Design Perspectives

by Joe Gillespie — Oct 1, 1998

Almost every area of art and design has some kind of technological dimension. At it's most basic, you have to be aware of what happens when you mix paints and apply them to paper or canvas.

Further along the scale, you have things like printmaking, ceramics and sculpture when a significant degree of technical skill is essential to master the techniques.

In graphic design, you need a good knowledge of print technology and when you get to architecture and automotive design, the technology becomes inextricably entwined with the creative process.

There are several parallel and overlapping disciplines involved here. Firstly, a practical one where the technology has to be understood to make things work at their most basic level. We call this 'functional design' and it implies that some intellectual effort has gone into producing the result.

Then, there is the aesthetic aspect requiring a more 'artistic' approach. This is where the basic 'design' is made pleasing to the eye - and ultimately, more marketable. This is called 'styling'.

Thirdly, there is a qualitative element - 'craftsmanship'. This relates to how well the other two aspects have been implemented.

These three attributes can be symbolised by the 'head', the 'heart' and the 'hand' and are at the apexes of a notional equilateral triangle. Any individual, or their work, can be mapped to a point somewhere inside this triangle.

Let's look at the parts separately.

Head

This is the thinking or intellectual aspect of design. At it's extreme, it is just Mr Spock logic. When you design a bridge, it has to be capable of spanning a river and carrying traffic of some sort under the most extreme weather conditions. This is pure mathematics and the work of structural engineers.

Heart

The extremes of 'stylism' must surely land in the lap of the fashion industry. The imaginative creations of the catwalk have little to do with functionality - the appeal here is at an emotional level. Often the emotive aspect is so strong that it has to be diluted to make it more palatable for general consumption.

Hand

Craftsmanship is the attribute that has suffered the most in modern times. The economics of mass production demand that articles are produced at an 'acceptable' level, yet there are still people who take pride in their work even though it may take another craftsman (or woman) to really appreciate it.

You may not agree with my profiles of these artists, they have been debated for many years, but I think that they are close enough to make the point.

A critical examination of an Old Master painting, or a modern automobile, will place it somewhere inside the head/heart/hand triangle. There will be elements of intellectual design, styling and craftsmanship.

A Rembrandt painting will lean towards the heart /hand side of the triangle because it is expertly crafted and emotional but has little intellectual content.

A Cézanne painting will be placed nearer the heart corner as it appeals more to the soul than the intellect and there is no great evidence of draughtsmanship.

A Magritte painting has no high degree of draughtsmanship either, but has thought-provoking content that appeals to mind and soul.

It's difficult to find an example of an unemotive work of art, but the graphic works of M C Escher with their interlocking shapes owe more to cleverness and craft than emotion.

I can't think of any examples of fine art that are totally intellectual or totally craft. Art without emotion just isn't art unless you are talking about mathematics or spiders' webs.

You will find similar attributes if you compare a Ferrari, a Volkswagen Beetle and an army Jeep.

So, how does all this theoretical stuff relate to Web design?

Web page design is no different from any other design discipline and you can place any Web page you look at somewhere on the head/heart/hand triangle. There are the ones that have compelling content, ones that look very good, and ones that work very well because they have been hand-crafted.

All the attributes discussed earlier have been qualitative, but now I have to introduce another dimension to this triangle - height. The head, heart and hand qualities must also have quantities so, instead of a simple triangle, we get a three-dimension triangular prism and any designer, or their work, can be quantified by placing them inside this object. Someone of low skills in any area would be near the base of the prism and highly skilled ones near the top. It is all relative, of course. There are no absolutes.

You might find that a meticulous HTML hand-coder is so involved in the mechanics of Web page creation that there is little content or aesthetic value in their work. On the other hand, many 'designers' are so preoccupied with the aesthetics that they score low on the more practical 'head' and 'hand' aspects. Many 'News' related sites are more concerned with content, caring little about how it looks or how well it works.

To make up for deficiencies in their skills, people will look to their computers to provide solutions. Where content is lacking, they will often substitute visual effects or 'eye candy'. Where their artistic abilities are in question, they will look to ready-made templates or other 'push button' solutions. Where craftsmanship is in short supply, there are few answers other than total reliance on WYSIWYG editors.

Then, there are people who are highly skilled in one area, but not in others. In that case, it is essential that they augment their skills using their computer, or better still, by partnering with other people that do have the skills.

The point of this whole exercise is to encourage self-evaluation. It is like stepping out of oneself and taking a remote view. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, but they can become clouded by the ego, or by peer pressure.

The ability to qualify, and quantify, these attributes using the head/heart/hand model helps to put some perspective into our work, and our lives.

But in the end, it takes all types!

Adobe ImageStyler

I have the greatest of respect for Adobe as a company. They have produced some of the very best software out there and I have always found their support exemplary. Recently, they have been having problems both with their products and their earnings.

Illustrator 7 is not up to par by all general accounts and Photoshop 5 has been released with a fundament flaw in its text handling that makes it totally useless for type setting. They have also come in for much criticism for the lack of functionality with ImageReady although I find that it does what it is supposed to do very well.

Now they have released a public beta of Adobe ImageStyler and I am completely underwhelmed.

ImageStyler is one of those products aimed at the 'painting by numbers' market that produces 'professional looking' buttons and writes JavaScript for rollovers, image maps and such on the fly. Although it all works as it claims, the JavaScript code it produces is overly verbose, much of it being redundant and inefficient. It just bloats the Web page without contributing anything and the people that the product is aimed at won't know what to remove.

It can also apply a plethora of predefined 2D and 3D effects to type and images but in a tired and clichéd way that will only appeal to those as lacking in imagination as they are in skill. It is not so much a tool as a crutch?

An enabling technology, like Photoshop, is a tool with virtually no limits to its application and depends only on the skill of the user. A crutch is very limited in its use, a support, which if removed, causes the user to fall over. The problem is that if you come to rely on a crutch totally, you may never feel the need to try to walk unaided. To sell someone a crutch in the guise of a 'tool' is not doing anyone any favors.

Had the functionality of ImageStyler been built into ImageReady, I could have accepted it as 'padding'. There is, after all, a lot of 'padding' in software products to increase their perceived value. But, as a stand-alone product, I find ImageStyler pointless and not really worthy of the Adobe brand name.

Unless they can find some compelling, saving grace before it goes final, I don't see ImageStyler making a big impression on the Web design community, especially at $129!

Adobe ImageStyler (Beta)
Features red bar50%
Ease of Use yellow bar80%
Value for Money green bar45%
'Must Have' Factor blue bar40%
Manufacturer Adobe
Price US$129 for all platforms.
Summary Easy to use but does too little for the price.
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