‘I treat websites as a design output and at the same time as a performance, so it doesn't have to be 100% perfect in all different environments’

We skyped from London to Seoul with designer and developer Yehwan Song (1995, South Korea) in February 2020. Yehwan is known for her idiosyncratic approach to web design with the majority of her projects taking the form of experiments that in some way subvert common user-experience behaviours. In this informal conversation with Yehwan, we discuss the rationales behind her work, her thoughts on web design patterns, design and code, work methodology and some of her future plans.

Yehwan Song, <em>Very Responsive</em>, 2020
Yehwan Song, Very Responsive, 2020

Scripted Space We first encountered your work in 2018 on Crazy Cool Websites and became curious about your experimental approach to computation and code. Could you describe your day-to-day relationship with technology?

Yehwan Song I wake up in the morning when my phone rings and from then on I use my phone all day. Whenever I go outside, I see the bus schedule on an app. I work with my laptop, I code with my laptop and I do hand sketches so I use Illustrator on my laptop. Since I mostly work internationally, I rarely do face-to-face meetings; instead, I use apps like Skype or Google Hangout. Whenever I take a rest, I use my phone to look at Instagram...

SS You're clearly utilising a great number of networked devices in and out of your work. Where would you see your practice as being currently situated?

YS Whenever I use these devices, I feel that everything is very similar, especially web design. Websites are mostly limited to template formats these days so people tend to put whatever content within the same format. I feel very frustrated when looking at this technology from a designer’s point of view. In web design, the focus is on the user-friendly, on how people use the device. So my practice is based on moving away from this user-friendly focus to a content-focused web design. The websites that I am building show the structure of information or data; they work as a gesture or as a metaphor to show the content.

SS From what we know of you via the WWW, you come from working with DIA and previously attended the School for Poetic Computation (SFPC). Is this content-focused approach in some way drawing from those experiences or is it something you've developed since?

YS After graduating from a Graphic Design degree I learnt to code by myself and then went to the SFPC. It was then that I realised that there is a problem in the world of technology: people are focused on making things ‘better’ and ‘as fast as possible’ rather than stopping to think about what it is and how can we use it. Yes, SFPC affected me a lot on how to use technology and how to treat it. For those of us who are from an Asian background, tech is generally from a Western background or a different culture from ours, and we just follow that. There are many things that we need to think about instead of just following and catching up with faster technology.

Yehwan Song, <em>Anti User Friendly Match My 4 Fingers</em>, 2019
Yehwan Song, Anti User Friendly Match My 4 Fingers, 2019
Yehwan Song, <em>Anti User Friendly Match My 4 Fingers</em>, 2019
Yehwan Song, Anti User Friendly Match My 4 Fingers, 2019

SS In your projects Anti-user friendly — Match My 4 Fingers and Mt. Everest you disrupt and play with aspects of what we might consider as ‘norms’ for user experience. Is the intention to push back against web standards and broaden the visual vocabulary of the web again, since its vernacular language is increasingly becoming more concrete? Are you doing this on purpose to invite the user out of their comfort zone?

YS Exactly. I think that my practice is partly performance and partly functional design. I try to push my work as far as possible to make people aware that there are other possibilities. I know that some of these practices are not functional or readable at all but I think it's important to broaden perspectives as much as possible rather than trying to make it workable in all those different browser environments or create something perfect.

Yehwan Song, <em>MT Everest Scroll Bar</em>, 2019
Yehwan Song, MT Everest Scroll Bar, 2019

SS Since a lot of your websites are time-based, do you think that ties into that idea of performance? Are there any projects in particular which you'd regard as performance or performative?

YS One of the most interesting parts of the web is that it archives itself, it has a mini-timer inside its structure. A desktop is a machine itself that archives its contents and somewhere in a website, the contents keep archiving. It's a very important thing to play with because it’s a special function that only the web can do compared to either printed matter or animations. It keeps changing and it keeps archiving itself.

Yehwan Song, <em>Template and The Repetition of Images</em>, 201?
Yehwan Song, Template and The Repetition of Images, 201?

SS The project Template and The Repetition of Images is both a generator and an exploration of templates. What is your position in regards to template culture? Do you see a relationship between the uptake of templates and the overarching trend toward automation?

YS Templates really help people who are not developers to create their own websites. I know that templates are important so I don't really think that they're a “NO”. But I also think we should push for diversity. There are tons of designers and developers who just produce the same template again and again and it could instead be part of their job as ‘experts’ to push the boundaries. I hope my practice pushes other developers or experts to widen their perspective and produce more diverse templates so that users can also use them.

SS You've used the word diversity a lot of times and we wonder if there is an ideological value in this. In the context of the web, and when working with developers, frequently there’s this idea of ‘best practice’, which in turn leads to assumptions about ’productivity’ or ’speed’. Are you also reacting against these ideals?

YS One of the basic problems of those templates or layouts is that they don’t make people aware of the content they access. For instance, I feel I am addicted to SNS (Social Networking Sites) or YouTube and I just follow their algorithm, even though I don't know and I don't really care what they're doing. I really want to avoid this! That fast technology which shows people the next form of content before they’re aware of it can make people dull and limit their way of thinking.

SS So you're saying the method of YouTube, as that’s the example you used, can make people passive.

YS Yes, those same images or template-layouts, they abstract the intentions behind these algorithms. People become unaware of the template, and that really helps those huge corporations to obscure those algorithms. As a result, people stop being aware that they are just following these algorithms...

SS There’s a YouTube video where you talk a lot about open-source culture. Since your designs are fairly idiosyncratic, do you ever feel that maybe some of the ideas of being open-source run opposite to what you do as a designer? i.e. producing something unique and tailored to a project or client.

YS Open-source is a good environment for web developers and designers but people should be using open-source code as a tool and not simply copying-pasting or adding layers on top. Many of my projects are derived from open-source data as well, but I think it's very important to use it as a tool rather than, you know, not understanding it.

SS Following that, have you ever envisioned your projects as tools that could be distributed?

YS Yeah, I really think that's the next step I should take. So far I'm so eager to make something rather than clean up the code and share it with others!

I've made some interactive touch posters that you can play with on your mobile. I think that kind of stuff has a lot of possibilities. I have thought about making that project open-source so people could experiment with the code and images, etc.

Yehwan Song, Sound Interactive Poster, 2020
Yehwan Song, Sound Interactive Poster, 2020
Yehwan Song, Interactive Sound Project, 2020
Yehwan Song, Interactive Sound Project, 2020

SS We’d love to know a bit more about your process. What kinds of tools do you use? Are there specific languages that you find yourself using more regularly, or certain APIs or libraries?

YS Process-wise I try to start with the data. Making a structure from the data is very important to me; another important part for me is making things obvious rather than abstract. So, for example, my website is driven directly by data from a Google Spreadsheet so people can see how it is built and see the backend or database more obviously. My website itself is just a rendering of that data to the layout and graphs.

I don't really like using a huge library [of code] as that abstracts the website and people stop understanding how the site functions and how it's constructed. Whenever I use a cursor and move the cursor, it follows the cursor: that motion is so obvious! There are websites that change the post orders by using a certain algorithm, or sorting/updating information based on certain rules. Those rules, I believe, always detract from the website, and sometimes even deprive users of their right to choose and decide what they want to see. I try to avoid adding these layers if they are not fully understood by me or by the users.

SS So how do you feel about a library such as react.js which results in semi-unintelligible streams of code when you inspect it?

YS I don't like React! I don't like those kinds of abstract layers and layers and layers. I try to make everything very simple, with everything in one view rather than folders and files and folders and files...

Yehwan Song, yhsong.com database spreadsheet, 2020
Yehwan Song, yhsong.com database spreadsheet, 2020

SS You play a lot with the merging of physical and online experience to break up the ‘canons’ or expectations of what is a web experience. For example, the use of the scroll movement on MT Everest or the 4 fingers that can’t fit the screen. Do you observe people using their phones?

YS I think that’s actually driven by my experiences at DIA studio... I'm very interested in how certain motions evoke certain feelings; the sort of rapid movements, or tiny little movements that keep peoples’ attention in a device experience. I think of a website as a creature that is trying to get attention from people. So if this creature wants to get attention from the user what does it do?

SS You developed that website you mentioned which archives itself. Have you ever had problems thinking on how to archive your work for later? Do you have any tactics for this?

YS Errrr. Nope! { Laughter }

Web environments tend to change a lot. Flash is not working at all these days and many super interesting Flash websites are not working any more. I kind of think that websites are not forever. I do not like to push my websites to keep functioning forever or trying to archive every single website I have done so far. I think that is what is most different in comparison to printed matter. When you print it out, it's static and it won’t change at all, but when you're using a website, even though you make it perfectly maybe Chrome changes, the device changes and therefore the website will change. I think it's almost impossible to 100% archive a site so I’ve chosen to free myself from that.

SS In that case, do you ever find yourself using tech which is really cutting edge; perhaps it has just come out and only works in... (plucks a random browser name and number out of the air) Chrome 97, and you know it's probably not gonna work on everyone's computer. How do you deal with that aspect?

YS If my client doesn’t care, I don't care. I treat websites as a design output and at the same time as a performance, so it doesn't have to be 100% perfect in all different environments. For me, it's more important to make it work in certain environments rather than keep it in the safety area and make it function everywhere.

SS Perhaps we should draw this to a close, partly because it’s really late for you! Which conversations are you engaging with at the moment that you would like to highlight?

YS To be honest, Korea is crazy these days because of the Corona Virus and therefore all my focus is there. We're talking about how we should treat this virus, how it invokes racism and where the responsibility lies in this situation.

Yehwan Song, The way we touch each other, 2020
Yehwan Song, The way we touch each other, 2020
Yehwan Song website design performativity interaction