22 November 2007

Interactive artist and designer Erik Loyer talks about his journey from using the first interactive tools to Flash® and now Adobe® Flex™ software. Loyer began his work in interactive development with Inscape and The Voyager Company. He later founded the Information Architecture division of web pioneer Razorfish in Los Angeles. His design studio, Song New Creative, builds interactive media experiences for cultural institutions, corporations, and artists. Steve Anderson of USC interviews him about his evolution as a Flash developer.

SA: How did you get started as a designer/programmer?
EL: I grew up in a household that was very technologically oriented. We got a computer when I was five or six years old, an Apple II. My dad wanted to use it for programming, and my mom wanted to use it for art, so I was exposed to that combination all the time I was growing up.

SA: You also have a background in media production.
EL: I was always interested in using computers and doing animation. In high school, I took some extension courses in animation, which encouraged us to experiment and push the boundaries of art on the computer. That led to a series of animated music videos that combined processed video, 3D animation, and other elements. It was my first self-conscious art-making experience with computers.

SA: How did you make the leap to interactivity?
EL: I didn't work with interactivity until I started working at The Voyager Company in 1992 as an intern. I was doing testing on CD-ROM titles and laser discs and got access to SuperCard. I did a few interactive experiments with that and then around '94 I got my own copy of Director and started building CD-ROM and web-based projects, combining video, animation, and graphics in interactive pieces. I stuck with Director for a long time mainly for performance reasons, because it was the best and fastest tool at the time. Working in Director, I got used to doing everything myself, collecting the media, figuring out what system it should be deployed in, relating all the elements, and writing the code to make it interactive.

SA: Why did you switch to Flash?
EL: My initial exposure to Flash was at <tag> media, the first Internet company I worked at. They were doing a web companion to a TV series called "The Visitor." It was a pretty groundbreaking web series because they had a lot of original content and they brought in interesting designers to create material in Flash to go along with each episode of the series. I tried to get into it at that point, but wasn't really converted until a few years later when ActionScript was much more advanced. At that point, I really started enjoying it because the object orientation of ActionScript was much more strict throughout the application than it was in Director. There was a real conceptual gain that came from working in that architecture even though it still wasn't as robust as it later would become. So I shifted a lot of my art practice and design work over to Flash. Even though it didn't yet have all the capabilities or the performance of Director, the architecture of the programming language was closer to the way I wanted to think and work.

SA: How did you start using Flex?
EL: When I first heard about Flex, initially my thinking was — as I think it was for many people — that Flex was really just for business, a way to create a quick UI for business applications. So I didn't pay too much attention to it until Flex 2 came out, at which point I started hearing a lot of buzz about it in the Flash community. I started experimenting with it mainly because of the authoring environment. If you're a heavy-duty programmer, the Flash authoring environment isn't the ideal place to write code. When I saw that the Flex Builder™ IDE was based on Eclipse, I thought, "I've got to use this because it's going to make things so much easier for coding." It's got all the tools built into it that a coder should have.

SA: Was it a difficult transition?
EL: There was a bit of a learning curve at first. I actually started out in Flex Builder just making ActionScript projects that didn't use the Flex framework at all. I did that for about five or six months while simultaneously learning ActionScript 3, which was a good way of getting into it. But the more I worked with it, the more I started seeing that there are cool components in the Flex framework that I didn't know how to access through ActionScript. So I figured out that I had to jump in and learn MXML, which turned out to be very easy to pick up.

SA: What is the main advantage of working in Flex?
EL: I really like the declarative style of the language. It's great just being able to say, "I want a pop-up here, a box over there, and this type of field here" and to have all of these interface elements work together. Once I realized that I could also plug custom ActionScript components into the Flex framework, I was really sold. So, now I can build my own unique components that are integrated into the Flex framework. These components can plug into the intelligence of the framework when I want them to and ignore it when I don't. This hybridity — being able to mix the declarative and imperative styles — was what really convinced me of the value of the whole Flex approach. So I can declare components in MXML, and then jump into ActionScript and customize those components or create new ones. For the first time, I feel like I'm working with a tool that makes it almost as easy as it should be to build these kinds of applications.

You're invited

Erik Loyer will teach a four-hour online workshop, Developing Internet Content with Flash and Flex on February 25, 2008 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Pacific time. He will introduce participants to programming in ActionScript 3.0 and MXML as the basics for working in Adobe® Flash® and Flex™ and discuss how to decide when to use which tool. Register to attend. Register to attend.