I’m working now on the interface for my Project Planning App for the iPad. Whatever people say about form following function, it’s not true when the function is ill defined.
Spitfires and E-Type Jaguars, Gaggia coffee machines and Dualit toasters are all engineered to do a specific task, and emerge beautiful by being perfectly appropriate to that task. Software is different. Software emulates tools, but only within the constraints of current hardware. We have come a long way from the green screens and dumb terminals of the 1970’s / 1980’s, via windows, to touch screen tablets like the iPad. Each step has been massively beneficial, in that the tools we use shape our thinking about the work we need to get done, but we re-frame our work to best use our tools. Until we make the last step, to have tools that suit our preferred ways of working, form will dominate function.
How many manhours are wasted globally producing PowerPoint presentations, not because we have much more to communicate to each other than when we used OHP slides, but because they look lovely and “Professional”? (Of course this is exceeded by the manhours wasted in the audience). Many people use spreadsheets to do database tasks, because it is the only tool they know, and not only couldn’t design a database properly, but couldn’t even frame the question in the right terms, they think in rows and columns, not sets and relationships.
In his excellent book “Being Digital” (Selected bits here :- http://archives.obs-us.com/obs/english/books/nn/bdcont.htm ), Nicholas Negroponte describes the ideal interface for humans to deal with information systems. We would sit down at our desks in the morning and a series of hologram figures (The seven dwarves, a cast of SuperHeroes, characters from ancient mythology, whatever we choose), would march out onto the desktop to be given spoken orders. They would then scuttle away, returning later with information, ready processed into usable form, or with analysis and suggestions. This is how we work with each other, and its how we work best. Freed from consideration of the constraints of the tool, we can describe the task in its richest terms. Until then we have to move in Geisha sized steps towards better solutions. The best solutions will be those which can allow us to behave like puppeteers controlling agents and delegating tasks, rather than blacksmiths selecting differently shaped hammers. Getting the interface to move towards this is the next step, and those that achieve it best will, once more, change not just the way we work, but the way we think.
I began to empathise all too much with the chap on the right, feeling all hollowed out. However moderation in all things, including self pity is the key, so presenting a resolute face to the oncoming winds, most of the diversions having been addressed, I shall resume work properly tomorrow. I have enhancements to make to all three currently released Apps and can then make proper progress on the next.
As long as the sun doesn’t shine and we don’t go to the seaside that is.
Working yesterday on Become: Organised and, in the background, half listening to Weather Report (Tale Spinnin’) which I haven’t listened to for many years. Gradually my thoughts, deep and profound up to then, were diverted into Physical Geography, especially glaciated landscapes. Pictures of U shaped valleys, arretes, cirques-cwms-or-corries, moraines and drumlins drifted in unbidden until I snapped to and realised that this was the very music I used to listen to constantly while preparing for my A-Levels. A period of silence allowed me to complete the bit I was working on, but I shall have to go over it again to check for unwanted diversions having intruded into the code.
I used the Universum image some time ago when trying out ideas for my website. I had uncharacteristically tidied up since, and couldn’t find a copy of the image, or its name, or the artist. All I had was an edited monochrome fragment in an old draft webpage. What I want, I said to myself, is the visual equivalent of one of those iPhone apps where you can record a snatch of a song and it will tell you what it is and where you can get it. After a brief google I came across Tin Eye (http://www.tineye.com) where I uploaded my image fragment and it pointed me to the very image at Wikimedia Commons which, I now remember, is where I got it from in the first place. I currently prefer the colourised version, but may use the original again sometime now I know where to find it.
I am sufficiently old to be overawed by the utter cleverness of this whole process, especially the guys at Tin Eye.
Universum – Flammarion woodcut, Paris 1888, colored by Heikenwaelder Hugo, Wien 1998. Original for Flammarion’s 1888 L’atmosphère : météorologie populaire (p. 163).
All due thanks to Wikimedia Commons.
The image is described, in my brutal translation, as “A missionary of the middle ages tells that he has found the place where Heaven and earth meet”. If so, I am convinced, it was somewhere near Hay, in fact I think I know where. About 8 miles from here is Capel-Y-Ffin where the artist Eric Gill and his followers lived in some notoriety in the former monastery in the 1920’s. It was here that he designed the Gill Sans typeface which I use a lot. Capel-Y-Ffin was described by a Victorian clergyman who lived there as a place where the boundary between the two worlds was “Thin”. There is definitely a splendid feeling of calm and grace about the church when you visit.