Monday, March 27, 2006

Flash Player 8: Right features, wrong time?

There was a time, not so long ago, when I used to frequently think things like "If only Flash had blur built in!!" and "Oh, for a Flash Player with Photoshop-style blend modes!". I personally requested the latter feature for 3 major versions of the Flash Player. I spent hours trying to discover ways of achieving those effects through other means, beating my head against the keyboard until F, G, H, and J were imprinted permanently on my forehead. I stayed up until 4 A.M. far too often. And, I figured out some cool stuff... all of which is, since the release of Flash Player 8, completely and utterly irrelevant.

We all got used to being a bit confined. An entire aesthetic developed around the constraints of the Flash Player, typified by 2D design, heavy strokes, flat colors, simple gradients. This aesthetic hit the big-time with the iPod ads, and a slew of others. I didn't like the style at first, but it grew on me, or I grew with it, and it eventually took over. Now everything that I used to think was awesome looks dated and trite. This is a natural part of evolving as an artist, but when I realize a shift has taken place in the design world, I begin to wonder what's next.

Flash 8 promised such a shift. I anticipated its arrival with a great deal of panting and salivation... But now that it has arrived, I am unexpectedly at a loss for inspiration. Now that I can easily layer alpha-channeled video over my whirling, swirling "vortex of infinity" background, why would I bother? It was so much cooler when it was hard to do.

I came across an article last evening that I think explains part of the let-down. In it, Cecelia Holland writes about her experience teaching inmates at a maximum security prison. She describes how one imate would spend hours building beautifully detailed sculptures out of foil gum wrappers, the only viable medium he had available. Another inmate was an amazing novelist: until he was released from prison, from which point he was never again able to write with the same passion or skill.

The point of it all is that old adage: necessity is the mother of invention. The inmates in Pelican Bay State Prison made beautiful art, but only because it was their only means of expression. Now that I am out of the prison of old Flash, what will I do with new Flash? Maybe I can violate my parole and get sentenced to life developing for Flash Lite.

Or maybe I can take these new tools and apply them to my craft as a mature artist rather than as someone who is merely pushing the limits of their medium. I used to try to discover every cool new trick I could so that my designs would be unique, or so that I could feel like I was at the top of my game. I'm still going to do that, but now I think it will be less of an end unto itself. Flash 8 has levelled the playing field. Now, we all have pretty much the same toolset, regardless of our ability to hack the Flash Player. So, what's next? I think the future of Flash design is less about gimmicks and more about plain old artistic merit. And that's a life sentence I can live with.

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