When you join Myspace.com — that omnipresent social network some believe will circumvent phone and e-mail use — you get a built-in friend named Tom. Tom is one of MySpace’s cofounders, and he’s the first guy to appear in your “friends” box. You don’t really know Tom. You will probably never meet Tom. In all likelihood, you’ll delete Tom as new people jump aboard your virtual dance card.
Simi Valley’s Androo Raggio gets about five Toms a day — unknowns who visit Raggio’s site and want to be connected to it. Why the popularity? Seventeen-year-old Raggio, slated to graduate from Simi Valley High in 2007, is definitely a nice guy, with a stock of interesting opinions on everything from modern art to the future of interpersonal communication. He’s outgoing and passionate about his hobbies. But that’s not it. The boy can seriously design a MySpace page, and he averages five requests a day from other MySpace users longing to get past the boxy drudgery of the average Web log.
Raggio came to Web design, at its most basic level — HTML coding — no more than five months ago. “I was bored,” he says. “The internet gets boring — all you see is boxes.”
He mastered those boxes and quickly came to understand the basic skeleton of Web operations. He learned HTML the easiest way there is: pirate-style. Cutting and pasting “source” — or code from other Web pages — he dissected the commands, learned how to throw down a link, re-orient an object and layer material. Then, quite simply, he was over it.
“I try not to do something you would think is a Web site,” he explains. Looking at one of Raggio’s sites, the images are striking and his designs take on the form of a poster, film still or glossy advertisement. “Then,” he adds, “you realize there are links.”
Photoshop is his best friend. With his computer always on, Raggio runs Adobe Photoshop continually in the background; that program is what he turns to long before he gets into the nuts and bolts of layout. Scanning an image — often an original sketch — Raggio is able to do everything from texturing it to altering the color scheme. Always at the core of his Web design is the aesthetic quality of the page. Functionality, like links and text boxes, comes a little later.
His philosophy is simple: use the least amount of HTML possible. A core image takes very little programming.
“Art, now,” he considers, “it’s spray paint, there’s no order. I wanted to incorporate that, put that into MySpace.”
A quick sample of Raggio’s original MySpace pages — made mainly for friends and “friends” by the MySpace definition — paint him as a mad scientist of design. No two layouts are alike. A colorful, cartoonish robot confronts a cityscape drawn in the confident lines of a child’s doodling (“I don’t know why people like robots,” Raggio shrugs, realizing that this theme has dominated many a MySpace request); the coy, black and white image of a teenage girl smiles from the margins of pencil sketches that detail her likes and dislikes; a tasteful floral motif dominates a very feminine smattering of a young girl’s reflections and personal interests; a ghettoblaster throws forward a chunk of links in what appears to be a DJ’s, or aspiring DJ’s, domain. On his own page, Raggio stands in front of a bold red wall, looking somewhat dazed. A message board the color of a paper bag seems to hang behind him.
It might seem odd for Raggio to center his design acumen in what many would consider a teenager’s realm — why not go straight for the higher level of Web sites? But his focus speaks to a new revolution in communication, one that’s little more than three years old: We have it on good authority — Raggio himself, an artist, designer and high school campus frequenter — that people no longer talk IM, text messaging or e-mail. Social chatter now involves the promise, “I’ll leave you a message!”
It’s interesting that a network so attractive to the teen demographic can ensnare serious artists, music groups, established comedians and ambitious business people alike. Raggio knows of bands who register a domain name that links straight to their MySpace account. In short, “MySpaces are becoming everyone’s Web sites,” he says.
So if MySpace was Raggio’s initiation into Web design, the clinical language of HTML, oddly enough, was also what allowed him to tap into his artistic side, something he had let fall by the wayside after his family’s move to Simi Valley two years before.
It was after seeing his girlfriend’s photo blog that he picked up an interest in Myspace and was drawn to sites that, on an aesthetic level, would simultaneously disappoint and inspire him. Within the last few months, he’s even found the time to abandon the computer screen in favor of more tactile pursuits and now spends half his weekend at Saturday High, a series of design classes offered through Art Center College of Design.
His projects now reflect the frenetic interests of a young man who buys both sports and fashion magazines, who is content to spend hours sitting in Borders, flipping through visually stimulating fare and absorbing it for future inspiration.
Ultimately, he hopes to return to Art Center in a more permanent capacity, double-majoring in graphic design and, his other love, photography.
Both these passions meet at Raggio’s online portfolio (www.fadedcamel.com/androo/site/design.html ), and although he laments the shoddiness of his FujiFilm Finepix S50, his photo samples attest that perhaps trial by fire is the only way to truly take on photography. Raggio admits, “The best pictures are out of cheap cameras.”
His portfolio shows an impressive range of style and colorization, although Raggio is quick to shrug off any notion that he is formally trained. When asked about a series of portraits of a friend’s family, Raggio replies, “I’m really tacky,” characterizing his photo shoots as thrown-together affairs that involve trips to fabric and discount stores.
At Home Depot, for example, he scored a giant piece of whiteboard, which he later cut up to form light reflectors. His friend’s cousins gathered around, offering themselves as assistants. “I like having people there,” Raggio concludes. He remembers the day as a series of prepped but ultimately spontaneous shootings.
Clearly, collaboration works best for him; his best designs come after questioning “clients” (quoted because, as yet, Raggio hasn’t accepted payment for his work). After fixing onto people’s interests or quirks, he is able to craft a layout that fits their personalities.
And although he could easily capitalize on his considerable skills of design, Raggio prefers to keep it a hobby and has accepted a job in retail, saving up for a professional-grade camera and studying Flash animation on the side.
“My big dream,” he says, his face lighting up, “is to open up a warehouse, get a bunch of buddies and start a company. Photography, design — I want to make cubicles, have friends work there. I want to have a print studio. I definitely want to pursue that. If I have to, I’ll illegally live there.” He nods. “I think about it every day.”