Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Design as a (partially) Stochastic Process

In my 4/23 post called Dogma and Design, I kvetched about dogmatic usability gurus and their tendency to use a rhetorical style that alienates the audience they most need to reach: designers. I suggested off-handedly at the end of the post that perhaps their rhetoric is a function of their general philosophical persuasion, which I further postulated to be some form of positivism or objectivism. While I hold these philosophies in some esteem, I have some profound issues with them as well. All I will say on that subject for the moment is that I don’t think the enlightenment was the end of the process — but I definitely don’t think we need to do away with it, in fact I consider the enlightenment to be one of the most important things to have ever happened in human history. I digress.

Because I have some esteem for the “scientific worldview,” I feel compelled to try to elucidate my opinion about design using at least an empirical, if perhaps not quantitative, argument. The crux of the argument is an experiment I read in something by Robert Anton Wilson (the particular source of which eludes me,) which, if I remember correctly, was co-opted in turn from Buckminster Fuller. So this is something of a multiparty plagiarism at this point. Here’s the experiment you can try at home:

Ask a friend to fetch a newspaper you haven’t seen. Instruct said friend to stand a distance just far enough from you that you cannot read a headline of a certain size. If the paper has been close enough to you during this process to have read the given headline, request that your friend find another headline of the same size and show it to you at the distance already described. While looking at the headline that is barely too distant to read, ask your friend to read the headline aloud. If the paper is not too far away to discern the headline from other elements on the page, you should see the words as your friend reads them aloud.

This experiment has worked for me every time — I encourage you (all three of you that read this stuff) to try it. This experiment leads me to something more like the position of Aleister Crowley when he suggests:
Let us consider a piece of cheese. We say that this has certain qualities, shape, structure, colour, solidity, weight, taste, smell, consistency and the rest; but investigation has shown that this is all illusory. Where are these qualities? Not in the cheese, for different observers give quite different accounts of it. Not in ourselves, for we do not perceive them in the absence of the cheese. All 'material things,' all impressions, are phantoms.
In reality the cheese is nothing but a series of electric charges. Even the most fundamental quality of all, mass, has been found not to exist. The same is true of the matter in our brains which is partly responsible for these perceptions. What then are these qualities of which we are all so sure? They would not exist without our brains; they would not exist without the cheese. They are the results of the union, that is of the Yoga, of the seer and the seen, of subject and object in consciousness as the philosophical phrase goes. They have no material existence; they are only names given to the ecstatic results of this particular form of Yoga.
I have digressed from my digression.

Let me try to bring this back around to commercial art. Part of the responsibility of an ad, or a web site or any other marketing vehicle is to communicate the brand. The experiment above seems to suggest that some part of what has meaning to us as humans is perceptual. There seems to be an intersection here.

Add one more element to the equation: Our world is full of art and design. It permeates our existence. Because of this, we all have a quite nuanced and subconscious network of associations between a matrix of artistic concepts, paradigms and elements and a matrix of emotions, memories and contexts. In other words, we all respond to the language of art, in part, on a visceral level that gets in “beneath the radar” as it were. Furthermore, the stream of artistic thought and action is fluid, so that concepts, paradigms and elements are constantly engendered, revised or revisited. This fluidity seems to reinforce the “beneath the radar” effect by keeping the audience somewhat off-guard.

Taking the quote from the 4/23 post:
"Web design is not about art, it's about making money."
I’ve already said I have no problem with the second clause; it is the first clause to which I object. How does a brand like Nike, competing in a crowded market, get and keep market share? It seems to me a big part of how they do it is through the intuition of the commercial artist whose keen awareness of the shifting tides of artistic value helps shape the perceptions of the market. The artist is your friend holding the newspaper, with the brand as the headline and he’s telling you what that brand means, using the archetypes of art.

The web is an excellent marketing vehicle. It certainly seems to entail more vis-à-vis usability than, for example, a magazine ad, but it still does a great job conveying brand messages through art. In rare cases, I even think the value of this trumps a usability rule here and there.

When considering the preceding commentary, one should take into account the incredibly convoluted nature and the fact that the author was drunk (not really.) At least he spell-chevked.

posted by Malaclypse the Tertiary at 1:05 AM ·

Smart Blogs:
(in no particular order)
Deinonychus Antirrhopus
The Knowledge Problem
The Volokh Conspiracy
The Kolkata Libertarian
Andrew Sullivan
Little Green Footballs
Dave Barry
Libertarian Samizdata
Balloon Juice
Discount Blogger
Truck and Barter
Peking Duck
The Gweilo Diaries

Ludwig von Mises Institute
The Cato Institute
Junk Science
David Friedman
Tech Central Station

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