Celebrating the Art of the Preloader

Preloaders are a necessary evil of the Internet. Agencies in the Flash microsite era turned to them to keep people around while sites loaded by counting down the progress. Soon, they started to get creative with them. Nowadays, preloaders are mostly a thing of the past.  But the creative folks at digital agency Big Spaceship didn’t want the art of the preloader to be forgotten. It is, after all, a part of the Web’s legacy.

That’s why the agency created a site to celebrate and archive this dated form of Web art and animation. The site is called Pretty Loaded, and it’s recently become an installation at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Joshua Hirsch, minister of technology at Big Spaceship, a job title worthy of landing on the “7 More Ridiculous Job Titles” list), discussed with Digiday the project and the concept of Web artifacts.

How did this whole project come about and end up in a museum? 
It’s something that’s been online for a few years, but the exhibit just opened recently. It’s an idea that was sort of kicking around here off and on for five or six years and eventually one of our designers and developers just built it. It’s interesting how it ended up being a museum piece. Someone at the museum thought it would be a cool thing as an archive to put in the museum. So then we built a local application version of the Web experience that they could install there at the museum.

What made you focus on the art of preloaders, which are now kind of artifacts?
We banged it out really quick and ending up taking on a life of its own. It’s kind of unbelievable how this happened with this seemingly dumb idea and now it’s in a museum. At first, it was just a site that had a preloader loading another preloader loading another preloader. But it was about interesting preloaders. After preloaders became a thing, designers were making preloaders so complex that sites would take even longer to load the preloader itself. Preloaders are something that is often overlooked, but they have value in themselves. They can have cool animation and be really creative. We wanted to make sure that people noticed the detail and artistry in these things. Now flash has declined obviously. Thanks to Apple, it was kind of a declaration that flash is no good. So once that happened, it really became clear that it was a good idea to save this kind of art form. I think Pretty Loaded is a nice and fitting homage and archive of this kind of art form. I’m just really glad it’s there in the museum. It’s a really cool thing. By definition, you want preloaders to be visible for the least amount of time, so it’s ironic. But I think that’s a nice story.

How did you find and choose the preloaders for the app and exhibit?
The first version was mostly our preloaders and from a handful of other agencies like Agency Net. Then we asked industry friends and started taking submissions from other people too.

What do you think about the resurgence of GIFs? What is it about Web artifacts that people are drawn to?
The GIF thing is amazing. It was the first kind of Web animation, but then they became a joke. But now they are so popular. I don’t know. At first, it was just a bunch of dumb clip art stuff, but now there is so much more to them. I think they are hilarious. They are very expressive. They are little bites of moving images that are really versatile and portable. The restriction of the art form also lends itself to comedic expression.

Do you foresee any other Web artifacts coming back in style?
GeoCities sites? Just kidding, I don’t know. But someone at the launch of the exhibit asked a question about basically what is today’s preloader, what is being overlooked? Our CEO said app icons. It’s also a very restricted form but can be very expressive. It’s like product design: There are lots of things that people don’t notice, but subconsciously the design effects them.

What is your favorite preloader you’ve seen?
There’s one that is from one of the earliest projects I worked on, and it had a very GIF-like quality to it actually. It was the site for the movie “Old School” with Will Ferrell. It was a pixel art version of Will Ferell streaking. It’s hilarious.


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