Back in the early Nineties, when computers staged their first invasion of planet design, it was only slightly unfashionable to claim that design software was a prop for lazy designers, signaling the end of hand skills and the death of the craft of design. Old masters like Paul Rand and Massimo Vignelli were not considered nuts for their anti-Mac views, just a bit old-school, a bit reactionary. Now, up here on the pre-Y2K, pre-millenial WWW, such a position would be unthinkably gauche. Everything is designed on computers: typefaces, special effects, toothbrushes, skyscrapers — wars, even.
How strange, then, to hear a 33-year-old designer at the Art Directors Club in New York a couple of months ago aligning himself more or less with the church of the latter day Rand. The ADC’s guest speaker John Maeda not only claims Rand as a mentor, he even sometimes soundslike the old curmudgeon, with his polemic against off-the-shelf design software and the companies that make it. Recalling how an Adobe salesman at a recent conference likened the Web to the goldrush (“We’re selling the pans and jeans, now go get the gold!”), Maeda told his student audience at the ADC that the true meaning of the analogy was, “You are fools! You won’t make any money – we’ll make it off you…”
Maeda, however, is a computer scientist. A computer scientist who hates computers? Not exactly. Director of the MIT Media Lab’s aesthetics and computation group (where he teaches aesthetics to computer heads and programming to aesthetes), Maeda is on a mission to challenge the autocracy of PostScript. He argues that designers are being misled into thinking that they can do anything they want with the available design software – “limited only by their imagination.” In fact, he says, we are being limited by someone else’s imagination – the programmer’s. Current software is based on the metaphor of the handtools that have existed for thousands of years, but the computer should not be seen as a substitute for brush and paint: it should be seen as an artistic medium in its own right.
Maeda is out to encourage designers to appreciate the purpose and the power of programming, and even learn how to do it. To this end, he has written and published a book, Design By Numbers,that is both a polemic and a tutorial, in which he introduces a programming language and development environment (available on the Web) written specifically for the designer, or the “mathematically challenged.” Much of the talk at the ADC was a demonstration of this software system, which at first sight seems painfully simple. On the left side of the screen is a small blank square, an inch and a half on a side, with coordinates. On the right is the program editing area. The programming language is familiar enough to seem almost intuitive. Type in “paper 100” and the square turns black. “Paper 0” turns it white. To draw a line, you first specify the pen color (“pen 50” makes it gray) then the co-ordinates of the line (“Line 10 30 100 70”). And so on. With the quietude of a Jedi knight, Maeda notes in his book: “You may be concerned about these cramped dimensions, but you will find that mastering this small swatch of space is not trivial.” By the end of the ADC talk, Maeda had that square performing circus tricks, with trailing lines and skipping, buzzing, changing tones, in sequences reminiscent of the titles to Trainspotting.
It is difficult to predict how designers will receive Maeda’s book. Point and click is now firmly embedded in the creative culture, and the quick-fix tech-support solution provides time-pressed creative people with the path of least resistance. Maeda’s path to enlightenment seems, by contrast, slow and painstaking, the tedious mastery of languages alien to art school graduates. Yet, as the development of the Web has shown, becoming proficient in page layout and animation packages has so far proven to be a short cut to looking dated. The most interesting Web stuff seems to come from those who have dug into the fertile soil of the computer architecture and produced flowers: London’s I/O/D, San Francisco’s Post Tool Design, Spain’s Jodi.org. In the time that it took to download all the whizzy graphics on, say, Pathfinder’s old home page, the art anarchists at Jodi.org had mesmerized the Web surfer with twenty exquisitely chaotic, textural online worlds. As for graphic design and product design, the prevailing software tools are, in retrospect, showing their age. It is not difficult to identify the tricks and ticks of three years ago: the Photoshop blend, the CAD cones and waves. As Maeda remarked at ADC, we need to stop thinking of creative people and technical people as different species, where one has all the ideas, the other all the expertise. The true craftsman knows his medium and all its aberrations. “Simple codes are as elegant as any modern sculpture,” writes Maeda in his book.
Maeda concludes Design By Numberswith an account of how he first showed Rand his computational work, and the old master replied, surprisingly, “How did you do this? Can you show me? You aren’t leaving until you do.” Design By Numbersis in some ways Maeda’s belated response to that request, illustrating his belief that a willing, active, creative person – no matter how curmudgeonly – can overcome any barrier. Maeda’s mentor has become his invisible reader. “I am glad that I finished this book but only wish that I had started sooner,” he writes, “so that Mr. Rand could see its completion and perhaps write a few programs, whose elegance, I am sure, would put us all to shame.“ Hopefully, some of the young designers present at the ADC will aspire to the same goal.