to Artful Design • Chapter 1: “Design Is ______"
MUSIC 256A / CS 476A, Stanford University
The idea that stood out to me the most from this week’s reading is:
On the surface, this seems like a relatively straightforward idea. We as humans have preferences, and we make our decisions based on those preferences. Design (a process that involves plenty of decisions) would thus reflect the preferences we have.
At the same time, the idea of design as an articulation of preference invites a world of different questions. This includes questions such as: Who’s preference are we referring to? Is there ever such thing as “bad” design if we can always justify it as preference? Are preferences natural or are they shaped by context and experience?
Let’s briefly discuss each of these questions.
Who’s preference are we referring to?
Design always involves 2 parties: the designer, and the user. Of course, there are certainly times when the designer and the user might even be the same person. Still, the question remains: Who’s preference is articulated when it comes to design? The designer possesses physical and creative control over the result, but in the many cases when the designer is a separate entity from the user(s), the designer is beholden to the needs (both practical and emotional) of the user. It would be nice if the preferences of the designer and the preferences of the user always lined up perfectly, but this (unfortunately) often not the case. Is the preference of either party more important than the other when they don’t line up? It seems, in most situations, that the preferences of the user tends to dominate, when design “articulates preferences, in particular those of the user, as expressed by the designer…” (Artful Design, pg. 38). From this, we might conclude that it’s the designer’s responsibility to remain grounded in the user’s preferences, and even while the designer inherently injects their own preference into the result, the core of the design process is centered around the preference of the user.
This also provides insight on the next question:
Is there ever such thing as “bad” design if we can always justify it as preference?
If design does indeed prioritize user preference over designer preference, then yes there is such a thing as bad design. Design that does not consider user preference or compromises user preference for some other feature/aesthetic might be considered worse than one that forgoes anything beyond what the user wants. However, this is a bleak outlook on design. In fact, this interpretation lends itself mores to the definition of “Problem-Solving” (as defined in Artful Design, pg. 31). So, design where the only goal is to address every user need may also be considered “bad” (and painful for the designer). If the goal of artful design is to achieve the sublime, then it cannot be contained solely in the world of the user, and must extend beyond mere problem solving without leaving user preference and pragmatism in the dust.
This leads us to the final question:
Are preferences natural or are the shaped by context and experience?
Having spent most of the past few years in the world of computer science, my idea of design revolved around practicality and implementation, with very little room for my own preference in the final product. There seemed always to be a “right” way to do things, and eventually my entire perception of beauty and aesthetic in the world of engineering was grounded in efficiency and correctness. The best designed code is code that is the most concise, readable, and space/time efficient. Anything else is objectively worse. So, to me, the answer seems clear. Preference (even if they begin naturally) is strongly molded depending on the situation. This is also directly applicable to Principle 1.12: Design is Artful Engineering. In many situations I find that engineering and artful engineering are the same thing, especially since my metrics of evaluation both emotionally and practically are tied to the same objectives. Concise code that runs fast or a logical math solution might seem tied to pure problem solving and engineering, but I do find beauty in the results.
And, in the end, that’s all that matters right?
to Artful Design • Chapter 1
Three things that I find beautiful and recognize to be design:
Citrus Squeezer - Functionally, the purpose is to squeeze the juice out of a small citrus fruit (lemons and limes) that is much easier, more effective, and faster than hand-squeezing. Aesthetically, I think the bright yellow color (the same as a good lemon) broadcasts it’s purpose well and almost makes me feel like the juice is even more fresh when I use it. It seems more natural than other fully stainless steel squeezers that are a plain gray. The separate stainless steel bowl-shaped layer contrasts strikingly with the yellow, and serves a very practical function to apply the maximum amount of pressure to the fruit to get as much juice out as possible. In comparison to other juicers that I’ve used, I do feel like it works and I have to exert less force by hand to yield even better results. It is extremely satisfying to use, as it is very practical and looks very simple and clean. While its primary goal and its main selling points are on the function and purpose side of things, as someone that often finds beauty in efficiency, it speaks to me both practically and emotionally.
My Bike - Functionally, the purpose is to transport me from point A to point B so that I can arrive places faster without needing to walk (or drive, since I don’t have a car here). Aesthetically, I again really like the color (green is my favorite color) and I think it works well with the brown seat and handlebars. However, the most satisfying part of my experience with this (new) bike is the experience of riding it. This bike (unlike most other bikes) uses a carbon belt drive chain as opposed to a steel chain, which requires less maintenance while still resulting in a smooth bike ride. While the bike’s appearance can be replicated by any other bike, it is the carbon belt drive chain that puts this bike on my “best design” list. Considering I switched to this bike from a really cheap, badly maintained bike from Walmart, I feel very happy when riding my new bike and actually enjoy biking to class as opposed to dreading it (as I did last year). Again, this is a situation where I find beauty in the practical aspects of the design. As someone who doesn’t know very much about bikes and always forgets to maintain it, incorporating an element that performs well while requiring minimal maintenance is perfect for me.
The How To Train Your Dragon Soundtrack - This is among one of my favorite works of music ever, both sentimentally and in terms of design. Functionally, it serves to enhance the storytelling of the moving (while also being standalone pieces of music for listening). Aesthetically, I really enjoy the themes (can’t put into words why, but I really like the themes). But beyond simply enjoying the themes, I find the structure of the composition to be extremely well-designed. Important characters/moments all have their own themes, and each of these themes work together and interplay with each other almost as if it were a standalone story. For example, Hiccup’s theme and Toothless’s them are separate for the entire first part of the movie as they slowly develop a rapport and friendship, and seamlessly come together in a climactic moment to construct a full Hiccup/Toothless theme as they finally understand how to fly together effectively. It’s definitely one of the most satisfying musical moments for me when the themes come together. As a piece of music, it is pretty great in and of itself, but in the context of serving the story, the artful design really comes through.
I took the ChucK file I created for this assignment that makes a spooky ghostly noise, and rearranged the code as best I could to outline a little ghost! I think this adds a nice (relevant) touch to the sound that the ChucK program outputs, and definitely goes against most traditionally valued aspects of good coding style in an (I think) artistic way.