Flash and Fine Art

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Open a new page in your browser and type in "www.trueistrue.com." Chances are, you'll see a screen with abstract graphics and no obvious navigation. Stare at it for a few seconds. The graphics probably won't change. Before you mutter something biting about usability and close that window forever, adjust your expectations.

trueistrue focuses more on concept than commerce, making it a maverick Web site. Designer Michael Cina creates it with Macromedia's Flash authoring program, but unlike the hectic motion of many Flash sites, trueistrue's animations can take up to 30 minutes to complete. Woven throughout the site (which Cina frequently redesigns) are tributes to everyone from Swiss great Josef Mueller-Brockmann to modern-day designer Ken Miki.

This subtle Flash animation appeared as a trueistrue homepage in August 2000.

For the past couple of years, I have been 'toying' with placing other 'truths' into the realm of design. Mainly science, religion and math into design so far. We can learn more about design by taking other principles and addressing them in the world of design.
-Michael Cina in a post to www.dreamless.org

Cina's unusual approach isn't a surprise to those who have followed his unusual career. Before he went solo this spring, his day job was as print designer for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. After hours, Cina, Matthew Desmond, and Joseph Kral ran Test Pilot Collective, a type foundry known for experimental typefaces and irreverent attitudes. He's also contributed art and articles to groups as diverse as The Chank Army, IORepublic, and Kaliber10000.

Now Cina pays the bills with freelance design work (see www.mikecina.com ), while his experiments find a voice in trueistrue.

Macworld talked with Cina about what constitutes good design and how message can triumph over medium.

Cina is rooted in the history of design, with a particular affinity for Bauhaus designers and typographers. The Bauhaus, a design school established in Germany in 1919, had a modernist aesthetic and was inspired by stark industrial materials such as steel and concrete.

The highly structured Swiss method of design has also been a major inspiration, though Cina wasn't at first aware of what drew him to the style. "My first design book was Typography by [Swiss typographer and teacher] Emil Ruder. I kept on reading and looking, and finally I deciphered that these people were building stuff on a grid.

These screenshots of a Cina design reveal its underlying grid.

"Geometry and math influence my design," Cina continues. "When I'm designing, I see things as numbers. I see this column in 10 units, this is 20.

"It all goes back to the grid. When everything is there for a reason, it becomes good design. Otherwise it's eye candy. A lot of design is built around a freer grid, but when you really look at it, it's lined up to a .125-inch grid. My Flash stuff is built like that."

Cina Facts

Favorite musicians

"Beanfield, LTJ Bukem, Jazzanova. A lot of stuff off Warp Records and NinjaTune Records . Also Broadcast and Amon Tobin's new one. And Barry Manilow."

Favorite typeface

"Helvetica Neue. I can't keep away from it, it doesn't stop working. I've been using Bell Centennial lately. I like Cooper, as well."

Favorite Web sites


Career before design

After Cina dropped out of college (just a few months short of receiving his bachelor's degree in graphic design), he became a full-time DJ. "I went from state to state for two years. I had fun, but I didn't make much money."

Although trueistrue consists of Flash animation only, Cina has an uneasy relationship with this application, which is widely used to create interactive Web sites. "I hate how people use Flash: so immediate, everything flashing around, type that moves, spinning 3D balls, loud banging noises," he explains. "Flash has separated even further design from designer. Good design now is a logo that rotates or blows up. Creative, yes, but I don't see it as design in the traditional sense."

"Then I started realizing that you can do other, cool things with Flash," Cina continues. "For trueistrue I wanted something that wasn't as accessible, that was interpretive yet required a lot of patience. I thought it would be interesting to create animation that built upon itself, more like a piece of art."

There is no instant gratification for trueistrue visitors. For people tired of the Web's typical bells and whistles, trueistrue's slow unfolding is a reward in itself -- an opportunity to reflect on the power of good design to convey the unspoken.

There are less esoteric rewards, as well, though they're still a challenge to find. "Trueistrue has a lot of hidden things," Cina says. "If you keep watching the site, you get clues. It's like a narrative of sorts."

Despite Cina's Web experimentation and that the majority of his paying clients are commercial Web sites, his design interests go beyond the Internet. While he's no longer a member of Test Pilot Collective, he continues to create type.

And Cina will never give up print design. "I like making things with my hands," he says. "I like the challenge of a static page. Design on the Web is disposable. It's up as long as you want, then you take it down. With print, people will have it as long as they decide to keep it from the trash can."

Cina relies on a small group of tools, which includes the Mac. "I had a PowerComputing PowerCenter Pro 180," he says, "but I just bought a G4. I love it." Other favorites are Adobe Illustrator 8 and Photoshop 4.0 (he "couldn't stand how 5.0 handled type"), sketchbooks, and rubber cement. "I spend a lot of my time making stuff off screen," Cina says.

No matter what tools he uses, Cina's work is sure to continue to challenge the viewer.

TERRI STONE is a senior editor at Macworld.

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