Saturday, June 25, 2011

Design and Writing

"A designer knows he has achieved perfection, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." --Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I've been quite impressed lately with how internet browsers have improved over the past few years. Right now, I use Chrome mostly, but I sometimes open up Firefox to use some of the add-ons in its vast library. The thing that most impresses me is how much screen space has been freed up for the actual web page, rather than the various toolbars and navigation buttons. Compared to the old versions of Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Netscape Navigator, the modern browsers I've had experience with (Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer 7) are beautiful works of design. A lot of the features we take for granted now, like tabbed browsing, seem so obvious it's a wonder that the original designers of the first browsers didn't think of them.

The ever present tension between minimalism and functionality is what fascinates me the most about design, especially in consumer technology, where designers must imbue their products with some artistic flair in order to please the eye. Designers in other areas have slightly different aims, but the basic principles seem to stay the same: make something that works, and make it beautiful as long as it does not interfere with functionality. I think the closest I've come to inhabiting the designer's mindset is through writing. For a while, I tried to make my writing as minimalist as possible, avoiding long words whenever possible, and chopping complex sentences into their atomic parts. Perhaps this came from reading Strunk's Element's of Style and taking it too literally. Don't misunderstand, I am grateful for that book, and for the kind of style that eventually came out of that ascetic phase; however, I came to understand that while minimalism is admirable, it is also tempting to go too far. Einstein once said, "Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler." I think the second part of that exhortation should be emphasized.

Right now, with regards to my writing, I hope to loosen the reins slightly, to occasionally aim for a beauty that lies in complexity. As long as each word still retains value, then my Strunkian sensibilities will not be offended.

And also, this issue that designers and writers face is an example of why it is worthwhile to delve deeper into an activity that lies outside your area of expertise. There is a whole philosophy that has grown around how designers and writers work, and to wrestle with these ideas is to broaden one's repertoire when it comes to problems that seem intractable. "When you have only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." Figuring out how to sew with a hammer is a really hard problem, but probably not a problem worth solving, since it is really about having the right tools to do the job at hand.

So, when one tries to apply the designer's mindset to other areas, what happens? Well, in art, one runs into problems immediately. How do you define an art piece's functionality? Is it to please the eye? Many artists would disagree. An art piece does not have a set purpose, like a web browser does. Yet I feel that artists and designers have many things in common.

Hah! I raise these questions willy-nilly and do not even begin to answer them. Such is my power.


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