Navigating the Digital Universe
Navigating the Digital Universe:
the use of space in the design of multimedia
by Jean Trumbo
Reynolds School of Journalism
University of Nevada, Reno
702 . 784 . 4198
e-mail: [log in to unmask]
Multimedia combines a variety of media formats: text, image, sound
and movement into a dynamic environment that allows users to select the level of
interaction and to make active decisions about how they access the content.
The multimedia designer must create an experience that anticipates and allows
the user's approach and movement through the presentation, as well as the user's
exit. The designer can offer navigational cues, but unlike the sequential
ordering that serves as the underpinning of traditional media (print and film),
multimedia offers multiple avenues through the material. These avenues through
multimedia are digital rather than physical, yet the process of orientation and
navigation have parallels to three-dimensional space. If we accept the notion
that multimedia products can be described as three-dimensional form, the process
of design must incorporate an appreciation for these spatial requirements. This
paper will examine some of the processes and problems of navigation and
orientation in multimedia by comparing the perception of architectural and
sculptural space to that of the multimedia environment.
Space in multimedia
An understanding of the creation and organization of space can be
helpful in the process of planning the multimedia information environment. Space
in multimedia includes the space occupied by the elements that are part of the
multimedia product as well as the space that surrounds the product. The parallel
is the potential to view space as a universe with discrete elements that fit
within and function as complex systems. On the World Wide Web, this universe is
open, although it may not be infinite, and the elements or sites are organized
to be accessible as unique worlds with thoroughfares to other worlds. Users may
have local, regional, global or cosmic experiences as they travel the Internet.
Self-contained multimedia products such as CD-ROMs are spatially limited but no
less complex because each format D text, video, audio, or graphic element D may
be uniquely organized or arranged to interact with the other elements in the
space. The space occupied by the elements and the space between the elements is
navigable in many directions.
There is a tendency when designing for multimedia to think of the
process as a hybrid-linear experience with a hierarchical structure that the
designer can control. In spite of the potential to link from one idea to
another, these links are often used as subsets within a dominant text, much
like footnotes within a research paper. Links may lead from primary topic to
secondary topic and so on. Limitless layers of links are possible, but commonly
these connections branch from one another in a hierarchy of importance or
emphasis. This can be seen in World Wide Web sites that open with a home page
and contain an index of icons that lead the user down a linear path of pages
that are essentially documents dumped into digital form. The reader is forced to
use the product in a directed way D sequentially. This method of information
storage and retrieval is based on a two-dimensional tradition of text navigation
that is dominated by the book and print media publishing. It is a century's old
tradition of organizing information sequentially, and it assumes that the reader
will navigate through this sequence from top to bottom or from beginning to end.
In the design of multimedia, there are multiple pieces of
information that may be presented in a linear format as sections within the
presentation. For example, a document may include pages of text, an author
reading her poetry, a musician playing one of his compositions and then
discussing it, or a video pop-out window that shows scenes from an event. All of
these discrete elements are linear in their structure. They have a beginning,
middle, and end, and for the most part they require that the user navigate
through the experience with reverence for this arrangement. The underlying
organization of elements within the product may be linear but as soon as the
user is invited to move among or between elements, this sequential, directive
approach is given additional dimension.
In multimedia, it is the user's movement through the presentation
and the user's experience with the content that is non-linear. Hypertext allows
this alternative way of approaching beginnings and endings or entrances and
exits from the multimedia product. It offers multiple possible sequences thus
multiple potential beginnings and endings. The point at which the reader enters
the text is a beginning and in hypertext that entrance may be anywhere, at any
point within the structure.
The prospect of arriving on the doorstep of a new structure and
being presented with a maze of confusing paths in, around, or through is
precisely the situation presented by many multimedia products. The ultimate
responsibility of the designer is to create a navigable environment with
interfaces that help orient the user. One strategy for addressing the challenge
of designing navigable multimedia space is to view the environment as
architectural or sculptural. Architectural space has both pragmatic and
expressive intent. It is planned with the user in mind and functions in
particularly well-defined ways to offer shelter or utility. The architect may
have had a particular expressive goal that is revealed through the design and
this expressive intent may be uniquely interpreted by the viewer but it is not
of paramount importance. Function is the primary purpose of architectural space.
Sculptural space, while also three-dimensional, is created with expressive
intent D to reveal the unique vision of the artist. Sculpture may not be
functional but is always expressive in intent. Architecture may be expressive
and is always functional in intent.
Further, space that is modulated to allow the viewer to observe it
but not to inhabit it is sculptural. Space that is modulated to allow the viewer
to enter and inhabit it is architectural. "Clearly, these categories overlap a
great deal: architecture is sculptural, and sculpture can be inhabited."
Multimedia may have both architectural and sculptural space
resident within a single product and the designer must be aware of both the
expressive and functional intent while organizing the design space.
The designer as architect or sculptor
Our senses are affected by the creation of patterns and
proportional relationships between shapes. Light, color and sound also influence
our sensory experience. The architect manipulates space to influence the
environment in which we live and through which we move. Architecture has been
described as "the art into which we walk; it is the art that envelopes us."
Mies van der Rohe described architecture as "the crystallization of its inner
structure, the slow unfolding of form. That is the reason why technology and
architecture are so closely related."
To the architect, space is a functional design element that is as
important to the success of the structure as every column, wall or window. The
function of space can be described pragmatically, with a utilitarian view of the
use or activity that will occur within a given space. Space can also be
described for its circulatory function or its ability to direct or enhance
movement from area to area. The function of space can also be symbolic or may be
used to make a visible statement about its use. And finally, space can function
psychologically to offer optimum satisfaction or to simply be pleasing.
The organization of content within a multimedia product may be
enhanced through an approach to the digital environment that actively
anticipates the function of the space occupied by the structure. From this
perspective, the multimedia designer must anticipate the purpose of the content
and the level of interaction that is necessary. The circulatory function of
multimedia includes the ease with which the user can move and the visual
guideposts that clarify the access routes. Psychologically, a well designed
multimedia experience leaves the user anticipating a return trip.
The design produced by the architect influences the user's movement
through space on many levels. The architect manipulates physical space which is
bounded by walls, floor, and ceiling; perceptual space and the sense of scale,
perspective and distance that is seen by the viewer; conceptual space that is
part of memory and includes the mental maps that we carry around in our heads;
and finally, behavioral space which includes the way we actually move through
and use an environment.
The experience of manipulating space to create an environment
through which others move is a fundamental concern for the multimedia designer.
The environment is constructed of bits of information and is thus binary rather
than physical. Nonetheless, multimedia is space that we enter. If it is space
on the Internet, it is open and vast. If it is space on a portable storage
device such as a CD-ROM it is limited in scale but may be open in structure. The
structure of the space is perceptual as opposed to the bricks and mortar of a
physical structure. And yet, the experience of moving through a constructed
environment is similar.
Mitchell argues that the structure of space on the Internet has
many of the symbolic and social characteristics of physical space but that the
restrictions of architectural form can be overcome. Spatial cities, he says,
condense human activity to promote interaction but there is also an element of
control introduced as access is organized. Districts and neighborhoods are
created to define space.
For the inhabitants, crossing a threshold and entering a defined
place D as an owner, guest, visitor, tourist, trespasser, intruder, or invader
D is a symbolically, socially, and legally freighted act. There is always a big
difference between being a local and being an alien, being on your own turf and
being on somebody else's, enjoying your privacy and appearing in public,
feeling at home and knowing that you are out of place. So it is on the Net, as
well, but the game gets some new rules; structures of access and exclusion are
reconstrued in entirely nonarchitectural terms
(if we continue to define architecture as materially constructed
form), and you enter and exit places not by physical travel, but by simply
establishing and breaking logical links.
The architecture of multimedia space is not simply materially
constructed form, although there are comparisons that can be made. Rather,
multimedia space is formally organized by the designer to allow movement through
and within and between sections. The structure is most effectively created as a
format for guiding movement rather than a form for controlling movement.
Movement is no longer bounded by the structure, rather it is guided. The ability
to link from one section to another or to simply enter or exit a structure at
any point becomes equivalent to walking through walls for the user.
The design of a building or structure relies on the thoughtful
consideration of human behavior. Ultimately, a building is constructed for human
use and thus movement through it, around it, and within it is of primary
importance. The architect can create an environment that employs space in a
directional way. For example, a Gothic cathedral in which the emphatic axis
directs movement toward a single focus D the altar. The architect may also elect
to create an environment of non-directional space in which there is no single or
obvious path through a building. Rather, there are a variety of paths to choose
from, each offering a unique relationship to the space created.
The designer of multimedia must be similarly concerned with the
user's movement through the material. In a multimedia environment there are
multiple windows, doors, and hallways through content. The designer's challenge
is to use directional and non-directional space to create multiple paths through
a coherent, navigable garden of content rather than a labyrinth of dark, empty
passageways and blind alleys.
Physical Space. The constraints of technology allow limited
influences on the part of the designer over physical space, which might be
conceived of as the CD, the user's computer, or the network. Physical space may
also include access speed, storage limitations and the size of the digital
presentation. These technology limitations are generally unavoidable and require
that the designer simply make intelligent decisions that don't impede user
access. In fact, the multimedia designer has the greatest influence over the
realms of perceptual, behavioral and conceptual space.
Perceptual Space. In the design of multimedia, perceptual space
includes the elements visible on the user's screen and the environment that is
created through their arrangement. The choice and arrangement of visual elements
such as type, color, pattern, and image as well as the designer's use of sound,
movement and time are important elements in multimedia design. The designer has
control over the assembly of these elements and is charged with creating a
perceptual space that is articulate and that adds to the communication goals of
the presentation. If there is a sense of depth or perspective visible or if the
passage of time is evident in the presentation, it is perceptual space that has
been influenced by the designer.
Three-dimensional space is described as being boundless or
limitless in all directions. Perception of three-dimensional space is influenced
by our ability to perceive depth and volume. The physiological properties of
binocular vision, seeing with two eyes, gives us an ability to discriminate
between the relative depths or forms within a three-dimensional visual field.
This allows us to imagine distance and to gauge scale, shape and size.
Our understanding of three-dimensional space is also psychological
because perception is a function of our ability to comprehend and assimilate
what we are seeing.
H. L. F. Helmoltz developed cue theory which suggests that before
the mind can know and interpret sensory information, it must participate in
sensory events that form the basis for interpretation. In other words, once
spatial cues are learned through experience, our perception of space becomes
relatively simple and our response to it is automatic. Cumulative sensory
experience builds a foundation from which we perceive.
Our perception of space in multimedia is both a physiological
function of vision and a learned phenomenon that is all the more complex because
the digital data that makes up the multimedia product has no real volume or
scale. It is the orientation, organization and design of content that can be
approached as a three-dimensional problem.
The hierarchic structure of hypertext is extended in multimedia
space to include concern for layers, the distance and paths from one link to
another, and the introduction of movement and time. In hypermedia, each user
decision offers the potential to move from one-dimensional to multi-dimensional.
"...a word in text can open to a hologram, a point within the hologram can open
to an animation, a frame in the animation can return to a text." We can
think of space in this context as "information space" with the actual elements
and the space within which they reside connected. The designer defines how the
information is organized within the space but the user defines how the space
functions, or is perceived, or conceptualized. The user may behave in the space
in a variety of ways.
The designer must consider the entire multimedia document as a
potential entry to the content. If the multimedia document can be approached and
entered from any point in the presentation, the design process must include
attention to the whole as well as the individual elements within the
Many multimedia products use familiar spatial metaphors to help the
user find her place. For example, the computer desktop with file folders, trash
cans and clipboards that serve to connect the user to their physical
counterparts. Apple Computer's E-World village is a spatial metaphor that offers
the user a familiar way to navigate from one content area to another. In each
case, the spatial environment has been organized to give the user a sense of the
Behavioral space in multimedia includes the way in which the user
approaches the material and navigates through it. The user interacts with the
multimedia environment using a variety of entry points and traverses the space
through a variety of paths.
The multimedia designer builds the access routes between topics and
establishes the signage and tools that are necessary to help the user navigate
the information in a coherent way. A well-developed approach to navigation
design minimizes travel by creating simple paths between points, minimizes
complexity by creating a hierarchy with a minimum of levels, and minimizes
redundancy to avoid creating multiple paths to the same place.
There are two levels of access that concern the designer; movement
within the presentation and movement that takes the user away from the
presentation. In the first case, the designer must create a sense of continuity
and a clear sense of direction within the document. This is a matter of
establishing a visual identity with readily understood icons, landmarks, guides,
and an understructure that is based on "user-logic" D literally, the way in
which the user approaches the product and the way in which the user navigates
through the information. User-logic often differs from the intuition or judgment
of the designer. One approach to incorporating user-logic into the multimedia
product is to practice collaborative or participatory design, bringing the end
user into the development process as an active contributor.
Sun Microsystems describes one such approach to evaluating user
comprehension of the icons developed for their Web site
(www.sun/sun-on-net/videsign/sunweb/). The end user was involved in each step of
the design process and consequently was able to eliminate any ambiguity
concerning how they would interact with the final product. This process allowed
Sun to create an icon system that is intuitive and to organize the site in such
a way that user access is assured.
To influence access routes that take the user through and away from
the multimedia presentation, the designer needs to have created an enticing
environment that leaves a positive impression with the user. This concern for
the aesthetic appeal of a presentation is directed less toward user-logic and
more toward creating a pleasing memory and an experience that the user will be
likely to repeat.
The designer also needs to anticipate behavioral differences among
users. Users move through the presentation at their own pace, making selections
along the way that determine how they will behave in the environment that has
been created. The ability of the user to define the viewing experience has
parallels to that of sculpture when the viewer is able to select the angle of
view, the time of view, range of view, etc. The user chooses the sequence, depth
and duration of the experience and consequently the nature of access to the
space. The user may be a relatively passive viewer or an active visitor who
participates or interacts with the object. In any event, each user brings a
unique set of goals, ideas or information processing criteria to the process.
The access to space is one of the key ingredients in creating
interactivity. What is unique about multimedia and the Internet is that both
access and navigation are outside the domain of the designer once the product is
"out there." Accessibility is in the hands of the user and navigation choices
are sometimes arbitrary, sometimes purposeful, but seldom linear.
In effect, interactivity is multimedia's reason for being. It
allows the user to create links between different media types and integrate
them into a uniform multimedia document, program, or presentation. It is
critical to understand that the links to the media and the information carried
by the media are not fused and permanent. They are dynamic and active."
The designer has created an environment of communication that is
multi-dimensional and that is responsive to the influence of the audience. The
designer relinquishes control once the environment is made available to others.
The user decides how to enter the product, approach the content, assimilate the
information, and engage in highlighted details.
Further, we can think of the structure of space within multimedia
as dynamic and evolving with movable walls, permeable fences, flexible hallways
and scalable sections. The designer can adapt and modify the structure without
total disassembly. It is an environment that can respond to the actions of the
Conceptual space in multimedia is another story entirely. It relies
on the internal compass, or spatial memory of the designer and user. Conceptual
space is our sense of how to move, or of boundaries, and direction. It is
whether we are able to conceive of the computer screen as having multiple levels
or layers. Conceptual space is an experience rather than a construction. The
designer and each user of the product may have unique senses of conceptual
space. For example, it might be perfectly understandable for one user to
envision a hypertext document as a three-dimensional form that resembles a
Calder mobile, while another user envisions the same document as a
two-dimensional diagram or flow chart.
Memory plays an important role in our conceptual understanding of
space in multimedia. We rely on spatial memory to get from one point to another
and back again. We rely on spatial memory to create mental maps that allow us to
repeat an action or retrace our steps. The constraints of short- and long-term
memory are important concerns for the multimedia designer.
Short-term memory is accessed quickly but decays rapidly. We use it
as a "scratch pad" to store information that will be used fleetingly. We tend to
seek closure and to group items or events stored in short-term memory. If we are
interrupted while processing information in short-term memory, we easily lose
our place. Another hallmark of short-term memory is the "recency effect" meaning
that we tend to remember best the words or images that are presented last.
Short-term memory is integral to the user's successful navigation in multimedia
design space, particularly as the user accesses new presentations.
The multimedia designer needs to use a variety of tools to help the
user remember where they are in the design space. These tools include
pictographic icons that remind the user where they are and how to get back,
color references that connect to sections or areas of the design space, a
coherent use of typography, movement, sound, and organization that augments the
message and reinforces the user's progression through the design space.
Long-term memory has relatively slower access time but allows the
user to store factual, experiential knowledge in unlimited amounts. We
access long-term memory episodically, with memories stored in serial form, or
semantically, as associations or representations of the relationships between or
For the multimedia designer, the process of storing information in
long-term memory suggests that a clear understanding of the nature of the
information be developed before a design approach is initiated. For example,
information that is likely to be remembered as a sequence of events should be
stored with an appreciation for the structure or hierarchy of information. This
will result in a fairly linear approach to the use of space. Information that is
likely to be remembered as an interpretation or impression can be delivered in a
structure that is less rigid. Space, in this case, can be expansive with links
that open the user to new possibilities rather than directing the user to a
A sense of disorientation occurs when users seek information and
subsequently lose their sense of direction within the information space. If the
user is concerned with how to navigate the system to reach the information,
attention is diverted and the process of moving has become more consuming
than the potential of the destination. Imagine being so concerned about your
ability to walk down a corridor successfully that you fail to notice $1000 bills
lining the walls. This is one of the results of disorientation.
Disorientation can occur in multimedia when the links dead-end or
are irrelevant. It can also result when the tools for navigation are
inappropriate or lacking. If users have a difficult time retracing the route
taken to find information, frustration results. Interface design is an important
part of connecting the user with the information and very often this ingredient
is overlooked or inadequate. For most users a clear path to a primary index or a
diagram of the space is important in creating navigable information space. This
can be frequent connections to a homepage or section pages with reliable
The multimedia designer is charged with considering both user
movement through digital space and the organization and presentation of form
within that space. The challenge is to anticipate not only the development of
the multimedia product but its place in a multidimensional environment and the
ways that the user will interact with the product. A careful consideration of
physical, perceptual, conceptual and behavioral space is a sound first step in
the process of creating a navigable digital universe.
The nature of space in multimedia
A framework for examining the spatial environment in multimedia
and the design considerations that must be addressed to ensure effective
Defining the Design
nature of the space considerations
The size and shape of
the space occupied by the multimedia product
Size of the presentation
and the design elements
that are included,
Our sense of the scale, distance or proportion within the
Use of perspective,
perception of dimension,
time and movement,
constraints of vision and information processing
The way in which the user understands or remembers
the design space
Short term memory
Long term memory
The way the user actually moves through, in, or around the space
The use of directional and
the design of icons and directional graphics,
access and the level of interactivity
 Randy Haykin, senior editor. Demystifying Multimedia: a
guide for multimedia developers from Apple Computers, Inc., San Francisco, CA:
Vivid Publishing, 1993, p. 3.
The discussion of the text as it is used in this context is not
limited to a typographic product. Rather, it assumes that the multimedia product
is based upon a traditional, sequential narrative that employs the qualities of
non-linear organization such as that used in hypertext.
Landow, George P. Hypertext: the convergence of contemporary
critical theory and technology. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press,
1992) p. 57.
Novak, Marcos. "Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace," Cyberspace:
First Steps, ed. Michael Benedict (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992) p. 243.
Roth, Leland M. Understanding Architecture: Its Elements,
History and Meaning. (NY: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1993) p. 45.
Roth, p. 19.
Roth, p. 12.
Roth, p. 45.
Mitchell, William J. City of Bits: Space, Place and the
Infobahn. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995) p. 21.
Roth, p. 51.
Wallschlaeger, Charles and Cynthia Busic-Snyder. Basic Visual
Concepts and Principles for Artists, Architects and Designers. (Dubuque, IA: Wm.
C. Brown Publishers, 1992) p. 307.
Wallschlaeger, et al, p. 306.
 Novak, p. 230.
Lindstrom, Robert L. The Business Week Guide to Multimedia
Presentations. (Berkeley, CA: Osborne McGraw-Hill, 1994) p. 173.
Dix, Alan, Janet Finlay, Gregory Aboud, and Russell Beale.
Human-Computer Interaction. (Englewood, Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993) p. 27.
Dix, et al, p. 28.
Dix, et al, p. 29.
Borman, Hester and S.H. von Solms. The Electronic Library,
Volume 11, No 4/5, August/October 1993, p. 263.