Design’s Function

Andrei is back, which is a great thing. I don’t always agree with him, but his passion for design can not be overstated, and he generousity with knowledge via tutorials on his blog is one of the reasons I have any skill at all on the web. His latest rant about The Culture brings back a discussion argument between my first-year architecture professors and me. just about every day of my aborted attempt at being an architect. I’ve never been one to create art for art’s sake, always having tied design and function together.

Design and Function tend to hand-in-hand in all things that fall short of Fine Art. At least, that’s how it seems to me. This is true of all arts, from music to painting to sculpture. When you add in the function, whatever it may be, the art seemingly slips below the highest calibre of fine artyistry, yet becomes something more at the same time.

Let me give you a quick example: music. When created as art and art alone, it can be amazing. There are many times that music moves people in astounding ways and yet, it’s not a story, it’s not a message, it’s not a function, and people are moved because of their own internalized moments leading up to that art. Since it’s music, and only music, the fine art, it’s the pinnacle of human existence. However, it’s not functional; it doesn’t need to be.

When you add in a story, then the music changes. It delivers specific feelings and emotions, creates characters and scenes, and moves along with a plot, and does this for entire courses of people. And that’s a function. In adding the function the music isn’t truly less artistic, the artistry just isn’t left alone.

Architecture is a realm where form and function balance each other out just about equally. An architect has to understand the artistic beauty and the pedestrian function of the final product in order to succeed. I understand this thinking very well, while I have had nothing but issues when forced to separate the two. When given the task of creating something that is just beautiful without being functional at all, I might as well just turn in a blank page. I’m better off avoiding the attempt.

Design and Function define the web. It’s finding the balance between the two that makes it a challenge. Yes, having all links underlined makes it easier to determine and locate text functioning as a hyperlink and that which isn’t. However, that doesn’t mean that having a link in a different color or font-weight is less easy to see – in some cases, it’s much easier.

Sites like Craigslist and the really-cool-yet-never-really-designed-web-tool team at 37Signals are making piles of money, which is the name of the game, but they still lack design. That lack is core to this surge of people who verbalize that design is unnecessary.

Quel suprise: the design community is just as loud, shouting that not only is design necessary, but that the art is superior to the function in any application. Nothing like standing up for yourself only to find out you really did leave the house without your pants, but that’s about where things are. I also find it quite humorous that many people on both sides are trying to win by volume, not by treatment and test-case, but by expounding on their own, quite admittedly self-serving ideas, which gets us nowhere.

Let’s set the Way-Back MachineTM and head back to…

Imagemaps, those lovely tools of yester-cyberyear, have a great amount of design, allowing for literally any image to be a navigation system – no matter the artistic convolutions. However, the lack of functional interaction and self-perpetuating education inherent in these tools is a big part of why the technique failed. Some were beautiful, no question. But artistry, which is design without function, cannot succeed in a functional world. Imagemaps are the digital equivalent of the Spruce Goose.

In this corner: we have the modern antithesis in 37Signals’ Backpack, which lacks design in a way that isn’t completely crippling to it’s usefulness, and I have hopes for it. I’m not holding my breath, however, because what it does for functional ability it lacks horribly in ‘pleasure to use’ and for those of you who don’t think that’s important, remember why you don’t have an outhouse. Indoor plumbing is 50% sewer you invited into your home, because frankly, the alternative is much worse, and that’s a function of it’s design.

That’s not to say that the functions encapsulated in Backpack weren’t designed well, they mostly were. But there is a lot they can do to make it better, too, and just like outhouses are better than camping waste-management facilities (think: leaf-as-toilet-paper), there is something better than Backpack out there.

The current debate is that it’s taking on a very scary coloring – Religion, which we’ve got pleanty of, thanks. Or, perhaps I’m wrong, but Mac-vs.-Win. It’s no longer about ‘what’s best for this application’. Instead it’s becoming to antigonistic camps lead by their purists and zealots, who intiate debate only to enrage the other side, and create havoc instead of solutions. Frankly, Andrei is one of those people, but I suspect that it’s one of the driving forces of his success, too. Andrei was designed to be a functional designer, with an amazing talent for art. Andrei also designed the UI of Photoshop, which then seeped into the rest of the apps in what is Adobe’s Creative Suite. He didn’t do it completely alone, and it’s been modified since he created the UI, but please, it’s his work. Some love it, some hate it, and some just wonder what the hell it’s supposed to be. Personally, I feel he owes me several hours of my life back. Some of those hours are covered by what he’s given freely on DxF, but Andrei, I hate to tell you, you’ve got a long way to go.

What I can’t argue with is that Photoshop’s UI is impressive, expressive, expansive and, once you’ve gotten a bit of a tour and some time using it, very well thought out. There are choices that were made that I don’t like or understand, but considering all the complex thinking about tool inter-functions and that, when the modern UI base was adopted photographs were still be processed in labs for almost all true arwork, it’s clear that the UI is actually beautiful, too.

Photoshop is, thanks to Andrei and to due to many other talented people, a true digital tool-set complete with every single tool having an analogue to every tool a photographer who spent years honing and learning their art. There is always something telling when you realize that Adobe is the world’s second-largest sofware firm, behind only Microsoft. However, Adobe comes by the lion-share of the market by creating outstanding products, and for a while it seemed they might do it again. I hope they do.

This debate isn’t going away soon, it’s just going to get worse and more angst-ridden. Why? Because when someone screams and someone else screams back, it’s back to the toilet metaphor, and it’s all going down the drain. This argument is a lot like that, now. Heck, I even managed to unintentionally snark at Jeff Croft, the source of my current infatuation with All Things Django. So the debate is raging, and many have a good, strong, righteous rage-on going with them as they attack.

Instead of making a better mousetrap, we’re making a lesser house. Ah, well, at least we won’t have more mice, right?