Reading Response #3

to Artful Design • Chapter 2: “Visual Design”


Jack Xiao


MUSIC 256A / CS 476A, Stanford University



Reading Response: Prompt Users to Experience Substance (not Technology)


The following principle from Artful Design:

- Principle 3.7: Prompt Users to Experience Substance (Not Technology)

describes ( I think) one of the most challenging and thought-provoking goals of good design. We live in a world surrounded by technology, and often innovation and design (at least in the engineering world) focuses solely on the technology itself. Questions regarding efficiency, accuracy, and stability remain at the top of the priority list. So, working through the process for good artful design where the goal is to hide the technology rather than promote it is quite the mindset shift. This concept of keeping the medium hidden while using it to promote a narrative certainly sounds like a helpful goal when it comes to creating an immersive visual experience that takes users/viewers/listeners beyond the “mere” intrigue of technology. However, I do find that this idea also conflicts interestingly with other ideas also presented in this chapter. More specifically, in regards to Principle 3.10: Visualization Yields Understanding (If we are visualizing the process/algorithm, isn’t that directly promoting the medium?) And Principle 3.14: Savor Strange Design Loops (when constructing feedback/recursive connections between elements, is this then putting the medium itself at the forefront of the experience?), we have to decipher the interplay between these principles. 

Visualizing the Process vs. Hiding the Medium

The first question to ask here is: Are “process” and “medium” referring to the same thing? As always, I’d say the answer is “kinda”. Medium should always be part of the process, but there are elements of process that go beyond the medium. Still, if we are to visualize the process for better understanding, is that not revealing the medium? That would seem to be the case. But is that necessarily a bad thing? There is no good answer to this. In fact, I think that these contrasting goals are not so contrasting after all, and actually reveal a bit of an overgeneralization in the principle of hiding the medium in favor of putting the narrative in the spotlight. Sometimes, the medium might very well be the narrative in and of itself. To say that hiding the medium is necessary for good design discounts the entire idea of novelty and awe being valuable assets for a user’s experience. Sometimes I admire works of art not because I like the style or because I like the content, but because I am simply amazed by how difficult it must have been to accomplish. This is a time where visualizing the process and emphasizing the medium becomes the narrative, and where hiding the medium might actually dampen the experience.

Hidden Medium and Strange Design Loops

As directly stated in Principle 3.10, we should seek to “blur the distinction between medium and message, using some intrinsic property of the design” (Artful Design pg. 121). This seemingly contradicts what was stated in Principle 3.7, where “good design uses the medium to highlight a narrative, while hiding the medium itself”. How are we to hide the medium if we directly blur the lines and incorporate elements of the medium into the message? Again, this brings us back to the conclusion drawn in the previous section: that the medium can itself be the narrative. I guess we could think about it in such a way that if the medium is itself the narrative, then by default it is “hidden” by the narrative in plain sight. However, this just feels like some mental gymnastics used to justify what seems to be an overgeneralization. Instead of saying that we ought to “Prompt users to experience substance (not technology)”, perhaps we should simply say something more along the lines of “Tell a good story,” regardless of whether that focuses on the medium or the result. 


Also! I was happy to see Principle 3.16: Originality is Recombination, an idea that I think is ever-present in any kind of creative endeavor. While not exactly directly on the topic of visual design, see this paper I wrote for another class that discusses this same idea in the context of film music.