A Word-for-Word Imitation

It's a bland, bland, bland, bland Web world.

That's the word from cutting-edge, New York-based online pub Word, which traded in its award-winning online aesthetics this week for the sanitized look-and-feel of Yahoo Inc.. In fact, it practically is Yahoo, right down to the jumpy red letters and the exclamation point.

Yahoo parodies are nothing new on the Web. Even Yahoo's directory has a page of Yahoo parodies, including Achoo!, Ya'Poo!, and YooHoo! But Word (or Word!, as the case may be) is a different story. Along with the redesigned front page, art director Yoshi Sodeoka posted an open letter that delves into philosophical and technical questions about art, design and commercialism. The letter's formal, weary sincerity has also had the site's hip readership, trained to view everything through an ironic lens, wondering all week how seriously to take it.

"As the Art Director of Word, I have failed to carry out the duties of a competent designer," the letter reads. "I have been creating art with the wrong medium. If I was a writer who published my work on the Web, I would want people to be able to actually read it. My lack of care for matters such as these has caused other people to suffer."

"What I do know is that Word's design team have begun to feel that we have fully exhausted the Web's potentials, and in turn, the Web has exhausted us. In short, it is finally time for us to settle down."

"The problem right now is, everything we try to do seems to backfire. That's why, in improving our site, we've decided not to invent a new interface of our own. We've simply borrowed from the best: Yahoo."

Japanese native Sodeoka didn't respond to efforts to contact him, but Word editor in chief Marisa Bowe spoke at length about the message her art director wanted to get across: "He was feeling like he was drowning and invisible in [a] sea of corporate Internet stuff. He's been depressed about whether there's any point to what he does."

Still, Bowe says the redesign isn't necessarily a parody. In his letter, Sodeoka describes the frustration of designing high-end, award-winning pages that crash people's browsers and that detract from writers' work: "Despite all this admiration and recognition, I have continually received complaints regarding design-related technical issues. Take, for example, a recent piece (designed by me), entitled "The Guests"...The piece sure looks nice, but it simply does not work on many people's machines. Resultantly, a great number of users were unable to read it. I was fully aware of this situation, but, due to arrogance and mostly, laziness, I declined to address the problem. I hope the frustrated readers and the author of this piece will accept my belated apology."

A sample of reaction shows Sodeoka's decision to dumb down the design might not sit so well with readers. "What happened to your cool-looking site that used to brighten my day and make me not want to stab myself in the eye so much?" wrote one fan. "It was so sparkly and pretty, and now it looks like yucky Yahoo."

Sodeoka's redesign and letter have done what art should do - spark reaction.

"The letter accurately depicts the conflict being fought every day in trendy loft offices all over the dot-com industry," wrote Mark Hurst, director of Internet consultancy Creative Good, in his e-mail newsletter. "On one side are the old-school Web designers, the folks who built Web sites in the first three years with a dream of reinventing design, interface, community, even democracy.

... On the other side are the marketers who have mostly arrived online in the last two years and are determined to make the Net work as a business.

Conversion rates, customer retention, advertising and promotion. And, of course, the IPO. These are the marketers."

Sodeoka indicates in his letter that he's no longer interested in high-end design, or online art for that matter. Still, he's responsible for art-driven sections of the site such as PixelTime, which encourages readers to draw their own online art, and Fred, a serial animated story. He's also working with other Word staffers on a multi-user game, Sissy Fight 2000, that should launch next month.

Bowe doesn't know how long the front page will sport the all-too-familiar look-and-feel. "It's complicated. He's complicated, a punk-rock guy. I've always advocated that everyone can do whatever they hell they want with Word.

It's meant to be an organic expression of the personalities here."

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