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David Karam Probably Hates Your Web Site (Ours, Too)

February 27, 1997
Luanne Brown

In the early days of the film industry, Los Angeles was the place to be. Now, David Karam thinks San Francisco, California--home to his graphic design company, Post Tool--is the pre-millennium hot spot for the Web-wise.

"There's a bizarre energy surrounding the Web here: lots of egos going out of control, lots of competition — just like the Old West," Karam said in a recent interview.

But the weird Web vibes aren't affecting him. Karam, determined to go where no designer has gone before, is heading into unexplored content territory.

Tired of the Web's skew toward advertising, Karam wants to convince corporations that there's more to being on the Web than the current trend of blatant sell, sell, sell. While he doesn't think there's anything wrong with advertising, he worries that users won't stick around for long if that's all there is to a site.

Karam believes there's a commercial future in producing provocative content that engages users and keeps them coming back for more. His Web site, Post Tv, is intended to demonstrate that more creative forms of expression are possible and profitable on the Internet. Much like the early days of U.S. television, when Dinah Shore encouraged viewers" to "see the USA in their Chevrolets," Karam envisions a company, such as Nike Corporation, paying for the privilege of sponsoring one of his Web TV "programs."

He sees this as a win-win situation for everyone, including himself. The sponsor's goal remains the same--to sell, sell, sell the user on its product. But at least the seller will be providing potential customers with a chance to look at something they might not otherwise see. And Karam gets to produce content that allows him to prod the boundaries of what he still considers a new medium.

A Post Tv Tour

Karam has experimented with programs that have a variety of visual textures, different types of pacing, and a choice of emotional tones ranging from dark to light. Content providers such as Tom Bland, Margaret Crane, and Todd Hido contribute the guts of a Post Tv show, while Karam designs and programs the technical shell that makes it work on the Web.

Problems with bandwidth continue to constrict creative possibilities, so a Web TV program is, by necessity, a different animal than a conventional broadcast-television program. That's not necessarily a bad thing, according to Karam, because it opens the door to creative possibilities that May never have been considered before. Programs created for Post Tv combine such elements as animation, streaming audio, text, and photographs. (Shockwave and RealAudio are essential downloads when viewing the site.)

Tom Bland creates content for Canned Bland, a vaudeville-style program with jokes that play off Web-related events, such as the browser war between Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Says the animated host of the show, an alien in a space ship, "But things are getting out of hand. Today Netscape called in General Norman Schwartzkopf." Karam and Bland have also created Post News, a program that gives yesterday's news a humorous twist.

Bedtime Stories employs streaming audio to tell an evocative story by Margaret Crane about an old woman looking back on a destiny-determining part of her life. Homing In by Todd Hido is a funky blend of photographs and computer-generated words designed to provoke users to think about what home means to them. Each program on the site is still a work-in-progress, Karam said. "It seems like we have opposite extremes, from really silly things to the provocative. I'd like to balance that more and find a common thread that links the programs together."

New programs are in development. Links to other edgy sites, like Malice in the Palace, a character based game, and Shag, an interactive comic strip, have been established to increase programming options.

Going Against the Grain

When designing for the site, Karam rarely dwells on what the client or user might want. "I'm really designing for myself," he said. "Basically, it's a way of getting paid for doing the type of creative work I want to do."

Right now, he's playing with what Web TV could be. He thinks many sites have been too quick to adopt unproved conventions. "There hasn't been enough experimentation yet," he said, referring to the Web as a medium.

The Magic of the Mundane

"I admit I have what I call a strange perspective on design," Karam said. "I want to bring low culture to the people, [to] look at things we have as a common foundation." He likes "to take the junk, the mundane, and elevate it to a higher level with graphic design."

Karam attributes his offbeat aesthetic sense to his father, Sabah El-Din Karam, who converted to Islam, the religion of Muslims, when Karam was a boy in Austin, Texas.

Karam's father introduced him to a conservative Islamic tradition that frowns on representation of the human form, even, in some cases, forbids it. Karam thinks this could be one of the subconscious reasons he prefers animated characters over photographs of people on his site.

"Besides, with animated characters, you can get away with saying things no one would buy coming out of the mouth of a human," he said. The wise-cracking animated alien who hosts Canned Bland is an example. One of his jokes refers to the dangers of catching a cyber-sexually transmitted disease. "I think I've got crabs, because I keep scratching my keyboard." Low humor? Juvenile humor? It's all part of being mundane, according to Karam.

Meanwhile, Back at Post Tool

When not whacking out new territory on the Web, Karam's company, Post Tool, continues to design for more traditional media, including print. He and his creative partner, Gigi Biederman, design for such clients as Chronicle Books, Apple Computers, and frogdesign (owned by the famous industrial designer Harmut Esslinger).

Post Tool has also done interactive design work over the past four years. An informational kiosk for the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland featured film clips covering the use of rock music in the movies over the last 40 years. They have also designed interactive press kits for Warner Records, as well as corporate reports on CD-ROM. Last year, Schlumberger, one of the world's largest utility metering companies, distributed more than two million CD-ROMs containing an interactive annual report done by Post Tool and Colossal Pictures, the firm's partner on the project.

Karam hopes that Post Tool will eventually function on the film-studio model. "We'd like to provide an umbrella where people who produce things on their own can come together," he said. Even at 27, Karam thinks it's too late to break into film or television. But with his experience in programming and design, he thinks he's in a great position to make his mark on the Web. "Looking at the trends, this seems to be the best opportunity out of all these things," he said.

Two early samples of David Karam's work are the Post Tool Design sites, @tlas Multimedia and @tlas Design.

That's where the San Francisco artist got his start in Web design after trying to avoid it for what he considers a long time. "I just wasn't sure there was anything really going on out there," Karam said. From uninterested to innovator, Karam is now part of pushing the action on the Web to the edge and beyond.

'Gesture-based' Icons

David Karam thinks that too many site interfaces rely on a magazine-style table of contents, the kind with a constant menu (this site's, for example).

Karam prefers what he calls "gesture-based" icons, such as those on his Post Tv home page, that use images in motion to communicate, instead of words. For another example of this concept, he recommends Keez's Special Site by Dutch designer Keez Duyves.

Luanne Brown writes both fiction and non-fiction for multiple media.

Photo Credit: Michael Moore/Microsoft Corporate Photographer

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