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.
Once studio session – The way the mixing guy gets gradually interested, the sheer sense of exhaustion at the end of the night, the way they all head out into the sun in the morning. The build of the scene is awesome. The linked scene is just part of it; the scene starts at 56:00 in the full movie.
Making The Incredibles (some clips; the DVD has the best stuff) – My all-time favorite. About 90 minutes of in-depth stories and explanation about the process of making the film, with a ton of similarities to great product design. I watch this at least once a year. My notes.
The Mystery of Picasso – Picasso painting on an illuminated sheet of glass, so you see the strokes build and change into something completely different than he started with. The paintings at 1:00:00 and 1:04:30 are mind-blowing.
Comedian – Jerry Seinfeld tries to follow up his outlandishly-successful sitcom career by getting back on small comedy stages and writing a new standup act. Inspiring to see the courage and introspection that goes into it. My notes.
During World War II, Henry Miller wrote an interesting essay called “Art and the Future”. This article on it piqued my curiosity enough to track down a print copy–my first physical book purchase in a while–and jot down a few quotes.
On the purpose of art:
To put it quite simply, art is only a stepping stone to reality; it is the vestibule in which we undergo the rites of initiation. Man’s task is to make of himself a work of art. The creations which man makes manifest have no validity in themselves; they serve to awaken, that is all. And that, of course, is a great deal. But it is not the all. Once awakened, everything will reveal itself to man as creation. Once the blinders have been removed and the fetters unshackled, man will have no need to recreate through the elect cult of genius. Genius will be the norm…
What is the end game of communication technologies?
What we have overlooked, in our frenzy to invent more dazzling ways and means of communication, is to communicate. The artist lumbers along with crude implements. He is only a notch above his predecessor, the cave man. Even the film art, requiring the services of veritable armies of technicians, is only giving us shadow plays, old almost as man himself…
It may be that the revolution ensuing will envelop us in even greater darkness. But even in the blackest night it will be a joy and a boon to know that we are touching hands around the world. That has never happened before. We can touch and speak and pray in utter darkness. And we can wait for the dawn–no matter how long–provided we all wait together.
Might treating something as an art project sidestep political and personal issues?
In my experience, the main obstacle to problem solving is an entrenched ideology. The great thing about making a movie or a piece of art is that that never comes into play. All the ideas are on the table. All the ideas and everything is open for discussion, and it turns out everybody succeeds by submitting to what the thing needs to be. Art, in my view, is a very elegant problem-solving model. – Steven Soderbergh
At the excellent Franz Gertsch exhibition at the Kunsthaus last weekend, I was impressed by how his paintings were so photo-realistic from a distance, but almost abstract up close. Gertsch works from large projections of photographs, and where the photos get fuzzy, he gets creative.
Especially in contrast to the high-concept, low-craft art in other exhibits, it reminded me that when you are designing, or portraying, a relatively staid or well-known idea, you can always innovate in the details. And when you do so consistently across a work, the overall experience is markedly different from someone who worked differently at the small scale.