Writing in the Atlantic, Dylan Tweney claims that online publishing is challenging designers to give up the control they were used to in print publications and even in the first decade of the Web. According to Tweney, software like Cascading Style Sheets and JavaScript and platforms like the iPad are enabling the separation of form and content like never before.

At the same time, designers are increasingly in demand to find efficient ways to convey people and information, as some recent remarkable examples of design make clear. So who’s right?

Tweney argues for a kind of variable media design, where content (like HTML or news headlines) can and will be rendered in different forms (in different stylesheets or news apps):

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The message is now free from the medium.

In fact, it’s possible not just for publishers, but for readers and viewers to recast the message into new media, stripping it of its former context and reformatting, republishing, and reframing it at will.

Don’t like the way your book is laid out or the formats it comes in? There’s software that will convert your book into whatever format you want. Oh, you meant a paper book? No problem, you can easily digitize that too.

Looking at an ugly web page? Click one button and it will become instantly more readable, thanks to an aptly-named JavaScript utility called Readability.

And, while that’s a difficult thing to accept for those of us who have spent our careers creating publications that weave content and its presentation together into seamless, beautiful packages, it’s a trend that’s only getting started.

Tweney’s point is well taken where the content is familiar enough to be recognized in a variety of forms. (In fact, we write JavaScripts for switching stylesheets and bookmarklets for remixing Web pages in my Creative Networks class.)

Yet it would seem that design that finds just the right form to solve a problem or represent data is still very much in demand today. Those problems range from global crises to everyday annoyances, as illustrated by the following examples.

Straddlingbus illQ. How do you accommodate buses and cars on the same road? A. The straddling bus.

The Straddling Bus is one part monorail, one part monster truck. As the incredibly awesome illustration above shows, the extra-wide, extra-tall bus straddles two lanes of traffic, allowing passenger cars and small trucks to pass underneath.

Q. How can you convey the effects of global warming in a single image? A. New Scientist magazine‘s map of a world in which the temperature has risen four degrees.

Climate Change 4 Degrees map

Q. How can you deal with the overabundance of information in our environment? A. Embed it in quietly ambient, yet information-rich media surfaces.

Media surfaces: Incidental Media from Dentsu London on Vimeo.

Q. How can you keep using the same pencil forever? A. The continuous pencil.

Continuous Pencil 01Like the solid feel of a hardwood pencil but hate writing with a tiny stub? This modular continuous pencil is for you! At first glance, I thought that the Continuous Pencil was just a stubby with a wooden holder. But no — each pencil can hold the stub of the previous pencil. You just Lego the new one right in, work the old stub to the end, then shave it down to start over again.

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