It feels to me that software design, despite its intense cultural focus, huge business opportunity, and worldwide effort, isn’t as beautiful, elegant, or compelling as other forms of art and design. Held up against films, music, fashion, physical products and even video games, almost all software feels flat, utilitarian, and uninspired. Why is that? I have a few hypotheses:
- Not enough people are designing software – This is changing fast, but software design has been a very small and elite field for most of its history. When a larger and more diverse set of a population gets involved in something, the results quickly get better. Think about how most top runners are Kenyan; many top baseball players Puerto Rican–in each case, that is the dominant sport and goal for the youth of the country. We need more people to design software.
- We don’t yet have the right tools – We admire the very first cave painters, movie makers, and book publishers because the act of creating anything was hard for them. But we’d hardly call that artwork “beautiful” by today’s standards. The tools to create paintings, films, and prints today are so advanced that almost anyone can learn and practice those art forms. Software, however, is still impossible to create without significant technical training.
- Beauty isn’t useful – My friend Chris often invokes “the Pepsi Challenge”–namely, the difference between liking something for a minute and living with it for weeks. The same design that looks great up on a foamcore board, or in a science fiction movie, starts to grate on you when its ornamentations get in your way for the hundredth time. That’s the reason we had, and abandoned, long cool Flash intros on websites.
- Utility isn’t sexy – Similarly, a design that quickly and efficiently takes care of things and gets out of your way doesn’t even give you a chance to admire it. You might feel satisfaction with the results, but that’s a long way from awe and lust at its form.
- We don’t have the right support and organizational structures – Painters and writers generally work alone; filmmakers and video games have a producer/director split. But most software is designed by a triad of project managers, software engineers, and interface designers.
- We don’t really try – This is a tough one to swallow, but I think it’s fair to say that right now most software designers don’t really pursue beauty as a central goal. Many designers care deeply about elegance, simplicity, and craft, but I’ve rarely met one who speaks about the emotional journey of the viewer, or who thinks about the storyline of their interactions.
Overall, it does seem that software design is quickly improving. Perhaps it will just take more time to get to the place that these other mediums have reached.
Something easily forgotten but remarkable when noticed–we write more as a society today than ever before. An excerpt from Clive Thompson’s new book:
Every day, we collectively produce millions of books’ worth of writing. Globally we send 154.6 billion emails, more than 400 million tweets, and over 1 million blog posts and around 2 million blog comments on WordPress. On Facebook, we post about 16 billion words. Altogether, we compose some 3.6 trillion words every day on email and social media — the equivalent of 36 million books.* (The entire US Library of Congress, by comparison, holds around 23 million books.)
And what makes this explosion truly remarkable is what came before: comparatively little. Before the Internet, most people rarely wrote for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction after graduating from high school or college.
Obama, in David Remnick’s New Yorker article:
I have yet to see something that we’ve done, or any President has done, that was really important and good, that did not involve some mess and some strong-arming and some shading of how it was initially talked about to a particular member of the legislature who you needed a vote from.
Because, if you’re doing big, hard things, then there is going to be some hair on it—there’s going to be some aspects of it that aren’t clean and neat and immediately elicit applause from everybody. And so the nature of not only politics but, I think, social change of any sort is that it doesn’t move in a straight line, and that those who are most successful typically are tacking like a sailor toward a particular direction but have to take into account winds and currents and occasionally the lack of any wind, so that you’re just sitting there for a while, and sometimes you’re being blown all over the place.”
“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” – Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
“When robots and automation do our most basic work, making it relatively easy for us to be fed, clothed, and sheltered, then we are free to ask, ‘What are humans for?’” – Kevin Kelly
Some fun insights in this writeup of the production design for Her:
“We kept asking ourselves, ‘What is his new desktop going to look like when he puts the new (Samantha) software in? Finally, Spike came to this brilliant realization, saying, ‘There’s a reason we haven’t figured this out, because it shouldn’t be anything.’”
“We had this concept: what if we could only see advertising that was all in gorgeous slow motion and there were these beautiful abstract images? Then it becomes kind of a viral game where everybody’s trying to decipher the notion of what these different ads were.”
Barrett’s most radical re-invention for future Los Angeles: There’s not a car in sight. Steering clear of freeway traffic jams, inhabitants ride bullet trains, take subways and walk. “One of the first things I said in designing Her was, ‘I don’t want to show any cars.’” says Barrett. “It’s another gesture of going away from technology. When you look at any film from any time period and see a car, you can place it right to the year.”
“The device wasn’t designed to stand out like a gleaming new phone, but to be something you’d lay on the night stand, like your wallet or your address book. We wanted to go right past the surface of the device and into Samantha’s voice.”
“Channeling all interaction through a single finger is like restricting all literature to Dr Seuss’s vocabulary. Yes, it’s much more accessible, both to children and to a small set of disabled adults. But a fully-functioning adult human being deserves so much more.” – Bret Victor
“I had some time on my hands, I wasn’t working much in my, ahem, chosen profession. An aspect of fortune is that, when it’s raining, then you gotta work inside the barn, you know?” – Robert Downey Jr. on recording an album
“Well, one sign that you’re capable of constructive self-criticism is that you’re not dumbfounded by the question: What would it take to convince you you’re wrong? If you can’t answer that question you can take that as a warning sign.” – Philip Tetlock
“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” – e.e. cummings