Tuesday, January 31, 2006

What Makes It Great? (First Draft) - Joel on Software

What Makes It Great? (First Draft) - Joel on Software

An interesting, if flawed little article. It kind of relates to the 'Lovemarks' concept - some things just attain significance beyond their apparent worth, and people become emotionally attached to them.

But look at Joel's choices for great design - Brad pitt, the ipod, Aeron chairs, Sweet Home Alabama. Yes, all good things, but that choice says more about the 'transcendant factor' in those designs. The key thing is the eye of the beholder.

Joel's choices scream late-20s-early-30s young urban white male, with a techy leaning. They say 'this is my taste'.

What happens when you consider, say, a TG Greens Easimix bowl in that equation? Or a top loading washing machine? Or a traditional wooden spoon?

It's like the 'ugly concrete buildings' argument. Back in the 18th century, people used to look at mediaeval and gothic buildings and go 'ugh, it's so ugly and old fashioned, we must pull it down immediately!'. By today's standards, they were vandals. I remember, when I first found out about this - when I was a teenager, about 15 years ago - I thought 'Hmn. People hate concrete building from the post war to the 70s, and pull it down on site these days. How long til someone decides it has aesthetic value and thinks we're vandals?'. That seems to be happening already...

So, my point is, I think, that any list of 'great' design is about taste. Taste is arbited by the media, and also by what owning one of those 'great designs' says about you as a person. iPods aren't just about looking pretty, they're about being the kind of person who owns an ipod. They're about conspicuous aesthetics, conspicuous consumption, and branding.

It's about fashion.


Unknown said...

I don't think that's entirely true. Yes, of course good design is partly about fashion, and tastes change. But it's also to do with practical solutions to particular problems; about squeezing more out of a particular existing technique; and about creating whole new visual languages that *still* remain coherent and intelligable.

The Apollo series space craft, for example, are pretty much 100% function, with no interpreting fashion - the fact that they had to keep men alive while weighing the absolute minimum gave them their aesthetic. Yet they are still awesome design, and intensely beautiful.

kim said...

Yes, good points about the solution aspect of design. But the article was specifically to do with what takes good design into the realm of great, which is, viz, the strong emotional response. And emotional response to objects is governed by aesthetic tastes of individuals.

Now, persons of quality and discernment plough their own aesthetic furrow, of course. You, for instance, look at a space rocket and see beauty. I couldn't guarantee that, say, a 14 year old girl into ponies would see the same thing - she'd see an old, ugly bit of outdated technology. You respond strongly in this case to Rocket-As-Symbol-of-Spaceage-hope: which is related to your personal history and aesthetic take.

Believe it or not, there are people out there that don't find iPods or computers or rockets or tanks even remotely beautiful. It is all a matter of taste, and 'consensus' - who decides which artists are great? Who decides which are the 'best' movies? To an extent, it's all to do with media exposre, and a select set of taste-arbiters who lead the pack.

Chris said...

I'm delighted to hear you mention the wooden spoon in the context of great design... I have to say, I have become suprisingly picky about my wooden spoons - many are too long to be used effectively. A good wooden spoon is worth it's weight in truffles. :)

Emotional response is partly determined by aesthetics, I agree, but emotional response can also be determined by other factors, such as status envy. How many people own an ipod because it's the "thing to do"? *shrugs*

I'd also like to observe the obvious: that the transition from good to great in any field will always be determined in part by luck.

Take care!

kim said...

Aha, but a long wooden spoon has its place; in jam making, where you don't need much leverage, but need to keep your hands well away from the spitting hot sugar. Also, in cases where you need extra leverage, you can lay the long handle along the inside of your forearm for more purchace...

Yes - this is the media-representation section of the taste thing. As a certain design choice becomes codified as good taste (primarily, by its adoption and championing by taste arbiters in the media) it becomes seen as a wider signifier for thing-as-statement. Hence ipod - i like music, design, i'm hip and young, and a bit of an individual. Not everyone could consciously state the reasons they've bought into that ideal, but they 'know' instincitively that this item is a 'musthave' for 'their kind of people'.

It's sort of tribal, you know.