November 07, 2005

Let’s make something terrible together

I was chatting this morning with some guys from the Illustrator team, batting around ideas for a fairly sexy feature they’ve been considering. They were thinking, naturally and appropriately as software designers do, about how to make the feature accurate, fast, and intuitive. The product manager in me said “right on”; the designer in me said “ugh.”
The point has been made many times, but computers’ tendency towards the predicable, the literal, and the repeatable often isn’t a recipe for good design, much less good art. Yes, being able to execute each step more and more quickly lets you try more things & potentially take more risks. But doesn’t it seem that it tends strongly towards a “right” answer, producing designs that look tastefully bland? Happy accidents grow rare.
I thought of this several weeks ago during a typography session at Photoshop World Boston. The speaker listed, and hundreds of attendees dutifully scribbled down, which fonts were considered hot and which were not. I can dig that people don’t want to look foolish, but I found the whole exercise kind of repellent. I left the session wanting to make some killer design using that beaten-down, forlorn face my wife calls “the yacht club font,” which suffered death by misuse on 6,000,000 soft-focus ’70s paperback covers. Well dammit, I thought, all you trendies can go off and rock out with Eurostile (condemning it to be the Bookman Swash of the future) or whatever; I’m gonna make the yacht club fresh. I’ll do something so terrible it’s great.
So back to the point at hand: this Illustrator feature had a sort of “give me tasteful” button. Yeah, but how about “gimme awful,” I wondered. And gimme random. I mean, we’re the company that registered SmashStausQuo.com. How about we actually do it? We need more offbeat, playful, bizarre functionality–only when you want it, to be sure, but there to introduce some chance, some chaos, some creative destruction.
And I’ll bet that by willing to embrace the terrible, we all just might make something great.
J.
[Thanks to Thomas Phinney for immediately knowing the name of "that swoopy '70s paperback font," as I described it.]

Posted by John Nack at 9:53 PM on November 07, 2005

Comments

  • Andrzej Taramina — 5:50 AM on November 08, 2005

    Brilliant observation, John. I hope you can turn it into reality at Adobe on all the products, not just Illustrator.
    Sticking to the known, narrow and popular is a guarantee of mediocrity. In the software business, many hold up “best practices” as something to be placed on a pedestal and aspired to, not realizing that they are, in fact, preaching the adoption of “average practices” in many cases.
    One of my favourite sayings in this regard comes from a poster advertising Stella beer:
    “I would rather die of thirst than to drink from the cup of mediocrity”.
    Alas, that mind set is not as common as we might like.
    Then again, much of the design I see in the media strikes me as awful, so a “gimme awful” button might just deliver the opposite in practice. Not a bad thing in my mind. ;-)
    …..Andrzej

  • Mark Kawano — 10:08 AM on November 08, 2005

    Interesting post, John. To me, you are describing your desire for the feature to be emotionally appealing to users in addition to just being “accurate, fast, and intuitive”. A worthy design goal that too often is lost in the world of software development.
    This emotional appeal allows users to play with a feature more than they normally would and introduces a workflow that is not as direct as getting from one point to another. Allowing for this sort of playfulness is certainly what allows lots of designers to experiment and create non-standard designs.
    Freeing designers to play and experiment with the CS is one of the best ways to help us be productive. And if a designer wants the tool to do the experimenting for them, they need much more help than any feature in Illustrator can provide.

  • Matthew Richmond — 8:09 AM on November 18, 2005

    you know… your goals (meaning adobe’s) is to come up with new and better ways of making things, ideas, processes, features whatever. You release these tools upon us and it’s our job to see if they work and figure out what we can make with them. It’s extremely difficult given the digital toolbox for anyone at Adobe to predict how and what we will ultimately do with these features.
    Open ended features that can make terrible and wonderful things are far better than over considered features that can only make one boring thing. Fast and accurate is a good thing when it comes to software development, but your opinion here is dead on. Where are those stack of features that fall into the “here is this crazy way to make stuff, not sure what the art kids are going to make with it yet” pile? I guess those are too hard to forecast.

  • Splashman — 3:24 AM on November 21, 2005

    I have always agreed in theory that open-ended tools are good. My long experience with what I consider to be the prototypical open-ended tools (from HSC/MetaTools/MetaCreations) was a reality check.
    I’d sure like to have all the hours back that I spent playing around with graphical toys that, in hindsight, had almost zero chance of leading to useful artwork. I’m certain there exist artistic geniuses with nothing better to do than click “randomize” 500 times in succession, but I’m not one of them.
    Okay, that was a bit snarky, but you get my point, right?

  • John Nack — 6:53 AM on November 21, 2005

    Yep, I take your point, but I still think there’s a lot of promise here. To Matthew’s point, we should enable the math rockers/script kiddies to hijack Photoshop tools (in a good way), taking the sober, inherently predictable underpinnings and introducing play and chance.

  • boston407 — 1:23 PM on June 28, 2006

    For a split second I thought may be I pushed a “wrong” button and slipped into an alternative time/space reality, and may be I did – a John Nack reality! Very cool.
    [Hah! You're kind to say so. ;-) Thx, J.]

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