On Background

By Erin Besler and Ian Besler

Besler & Sons, LLC

Because the background1, by definition, encompasses the entire visible frame, we can’t really do a lot here working strictly with dimensions. By process of elimination, changing the color of the background was our next best option.

The background2 of this particular website oscillates within the cylinder of the HSL color model, moving through the entire spectrum in increments of one percent every 36 seconds. So it takes one hour to display every possible combination of hue and saturation.

The tradition of picturesque landscape painting, perhaps like more recent traditions of web design and internet surfing, relies on the imposition of a frame. In an essay on landscape painting, historian Monique Mosser discusses the “symbolic reduction” of perspective and the “physical removal of the subject” as a means to “appropriate a fragment of the world.”3 Later in the article, she offers a quotation from Roland Recht to elaborate on the connection between one’s search for spatial continuum in the landscape, and early devices of optical illusion: “… the spectator chooses an object of contemplation and then creates a frame for it: i.e. a delimitation of the visual field used, first, to exclude everything overly distant from the chosen object from within its borders; and, second, to retain around the chosen object those components necessary for sustaining its inscription in the spatial continuum.”4

Without the background to distinguish the foreground, everything just falls away. But whether the foreground or the background takes our central focus as designers seems to be a reliable source of contention. The apparent primacy of one approach or another precludes any easy answer. This isn’t a new discussion, but perhaps we shouldn't feel so encumbered by it. In writing about considerations for the design of period rooms in 1917, Virginia Robie notes that: “Backgrounds in the broadest sense were seldom considered, for proportion, balance and scale were foreign terms to most householders and to many decorators.”5 Later in the article, she suggests that: “Of late the architect has again come into his [sic] own, and the golden age of architectural backgrounds has been restored.”6

Perhaps then we could say that text on a webpage is like furniture in a period room. HTML, and the Web that emerges from it, effectively straddle the line between the framing devices of picturesque landscape painting and more experimental representational techniques, such as Carmontelle’s unrolling transparency animations. Rather than vistas of French garden landscapes, we have simply unrolled a digital color model instead, laying it out in time, rather than in distance, from beginning to end. Like Carmontelle’s devices, the user can still scroll, but the endpoints have been configured to meet one another and create a loop, starting over again at red after reaching magenta during the course of the hour. This background sequence will loop forever, until the server stops working, or the user closes the browser window.