Thrill-Chasing for the Keyboard Crowd

Thrill-Chasing for the Keyboard Crowd

Or how to make the best 404 page ever

I have this really vivid memory from the early 90’s. I’m a toddler, sitting at the dining table with my parents. It’s nighttime. We’ve just finished supper. My dad is talking to me.

“Go look in my office,” he says, smiling. There’s a hint of mischief in his voice.

I wobble unsteadily down the hallway, excited, until I reach the office door. It’s unlatched, so I push it open just enough to see inside.

On the far side of the room, a CRT monitor glimmers in the dark. My stomach flutters. There’s an image moving on the screen.

This is the ‘Starfield’ screensaver that appeared in Windows 3.1. It was reincarnated in subsequent versions of Windows as ‘Starfield Simulation’ and ‘Flying Through Space’.


That was my first encounter with a screensaver. It was also my first encounter with looping animation and technology as a medium for art. I’ll never forget that gut-level thrill.

Other events that rocked my early years include solving cleverly-disguised logic problems in Rocky’s Boots (age 6), erasing the boot drive on my first hand-me-down computer (age 10), and chatting for hours with ELIZA (age 11).

By the time I was a teenager, I was pretty sure all things were possible through the command line.

I’ve spent most of my career designing digital products, trying to imbue software with warmth, meaning, and a human-made aesthetic.

As much as I love technology, I find myself growing away from the industry’s dominant culture and returning to childhood fixations. 404 Not Found deliberately explores a computer-made aesthetic instead.

You can see it here.

Artifacts from the digital medium trigger a specific nostalgia for me. It’s a precious, thrilling, and weird feeling that emerged during my summer-long affair with GIF work.

Over the summer, most of my personal work explored nostalgia and atmosphere through the GIF medium. These are two of my GIFs, Effulgent Artifact and Volumetric Drive-by.

When summer was over, I hit the road to develop and teach a course on product design with Metis and thoughtbot. It’s been a blast—I pretty much live for this stuff—but I’m bouncing between hotels, corporate housing, and crashing with family.

Side projects help me feel balanced when I’m traveling. It’s tough to work on 3D without an external display, but code is relatively easy to manage on a laptop screen.


Starting with a blank canvas

Whether I’m coding or painting an abstract (like this one, Abstract 01), I like to start priming my canvas before worrying about what tools to use.

Whether I’m coding or painting an abstract (like this one, Abstract 01), I like to start priming my canvas before worrying about what tools to use.

My creatively-motivated coding projects usually begin with a blank document. It forces me to actively put brush to canvas (or keystroke to text editor, I guess) before I can get distracted with technical details around frameworks or organization.

For example, on /fun, I never set up external stylesheets or image directories or any of that noise. Those are just a bunch of dumb barriers to getting started and busting it out.

So that’s how I started out on 404 Not Found. Just jamming on some inline CSS, adding structure as needed, and getting deep into the ecstasy of technology.

I experimented with aliasing, flickering, and glitching early in the development process.


Making conversation

From there, I started working on the story.

Matt Boldt’s Typed.js plugin for jQuery did most of the heavy lifting on delivery. It’s a rad jQuery plugin that simulates typing.

It wasn’t exactly designed for line-by-line pauses, but turns out Matt is a really good maintainer. I pinged him on a Saturday night…

…and was surprised when he responded right away!

By Sunday, it was patched up and ready for my expressive pacing, breaks, and pauses.

With the technical stuff out of the way, I grabbed hourly ranges and assigned them to words like “morning” or “afternoon” or “evening”.

if ((hourOfDay >= 4) && (hourOfDay <= 11)) {
  timeOfDay = "morning";
} else if ((hourOfDay >= 12) && (hourOfDay <= 16)) {
    timeOfDay = "afternoon";
} else { 
    timeOfDay = "evening";
{% endhighlight %}

Paired with a day of the week and slow reveal, it brought an element of immediacy and surprise to the experience.

Allison House is a designer and art director specializing in 3D visuals and motion graphics. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TIME, SPIN, Pitchfork, and many more.