Reading Response #5
to Artful Design • Chapter 5: “Interface Design” + Interlude

Jack Xiao
MUSIC 256A / CS 476A, Stanford University

Reading Response: How to Design a (Whimsy) New Interface

This response focuses on:

- Principle 5.6: How to Design a New Interface (a Logical Approximation)

and how it interacts with

- Principle I.1: Funny is Often Better than Serious.

When thinking about designing an interface, we often expect the design to be cohesive and sensible. Especially since, for the most part, the majority of interfaces we deal with every day (and the interfaces we’ve worked with for most of our history) are designed with practicality and usability in mind. As stated in pg. 224, “acoustic instrument design mutualizes! Form follows physics”. And this is what we are used to. This is a limitation that certainly affects our flexibility in designing interfaces, especially interfaces that we intend to have a comedic element. Often times, the humor comes from the subversion of expectations, and thus the direct contradiction of practicality. For example, with physical/acoustic instruments, we are constrained by medium and the limited range of output that any given physical object can produce, and thus much of the “whimsy-ness” will come from unexpected objects used to produce sounds (which even then for the most part are predictable when we know what the object is), producing (limited) unexpected sounds from more traditional objects (e.g. a violin sounding like a chicken or a siren), or having the humor come solely from the visual gestures made when performing. This is where computer instruments allow a world of new possibilities, as “computer instrument design de-mutualizes! Form [is] decoupled from function” (pg. 225). This decoupling is what allows us to inject unexpectedness and surprise into the mix, providing ample opportunity for design choices that optimize for maximum humor.

More specifically, we can examine how we can implement humor in each component of the interface design process as presented in Principle 5.6.

Input + Output

Input is perhaps the easiest area to throw in something funny, perhaps because it is the generally the only part that involves a visual element (for purely musical/sound performances, at least. If it is an audiovisual interface, then output will also involve visual elements). So, much like with acoustic instruments, we can choose and/or design the input to be novel and/or unexpected. With computer music, any way of generating a signal can be used as an input device, so this pretty much opens the door for any object (physical or virtual) to be used.

Output sounds can be specifically designed to be humorous. There are many types of sounds/combinations of sounds that are generally regarded as funny, not so much because they are inherently comedic (sounds themselves are objective) but because they are associated with other comedic experiences that most people have (and can relate to). Because computer interface design provides us with more possibilities when it comes to output, I think this is definitely an area where a lot can be done.
However, input and output are a shared feature between acoustic and computer interfaces. Sure, there may be more flexibility on the computer end to more carefully tailor signals and sounds, but in general, the interaction between the two is similar and can yield similar results. The true power of computer-based interfaces comes with mapping.


This is the area most unique to computer instrument interfaces. The de-coupling between form and function really allows for a subversion of expectation to come into play. With the technology we have, there is most likely a way to extract signal from any object and map it to any sound, and these nearly unlimited possibilities are what provide room for whimsicality. We can use a rubber chicken to generate a dramatic sci-fi sound, or we can use a more traditional keyboard to generate funny animal sounds. When we see an object being “played”, our minds subconsciously expect some kind out output (hence why input and output are shared features between the acoustic and computer interfaces). But it is the computer interfaces that allow for a surprising and welcome disconnect between the input and output that can intrigue an audience.

Final Thought:
I think this all goes back to a principle from Chapter 1 (1.13: Design is Human). As has often been said, laughter is the best medicine and humor is one of the easiest ways to emotionally effect a person. That’s why when I did speech and debate, I was always told to begin my speech with good jokes and good humor; It’s the best way to grab an audience’s attention, because humor is undoubtedly and universally enjoyable. When we design things to be funny, regardless of how, we guarantee ourselves some degree of emotional impact and engagement. Then once we have their attention, more serious themes can come into play. But regardless, at the very least, the humor will certainly make someone’s day brighter.