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Making the Case Against Function

Wednesday, October 24, 2012 4:50 pm

Today’s app-driven web is reaching a singularity: everyone is building, building, building…something. Function has never mattered more. Hundreds of thousands of developers and their posses of user interface designers are AT THIS VERY MOMENT building your next productivity tool, your next online shopping destination, the next platform you will use to express yourself, THE NEXT BIG THING.

Slow down.

Find the quiet.

Turn inward.

Listen.

What are your stories?

I ask that because there will be many. Whether you want to or not, you will change over time. But not the way you think. The external forces of life shape us all, but how you interpret them is what will have the most profound impact on you. The story of your twenties is different than your forties, your sixties, your eighties…your hundreds. You won’t follow a linear line; you will go in circles, dash along random sprints, and wander off on paths to nowhere.

Along the way you will revisit the places you have been before, but you will not be the same person. The way you synthesize all of that information is what matters. But how do you translate it into your work? How do you bring it outward?

For me, technology is the bridge: each new skill I learn informs my stories. Knowing how to do something seems to be the key, not just knowing that it can be done. A connection needs to be made somewhere in my brain – a link – a gap once filled becomes a foundation for the next step. This move reinforces that one, like mortar between bricks.

As the knowledge gaps grow fewer, other kinds of spaces emerge – areas unexplored, what-ifs and maybes. Then like the big bang, something appears to come from nothing: a concept. I’d say idea, but it’s much more than that. Very quickly the entire picture comes together, the visuals, the interaction, the emotion, even the colors. A flash project, if you will, like a flash mob – everyone’s there and on message.

Often I jot down a few sketches to storyboard it, but more to remind myself of the moment rather than for actual details – the concept itself comes on so strong, like a dream that has imprinted me, it would be hard to forget. The difficulty, as everyone says, is in the execution – finding the time to see it through, and determining which concepts deserve energy now…or ever. I don’t act on every concept. My desk is full of sketches of projects that will never be, untenable for common reasons: time, money, desire, focus, skill. Only those that match on the right marks at the right time get a second or third look. Very few emerge into active development.

How will you tell your stories? You could start a blog. Or put something on Tumblr. Or shoot a photo essay. Or live tweet it. Or make a YouTube video. Or just maybe there is some other way, a way that you invent, something new that you create.

On the web, art is the absence of function. That’s not to say you don’t have intention, that art doesn’t try to influence or change behavior, convey a message, or transform ideas and communities. But it doesn’t have to have a function – whether transactional, informational or procedural. It can have a function, or many functions, but function isn’t required. In some ways, digital art is a subtraction, a turning away from everything else that is being added to the web. Often its function is indeterminable until one experiences the work.

On the web, design serves the critical function of translating information. While informed by art, design is not art. Nor should it be. Design strives for beauty, for aesthetic minimalism, to make function beautiful. Art can be tortured.

I love the momentum of the web right now. It’s never been more exciting or challenging to be contributing to it. This space and time will never exist again, and the efforts being laid out are those that will shape the future of the web. But like all of our public spaces, art must exist for creative societies to flourish. Art helps balance commerce and ownership. Art innovates, as much as engineering and science, when combined with those even more powerfully so.

Startups.

Apps.

Platforms.

Networks.

You are building so fast your stories are being lost.

The web is a medium. Everyone else will tell you what it is for and how it should be used. Do you like where the web is heading today? What would you change?

(don’t waste time here telling me, go do it.)

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