Why isn’t software beautiful?

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.