A great post on why attractive design is more useful, by UI consultant Stephen P. Anderson. Emotions are not just the waste heat of cognition, they’re essential to cognition. So attractive products are not just “more fun” to use, they actually work better.
“Are you an entrepreneur or activist with ideas about the next big thing to change government? A non-profit professional trying new technologies with great results? A former campaign staffer still blazing new trails in online politics?
Google and Personal Democracy Forum are teaming up to offer registration fellowships that cover the full forum registration costs and a meal with Googlers for twenty well-qualified, creative political entrepreneurs to attend this year’s conference on June 29-30 at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Fellows will be chosen based on evidence of how you’ve turned ideas into action and into new applications of technology in the political or civic arena.”
So much opportunity here. E.g. I’m more and more convinced that much of the challenge facing government is the difficulty of visualizing and making sense of complicated systems, policy, organizational networks, opportunities, threats, etc. All of which could be helped by data visualization, shared data sets, web services, etc.
I was just looking at yet another vacuous presentation graphic, this one purporting to illustrate the SMART test for defining objectives. It looked something like this:
This is of course rubbish. Infographics guru Edward Tufte would object strenuously to its low information density: in place of the pretty picture we could simply say “these characteristics are related” or better yet, just list them, which implies the same.
It occurs to me that at this point in history this kind of thing is more than just bad graphics. Graphics are so often seen as illustrative, not primary, content – many of us still habitually think of the text as the main thing. But whole generations have by now grown up with multimedia, and express themselves quite naturally in images, video and sound. By now, bad graphics are bad communications, period.
And yet arts education is under threat, because aesthetics are still seen as expendable, especially when money is tight. It’s time for us realize that not only is art valuable in its own right, but that we need visual skills in order to communicate effectively – text alone, in Tufte’s terms, no longer achieves an adequate information density. Speaking only in words is too slow.
To succeed in life, we need to be able to see through empty, wrong or dishonest verbal expression, and we need the same skills with visuals. For centuries all schoolchildren have been taught grammar, logic and debate. But developing and critiquing visual constructions remains a specialist skill, practiced by artists, designers, data viz geeks, and not many others. Society attaches a far higher utilitarian value to, say, legal analysis. Thus otherwise educated people may be vulnerable to cant and sophistry when it’s presented in non-verbal form.
Visual critical thinking is not simply aesthetic appreciation or cultural criticism, but a practical, analytical skill for coping intelligently with an expanded world of information.
There is an academic field of study called Visual Rhetoric, allied with semiotics. As described by Wikipedia:
The study of visual rhetoric… emphasizes images as rational expressions of cultural meaning, as opposed to mere aesthetic consideration…
Some examples of artifacts analyzed by visual rhetoricians are charts, paintings, sculpture, diagrams, web pages, advertisements, movies, architecture, newspapers, photographs, etc.
Professional designers take a more pragmatic approach to similar material. But the crossing is seldom made to applied, critical decision-making in the realm of business and power – beyond “Do you like this version, or that one, oh client?” It is all too often seen as a matter of taste. And for some time now, even as our access to creative expression has expanded, it seems to have been accompanied by a more and more pervasive fuzzy-headedness. Too many discussions now stall at “it’s cool” or “it’s all good.” We could use some help making, dare I say the word, judgments.
I think with more study of visual critical thinking in our schools, the next generation would be better equipped to apply concepts like clarity, validity and significance to the modes of expression they will rely on as much as or more than text alone.
And then unpersuasive graphics like my SMART diagram above would be more quickly and widely recognizable as the visual equivalent of “blah blah blah blah.”
Also posted at O’Reilly Broadcast.
Microsoft Songsmith, designed to be a software aide for musical composition, has instead proved to be a great tool for comedy, as early adopters have exploited its bent for generating hilariously inappropriate accompaniments to famous artists’ vocal tracks.
This is an example of how unanticipated or even subversive uses of technology often yield the most creative results, as when early rockers deliberately caused their guitar amps to distort, or rappers invented turntable-scratching.
But I think this particular case also raises an essential point about comedy: that it often arises from people unintentionally behaving like machines. As noted by Suzanne K. Langer and others, comic characters are often those who must helplessly follow the dictates of their obsessions, addictions, or other pre-occupations, right into some ridiculous disaster. Think Homer Simpson pursuing food, beer or TV.
Songsmith is inherently comic because of the way, by following its algorithms, it blunders into inappropriate musical choices. But Songsmith is not a person brought down by mechanistic behavior, it’s a machine brought down by mechanistic behavior – a machine that parodies itself. That is something.
Maybe there’s potential here for something new: non-human comedians. Say, for example software that, instead of doing work, just constantly suffers Charlie Chaplin style pratfalls for our entertainment. Microsoft was already part-way there with Windows and Internet Explorer, but those products’ failures are just infuriating, because they purport to enable work. Songsmith, on the other hand, makes no such promise. So when it misses the mark in spectacular fashion, it’s kind of adorable – and funny.
Also published at O’Reilly Broadcast.
Microsoft Songsmith has been stuck in my mind lately like, well, a bad song (follow that link at your own risk). It’s got me reflecting about the long trend towards using music technology to increase productivity, but not creativity. And that reminds me of the following anecdote about one night in New Orleans with Thomas Dolby, the Rhinestone Cowboy and an electronic harmonizer…
Just possibly, the Rhinestone Cowboy was drunk. Or maybe this was how he always danced to his own music: a contining cycle of nearly falling, forward and then backward, as if he were tethered to an invisible – and distracted – puppeteer.
But drunk or dancing, the Rhinestone Cowboy, aka David Allan Coe, looked and sounded like pure honky tonk. Black boots, black jeans, black cowboy hat and black shirt, plus, of course, rhinestones, and songs like “Take this Job and Shove It” and “Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)”. Or as pure honky tonk as Thomas Dolby and I could tell.
Thomas, the synth-pop pioneer behind “She Blinded Me With Science” and “One of Our Submarines”, was watching the Rhinestone Cowboy from a VIP seat in the balcony at the New Orleans House of Blues on a summer evening in 2000. At that time I was the head of the creative department at his interactive audio firm Beatnik, and was sitting next to him. Our presence at this evening’s show was an odd, random encounter across what felt like a much wider gap than the distance from balcony to stage: it was the gap between rock and country, Silicon Valley and the South and, we assumed, high and low tech.
Then the harmony vocals came in. They flawlessly tracked the Rhinestone Cowboy’s lead – but seemed to originate from nowhere. None of the other musicians had opened their mouths. “What’s going on here?” wondered Thomas. We were familiar with harmonizers, devices that could digitally replicate and transpose any melody fed into them. But neither of us had ever seen one used outside a studio (good ones were expensive back then). The Rhinestone Cowboy had a harmonizer on stage, and was turning it on and off with a foot switch. And with surprisingly precise timing, what with the nearly falling over and all.
The Rhinestone Cowboy was out-teching us.
We were impressed. But we didn’t like it much – at least I know I didn’t. Why not? After all, we were music tech-heads, especially Thomas. His friends had christened him “Dolby” after his youthful habit of taking stereos apart. In his early days as a performer he rigged up a DIY drum machine by connecting a stage light sequencer to a set of Simmons electronic drums.
But I think that’s the point. Thomas’ use of technology was creative, taking things apart and reusing them in imaginative ways. His music presented technology through an emotional filter, such as affectionate parody, as in “She Blinded Me With Science”, or a haunting nostalgia, as in much of The Golden Age of Wireless. (I once visited Thomas at his seaside cottage in England, and was struck by the beauty of the obsolete radio technology collected on his mantle, some of it familiar from his album imagery and videos.)
The Rhinestone Cowboy’s use of technology wasn’t creative, just productive. He was simply saving himself the expense of hiring background singers. The harmonizer didn’t add anything new to his music, apart from the slightly creepy effect of hearing two perfect clones of the Rhinestone Cowboy.
Now we hear harmonizers on stages everwhere. Lately, a Hawaiian duo I used to like has become a solo act, one guy playing guitar and singing while harmonies are provided by a box of chips in place of his former bandmate. The hotel gets its entertainment cheaper now, and Hawaii enjoys a small productivity gain.
When I’m on the Big Island I still like to hear him sing that beautiful, gentle music in the bar down by the beach. But he sure looks lonely. And for my part, seeing two friends singing together is worth something in itself.
Something maybe even worth paying for.
Also published at O’Reilly Broadcast.