't take care of us. Period.
The creative community. Apple is foolhardy to court the entertainment
multimedia industry to do special effects, because there's no way that they
can compete with the NTs and the SGIs and the Unix workstations. And here,
foolishly, they are going to court the entertainment industry, when the people
who are doing publishing and design and advertising and music have supported
the product from the get-go. Frankly, I don't think they'll do very well.
The Mac is still the best development tool out there for creation. However,
it falls very short as a tool for communication. And the design community has
to wake up to the fact that if Apple doesn't support and evolve their
technology to connect to the rest of the world, there's a very unpleasant
suprise on the way, both for Apple and for people who've invested in the Mac
environment. Given Apple's recent inability to deliver product, I'm finding
myself for the first time saying, should I hedge my bets?
Hopping to the other side of the fence, your writing about your work on the
Microsoft Network suggests a lot of frustration beneath the surface.
Now I'm going to get into trouble with both of them, right?
You write very diplomatically about creating an interface for this network
and redesigning it on the fly as Microsoft kept repositioning the whole thing.
The Microsoft Network interface still looks pretty nice, but as they move to
the Web, it will --
-- die as well.
So in this environment, a lot of design work is --
-- short-lived. Success and effectiveness is hard to measure. What is design
How do you feel about that?
It's always sad when something that you've created has a very short life. But
then, you look at a brochure. My god! The life of those brochures is six
months? A year? Boy!
So the environment of accelerating novelty --
-- makes what we create basically a commodity, really. Yes. And I think
that's why we have shifted some of our focus.
One thing that profoundly affected me in how I look at design was my tenure
as part of the Mac team. Steve Jobs said, you have this incredible opportunity
-- you being the Mac team -- to be the first to create this experience. By
being the first you have the opportunity to set the standard and become the
standard. So our orientation is not about what we create, but the process and
thinking that what we're creating is a standard. If we accomplish that, and
utilize that as our benchmark, and if we create a standard for people, that's
a terrific sense of accomplishment.
That's what an archetype is -- a kind of initial mold.
That's why I have to do something in software development right now. That's
where my head is at right now -- because I think I have the ability to shape
and define some of what needs to happen there. My joy, and it's not everyone's
joy, is to look at where those benchmarks are. That's getting me into very
unfamiliar territory, with NetObjects, and Clement Mok CD, where we're about
to rejuvenate the line for the Web. Getting into new territories with a design
perspective, I learn a lot about the other arenas, and hopefully bring that
value back into the design fold.