It’s been fashionable to disparage Adobe’s pervasive plug-in ever since Steve Jobs issued his famous screed, but I’m saddened by the news of its demise today. I can’t help but reflect fondly on what Flash gave to ordinary web-surfers, and the power it placed in the hands of designers and developers the world over.
At a time when video on the web was impractical, the equivalent of watching tiny televisions through shower doors, Flash was a minor miracle. Am I overstating it? I don’t think it’s possible. Compared with the capabilities we take for granted today, developers were locked down tight, constrained by the limitations of an unforgiving medium.
Volume after volume taught us how to eke out some visual goodness on the web through carefully crafted gifs and jpegs, chosen oh-so-judiciously for the correct compression algorithms: Choosy designers chose gif for its run-length scheme, jpegs for continuous tone images. We dithered and compressed our graphics like pensioners counting pennies at the end of a long month.
And then Flash came along with its sexy swagger and the promise of… wait for it… MOTION. Could it be? It showed us the beauty of vector technology, those compact mathematics that made shapes and moving images possible. Suddenly, there was human movement on the web, the internet felt more humane, less mechanical. But as Cliff Robertson intoned to Tobey Maquire around this time, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
To further ground us in the period, let’s just say that I was a Padawan Learner, a designer craving insights into the ways of visual communication. And how blessed was I to have found a mentor in Hillman Curtis. Curtis, a musician-turned-designer-and-filmmaker (who passed away in 2012, I still can’t believe it), was strongly associated with the Macromedia technology through his trail-blazing work and through his books. (Likewise, in the UK, there was Brendan Dawes, an equally brilliant teacher who conveyed principles of design and usability through the guise of software manuals.)
But it was Curtis’s FLASH WEB DESIGN: The Art of Motion Graphics (New Riders, 2000), which set me on the path. More than a mere how-to on control palettes, it was a tour de force in design instruction. Together with his later, MTIV (Making The Invisible Visible) a Magnum Opus on process, practice, and inspiration, I didn’t just learn how to make type move, I sat at the feet of Pablo Ferro and Saul Bass, studying the title sequences to BULLITT and VERTIGO. I learned that embracing constraints sets you free. I learned how to listen to clients. And, yes, I learned how to make Flash sing.
More than just a boon to web graphics, Flash was a dream come true for wanna-be animators and professionals, alike. Having grown up in a world in which Fred Flintstone and Bugs Bunny were painted onto acetate cels, Flash, with its timeline-based symbol animation was a profound example of tool-democratization, putting the power of character animation into the hands of anyone with a copy of the software. I benefited greatly at this time from the books of Sandro Corsaro, which were a godsend to anyone who aspired to tell stories through hand-drawn characters.
Most of all, I was privileged to feel a part of a creative community during Flash’s reign, making more than one pilgrimage to the all-important FlashForward Conference (yet another gift to the world by the fabulous Lynda Weinman of Lynda.com fame), which was part clinic, part creative summit, with the sum of all awesomeness culminating at its Flash Film Festivals. They were powerful pyrotechnic displays of ingenuity, showing what was possible with vector symbols and scripts.
For any excesses and inconveniences one can point to, there was also the magic. For a time, it was the lightning in a bottle that illuminated the way forward. Farewell, Flash. It’s the end of an era.
ANTHONY ROTOLO is a creative fellow who works in many spaces, including publishing, podcasting, content creation and online learning. Follow him on twitter at @arotolo.