Saturday, May 16, 2009

The human rights group Amnesty International has used a dynamic, yet functional design for its website. The home page has a frequently-updated “news” feature prominently displayed, with a series of vertically-arranged numbers (1 through 5) toward the left-hand side of the “news” panel. These Numbers correspond to particular items in the news that relate to human rights, at intervals of a few seconds, the number that’s highlighted will change, and its corresponding picture will be displayed to the right. It’s a kinetic, active way of drawing attention to a particularly important feature of the site, and, from a topical standpoint, shows us what’s most important to know about the organization: not that you donate via Paypal (though they do have a feature for this); not the various papers they’ve published on particular human rights abuses (though they do have links to these on the home page). What they are about, and want you to know first and foremost that they’re about, is combating real-life human rights abuses, which are happening all the time. The way the “news” panel is arranged helps convey this.

It’s a “busy” site; there are over 50 links to follow, just from the home page. But there is simplicity within the complexity; the most important links on the left-hand panel (“Donate,” “Join,” and “Take Action”) are included in their own panel, and are written in a plain-looking typeface, yet in a dynamic way (when you mouse-over any of these links, the text becomes back-on-yellow, instead of its usual white-on-black; it’s very visually compelling). There are also links toward the top of the site (again, in black-on-yellow, as-plain-as-possible typeface) to view the site in three additional languages, besides English. This not only conveys ease of use for more people globally, but is an expression in terms of design, of the type of site and organization they intend to be: a global one. Each of these factors combine to give a sense that the site both “has a lot going on,” and that it isn’t so overloaded and busy that it makes you want to give up on it.

Midtown Sound Walk

New York City just may have the most rich array of sounds of any built environment in the world. Spending an hour walking around New York and making note only of what you hear is harder than you'd think. To isolate sounds and discern roughly how far away their source is, and even just what they are, takes some real concentration.

I decided to mix it up by starting in the most bustling, chaotic part of town I could think of—Midtown (the corner of 48th and 6th Avenue, to be precise)--and end up in the most “natural” environment I could think of within walking distance: Central Park (specifically, near the Bethesda Fountain, which is roughly in the middle of the park, east-west, and at about 77th Street).

One sound that New York offers up with almost staggering ubiquity is a very particular sound of screachy brakes: bus brakes. There's high-pitched grinding that the bus brakes make—I guess as a result of the constant stop-start rhythm of Manhattan traffic. I've spent time in a of of cities around the U.S. and the world, and nowhere else have I heard this sound with anything like the frequency I hear it in New York.

If you really stop and listen, you hear people talk. Well, Duh. But listen a little harder. I noticed no fewer than 7 languages being spoken as I paused on the corner of 54th and 6th for about 6 minutes. I recognized Spanish; Chinese (though I don't know which of its many dialects I was hearing); English; Urdu; Arabic; and an Eastern European language whose identity I wasn't sure of (Russian? Romanian? Polish?).

When I reached the park, I wasn't greeted with the kind of wall of natural sounds I was expecting. There were at least two different kinds of birds chirping. There was the rustling on a squirrel in the woodchips off the walking paths. But mostly what I could hear were the same sounds I was hearing before—but through a kind of auditorily distorted prism that funneled them through canyons of skyscrapers and over acres of wooded land. The sounds were more faint, sure. But they also came at you as one thing, almost indescernible. I was no doubt hearing screaching brakes and honking horns on the Upper West Side, Upper East Side, and Midtown, all at once. Maybe even up in Harlem, too; who knows?

Everyone should try this sometime. It helps you develop a disciplined ear and learn to isloate sounds. Without a sense of what you're hearing, it would be hard or maybe even impossible to accurately represent the auditory environment in any storytelling medium. What does the city really sound like? You can't know until you get out there and listen to it.