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‘Flash is the new publishing tool of the century’

That’s the headline of an article in last Thursday’s Guardian: it is still available online, but you have to register to read it. It’s an interview with Mark Anders, the senior principal scientist at Adobe Systems, and the man whose job it is to develop Flash for the internet of the future. Flash is the technology behind many web sites, and the more the site design relies on animation, moving images and eye-catching graphics, the more likely it is to have been built with Flash.

This hasn’t made it popular with everyone. The article quotes useability expert Jakob Nielsen, who once condemned Flash as “99% bad”; he saw it as a temptation to bad design, and a distraction from the real purpose of the site. If you have ever clicked a site proposed by Google, and then sat tapping your fingers while the front page downloads and the company logo does its dance, waiting for the magic words “skip intro” to appear – well, you’ll know what he meant.

Anders’ response at first seems less the case for the defence, more a confirmation of this criticism: he says “Developers loved it, though. It was always very effective for advertising, and over time people used it for new and unique experiences.” Good web design is not about what the designer loves, it’s about making sites that the user loves; new and unique experiences are only new and unique the first time round, but what if you visit a site repeatedly (as we hope you will)?

There is still plenty of self-indulgent design around. Here’s just one random example: I had reason to Google the name “Daniel Fox” the other day, and the results showed that it’s a name shared by a variety of people: a Walsall footballer, a polymer chemist (the inventor of a plastic called Lexan), an estate agent in Birmingham. But the link at the top of the list ( wasn’t giving any clues about who it belonged to, took forever to download, offered me a pretty picture and left me to guess what I had to do to see some text (clue: some of the flowers are clickable) … And I have a fast broadband link: if you’re on dial-up, this Daniel Fox just doesn’t want to know you.

Yet Flash doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Two years after his original assessment, Jakob Nielsen conceded that Flash was much improved, and drew up guidelines to make it more usable. Certainly, Flash can be used without making sites inaccessible to visually disabled surfers. It’s not about the technology, it’s about what you do with it.

As The Guardian points out, many people use Flash sites without being aware of it – like the Flickr photo hosting site. Roger used Flash to display one of Valerie Laws’ embedded haiku (scroll down to the bottom of the page). Flash on these sites is a tool, a means to an end: it doesn’t draw attention to itself, and that’s why it works.

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