It’s 4:30 A.M. and Eric Jordan is still staring at the dual monitors of his PC. One screen is filled with lines of computer script. The other screen is straight from a sci-fi movie: a traveler poised at the water’s edge. A tiny rowboat waiting on the shore. And across the water, a futurescape skyline glimmering beneath a double moonrise. At the city’s center, a Mayan temple beaming light toward the stars. This is “Attractor,” the latest incarnation of Jordan’s award-winning website and the portfolio home page of his industry-leading Web design firm 2Advanced.com.
The light, sound and movement on the screen are the work of Flash, an interactive design environment hosting a yin-yang balance of programming and art. Since the mid-'90s, Flash and Eric Jordan’s lives have been closely intertwined. And now, both stand at the virtual gates of a digital revolution.
Peeling his eyes off the screen, Jordan gently pushes away his cat, Halo, from pawing at the mouse beneath his hand. Cat and mouse, the pun makes him smile. He’s always been more writer than coder. More artist than designer. More storyteller than website builder. But you’d never know it. Nicotine-lean, techie-pale, but with a healthy splash of SoCal metro, Jordan comes off as a suave charmer in a world of computer geeks. Fast car. Successful company. DJ career on the side. He is both highly adored and jealously despised, but no one denies that his influence has been anything less than iconic.
At 29 years old, this Cal State Long Beach dropout employs two dozen handpicked designers and programming specialists, commands an A-list clientele that includes Fox, Ford and Electronic Arts, and has won virtually every award in the business, including Adobe’s “Most Influential Flash Site of the Decade” award. His signature “future-look” is universally considered the most imitated aesthetic on the Web, with latent copies nicknamed “2A Rips.” Eric Jordan is, apparently, a man with everything.
Inside his headphones, the techno--a posting from his free monthly music blog, Neverrain.com--is deafening. He barely remembers purchasing the modern furniture in his maid-tidy apartment. His longtime girlfriend left him at some point in his all-consuming career trajectory. His friends are his co-workers. For a decade, he’s poured himself into the Web. He’s played it every song, told it every story he knows, even invented new ones. And where has it all gotten him? These endless deadlines. This coder’s dawn patrol. Is there any real satisfaction in a wholly virtual existence?
Jordan takes off his headphones, rubs his eyelids and walks to the balcony. He likes staring out across the symmetrical sprawl of Orange County street lights. To him, they represent a vision of the future--an earthbound galaxy beneath the dull orange fog of suburban night. But the trouble with fixating on the future is that you never actually get there. And if you do, well, what then?
Light grows, and he thinks of the predawn sets he used to spin at remote desert raves. “DJ Sunrise,” they called him. The metaphoric act of pressing on through darkness to a brand-new day always appealed to him. And now the thought of what that day will bring leaves him too wired to sleep.
The forefathers of Flash dreamed of making Web design as simple as drawing on paper. But 10 years ago, before the feds reported that Internet usage was doubling every 100 days, the program that would become Flash was a lot like Eric Jordan, living in its parents’ house, staying out too late and pondering some vague future. From its slacker beginnings, Flash evolved as a highly functional animation tool, incorporating frame-by-frame animation features. The program was eventually acquired by Macromedia and began developing its status as a near-mandatory download.
Meanwhile, Jordan was fired from his job at an ISP help-desk for excessive fiddling with Web design and, not long after, a friend introduced him to Flash. For Jordan, who as a kid imported his comic book drawings into PowerPoint presentations for cinematic effect, the attraction was powerful. He spent the next three nights enthralled, shackled to his computer.
“I was really into this concept of ‘the future’ and constantly trying to illustrate it,” recalls Jordan. “I couldn’t believe there was this program that would let me bring all these things in my head to life.”
From a layman’s perspective, Flash is a tool for making shapes and texts grow or shrink, brighten or fade, zip or morph, beep or squeak. It is the vehicle toward a more exciting, more interactive, more human virtual environment. To Jordan, it is a portal to an alternative dimension.
The first Flash website he built, with the goal of submitting it to the San Francisco-based Flashforward conference, was 2Advanced.com. It featured a ghostly self-portrait, Japanese kanji representing the four elements and the words “Solace in Technology, Belief in the Future.” It launched shortly after Y2K failed to short-circuit the electronic universe, and the e-mail outpouring it triggered was entirely unexpected. “I never realized a website could have that sort of emotional impact on people,” Jordan says.
A publisher asked Jordan to author a chapter for a compilation called “New Masters of Flash.” Honored, he wrote with eloquent enthusiasm about the intrinsic power of light and motion in the online environment: “An effective piece of animation becomes a powerful form of communication, primarily because it has been given a soul by the designer.”
“A soul,” he wrote.
Can you hear the collective groan of Internet usability experts? About the time “New Masters” was inspiring armies of Flash neophytes, Jakob Nielsen published an essay titled “Flash: 99% Bad” in which he complained that Flash “encourages design abuse, breaks the Web’s fundamental interaction principles and distracts attention from the site’s core value.”
Nielsen’s essay, posted on his widely read Web blog Alertbox, highlighted the central Web design debate near the pinnacle of dot-com extravagance: cold, practical usability versus bold, engaging art. True, for Grandma Dial-up, the Web can be a confounding contraption. But for Johnny Xbox, it’s a sensory organism. It’s another world. And it’s utterly commonplace.
Jordan’s skill resided largely in closing that gap, in creating a bold, engaging interface that functioned on a level both practical and sublime. And he consistently pushed the boundaries of each.
“Everything I create, I see in my head first,” Jordan is saying from behind the twin monitors on the desk of his Aliso Viejo office. His space is sparsely decorated with a “Tron” movie poster, a Japanese action figure and a “Star Wars” alphabet taped to a map of the universe. Beyond the glass wall, employees are deeply involved with their computers. Blinds drawn. Lights off. Headphones on. The only sound in their dim cubical arena is the babbling brook of infinite keystrokes.
“Before I dive into a project, I take a shower, I go for a drive, or see a movie or sit on my balcony overlooking the city and watch the lights shimmer,” Jordan continues. “I will keep doing these things until I have what I call ‘it'--the accumulation of inspiration and energy that has been built up in my mind as it pertains to that project. Without ‘it,’ there is no emotional connection with the user, no soul.”
After he finds “it,” Jordan’s process of tinkering with raw images in Photoshop, then painstakingly importing and animating them into Flash and every other trivial necessity that follows, could (and someday will) fill a book. Though he’s happiest when lost in a project, Jordan patiently fields questions for hours at a time. It’s uphill work, explaining a program as highly evolved as Flash: The unique, piecemeal way it interacts with host servers; the way it harmonizes with Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects; and the way it graduated from the Web into the gadget-sphere of phones, games, PDAs and other hand-held electronics.
Riding the publicity of “New Masters,” Jordan, then just 22, was recruited by a larger design firm and swept up in the Internet bubble. Money was flying everywhere, and Jordan was now managing employees and heading up major projects. He was also quickly disillusioned with the quantity-over-quality philosophy at Laguna Beach-based Design Insites.
Joined by Insites’ technology officers John Carroll and Tony Novak, Jordan left the company in early 2000 to form a firm based on his popular 2Advanced portfolio site. Amid the dot-bomb fallout of 2001, he poured everything he’d learned into Version 3 of the site, creating a sleek “future-look” interface with looming sky freeways and sweeping animated cloudscapes.
Reflecting on that design, Jordan recognizes a theme. Clouds through concrete. The technological despair of mankind amid the dot-com apocalypse. This is the way Jordan ponders the Internet. Deeply. Emotionally. But digital sentimentality aside, Version 3, titled “Expansions,” rocked the design world. Fan mail clogged his inbox daily for months, praising not only the look of the site but also its infrastructure. Clients knocked. A prolonged siege of copycat “2A Rips” triggered unending cease-and-desist orders.
Two years later, Version 4, titled “Prophecy,” caused an even bigger sensation. Armored media vehicles. Light-saber-wielding swordsman. Fortified space stations. At a time when the Web aesthetic leaned toward minimalism, V4 bombarded the senses with blitzkrieg graphics and intricate cyber-gimmicks.
Despite being overworked, attacked in online chat rooms and under pressure to once again outdo his own groundbreaking designs, Jordan delivered a site that sizzled with the tension of an industry leader aggressively defending his formidable reputation. Yet the saga behind the evolution of the 2Advanced home page was just beginning to jell in his mind. It evoked a darkness descending, Jordan explains, a humanity “lost and confused with respect to its responsibility toward technology.”
This was a black time for Jordan, he says, and suggests typing his name into Google along with “sucks” or “lame” for examples of why.
“Jordan is a hack,” writes kill.robot.kill in one chat room. The anonymous slander goes on and on. “Eventually I just got past it all,” Jordan says.
About the same time, mid-2005ish, Jordan and Novak began making exploratory trips to Japan, where 2Advanced’s techy “future-look” was already, well, big. Although Japanese gadgetry is considered years ahead of ours, their Web design lags. Take the keitai, or cellphone, for example. It incorporates AM/FM receivers, TV capabilities, GPS systems, remote-control-to-home appliances, broadband Internet, barcode readers. And it supports Flash, which led straightaway to the company’s first major deal designing cutting-edge cellphone interfaces.
“Japan was more than the perfect fit for our company,” says Novak. “It was the missing link to our existence.”
Obviously, hurdles remain. As Nielsen is quick to point out, “Hand-held devices present the same usability issues as before, only more severe. The limitations of tiny screens, impoverished input devices (no mouse, small keypad) and slower bandwidth compound to make the mobile Web much harder to use.”
But Jordan, with his vision perpetually fixed on the technological horizon, is only inspired by the challenge. “We shape the future according to the way we imagine it,” he says. “We always have.”
Today, the Flash player is installed in 98% of all computers--the most widely distributed piece of software in the history of the Web. Its latest incarnation, Flash Player 9, is particularly geared toward Web 2.0 development (which Jordan prefers to call Web 3.0).
In late March, Bay Area software giant Adobe, which acquired Macromedia and thus Flash in 2005, released Creative Suite 3, an integrated Flash package that facilitates an even more harmonious union with the program’s domestic partners, Photoshop, Illustrator and Flex, as well as audiovisual tools such as After Effects and Soundbooth. There’s also a streamlined platform called Flash Lite, which is geared toward phones and hand-held gaming systems. Entire television shows, video games and movies are being created under the umbrella that once helped bits of light and sound zip across a monitor.
Eric Jordan is in a good place. He’s back to playing DJ gigs around the country and posting hourlong, programmer-friendly trance sets every month on Neverrain.com. Reflecting on the point when his entire life changed, he says, “2Advanced wasn’t some alternate route I took, it was born out of dancing under the stars in the middle of the desert at 3 a.m. surrounded by neon lights and engulfed in a sea of futuristic music. Being part of a new generation of young people, optimistic and progressive, that’s where 2Advanced comes from.”
What he means is, the way you feel and react to music, to art, to a like-minded community, that’s what people respond to on his websites. They connect.
Although Jordan still claims to be the most productive well after the rest of the world is asleep, he’s eating a healthy Mediterranean diet, lifting weights regularly and embracing a few of the other trappings of “first life” that his overly successful youth may have failed to download. Not that he’s slowing.
“These are uncharted waters for most of us,” he writes in an upcoming book to be published by Taschen, “and for that reason, it is important to keep learning and evolving.”
Whereas “Prophecy” implied a great conflict, “Attractor” is spacious and tranquil, utilizing the film technique of digital matte paintings (just one of many online firsts incorporated into the site) to instill a sweeping, cinematic sense of awe. “‘Attractor’ is post-'Prophecy’ battle,” explains Jordan, “a more peaceful plane, where we are at ease with our potential and what lies ahead of us. It is the beginning of a collective awakening.”
So here we stand, all of us, travelers at the water’s edge. And that little rowboat is asking the question: Are we ready to embrace the vast and complicated metropolis that technology offers us?
It’s way beyond Web design now. Way beyond a single program or person. As you read this, millions of people are uploading their dreams, thoughts, desires, fears, visions, memories and prayers into the virtual stratosphere. Entire cities--New York, San Francisco, Tokyo--are going wireless. Hand-held devices no longer distinguish among the singular functionality of “phone,” “camera,” “e-mail” or “browser.” They are simply “connected.” And one of these days, sooner than you think, you’re going to look down into the all-in-one monitor of that hand-held connection platform and find it looking back.
Eric Jordan can’t wait.
For more of the work of Eric Jordan and his Web design firm 2Advanced, go to latimes.com/jordan