Peter Spreenberg of Move Design, creator of n_Gen – a sharp-eyed Photoshop parody that critiques current trends in contemporary design practice – talks to app-art.org about the project that hopes to answer a lot of questions.
Q: First off, n_Gen is clearly a satire on contemporary design habits. Was this the sole intention of the project, or did you have some other agendas or aims in mind before you started?
A: n_Gen represents a combination of objectives. It was first exhibited through ioResearch’s 10th edition of The Remedi Project, and for this we were parodying contemporary design habits and what we see as the emulation of celebrity design currently in vogue. It was presented as a kind of in-joke for designers who would recognize the work of their heroes. It was also an attempt to respond to an undercurrent in the design world, every designer’s wish for a ‘magic design machine’ that could crank out finished designs by simply pressing a button.
But in fact, the concepts underlying n_Gen represent the culmination of research and explorations we have been engaged in over many years. In some of our past work, we have developed systems that build graphics on the fly, using software algorithms that yield random and unpredictable visual results. Most often, the resulting designs are quite raw and ugly, but once in a while, you get images of sublime and surprising beauty.
In part, this was driven by a desire to speed up the design and production process, but we also were interested in creating new and unusual imagery. We have wondered if it is possible to create algorithms and formulae for designs that are not simply random assemblages of imagery, but are more ‘intelligent’, informed and behave according to a set of rules. What we’re really getting at is: Is there a universal code for beauty?
By analyzing what we believe to be successful designs, is it possible to determine formulae for what is pleasing to the eye? What are the rules and principles that talented designers instinctively employ in their work and can these rules be simulated by a computer program?
Q: As a design firm yourself, you must be aware that you’re subjecting yourselves and your client work to criticism in the same way that you are others. Is there a Move Design plug-in available for n_Gen? If not, why?
A: The Design Modules that most closely reflect our current aesthetic are perhaps Spacefarm (although it’s a bit too techy and over the top for our taste), and Urbivore, which is already becoming a bit passe. I guess we’d like to think that we’re beyond having a recognizable style, that we’re nebulous and always evolving. But of course we probably do. I think maybe we’re too close to it to see it. Perhaps it’s up to someone else to do a parody of us, the Move Design module.
Q: n_Gen mimics the interface of Adobe Photoshop. Is there a critical reason for this to be so? Do you think your project would have been as successful if it hadn’t adopted that familiar look and feel? What does this say about "radical" interface design practices?
A: We designed it this way because we wanted the interface to look familiar, generic and vanilla so that the aesthetics of the content and the concept behind the design machine would stand out. We weren’t trying to make a statement with the interface, in fact we wanted it to be understated and invisible. What better way to make something invisible than to make it familiar and conventional.
As a design firm, we enjoy and appreciate radical, outrageous and unconventional design as much as anyone, but having designed quite a few user interfaces, we feel that this is one area that requires restraint. It may sound boring, but we still believe in usability. Innovative interface is great for challenging convention and experimentation, but if you’re creating a tool or utility that will be used by people for extended periods of time, it only makes sense to do something that won’t annoy them.
Q: There is something inherently amusing about the capricious nature of the [ n_Generate ] button, and how that contrasts with the prescriptive view modes (Poster, Flyer, Web Page, etc). Is this a subtle comment on the sort of work you’re asked to do commercially? Do you think there’s any credibility in suggesting that there might be a serious break from this sort of stale corporate new media usage by deploying radical systems (such as generative software) in their place?
A: Branding is a fairly recent marketing concept that has been applied to everything from products and services to fashion, music and films. Even the attitude and speaking voice of your local Starbucks employee is something that has been branded (or at least they’re trying to do this!)
And of course user interface is not immune from this phenomenon. In many of the projects we’ve worked on, there is a desire to brand the ‘user experience.’ This is a pretty high level concept that usually ends up getting diluted to the point where one brands the user experience by shaving just the right amount of pixels off the edges of the user interface buttons and applies the product logo to the desktop icons.
It was only natural for us to try to apply this branding approach, ad nauseam, to the n_Gen interface. There was a sort of sick satisfaction in overdoing it, we even invented our own product-ized verb/action/interface element that contained the product name. What self-respecting product manager wouldn’t aim for this? I think in a way, we were acting as we imagined our own most unrestrained client might.
Q: The issue of authorship seems to make people groan these days, but how do you think writing generative software will change peoples’ perceptions of creativity and authorship in a digital environment? Have we already experienced a transformation but not realised it?
A: One of the things we enjoy about n_Gen is how detached it makes you as a designer. You can’t claim total credit for a design that looks great (all you did was press a button) but you also can’t be held responsible for a horrid design either (all you did was press a button!).
In creating n_Gen, we wanted to emphasize using computers for design in a way that is often overlooked – that is, using the computer’s inherent capability and time-honored status as an automation device. So many of us in the design world spend so much of our time doing arduous and repetitive tasks day in and day out, tasks that could easily be automated if we only knew how.
We see a lot of software out there that is intended to streamline the production process, but it’s as if the design/conceptualizing process is a sacred cow that mustn’t be touched, as if creativity and hard work go hand in hand. Of course, we don’t seriously believe that a machine will ever replace the subtle and unpredictable creative capabilities of the human mind. But perhaps there is some middle ground, a way of supplementing what the designer does anyway and automating the repetitive, routine parts of the process.
Part of the reason for creating n_Gen was for fun but also as a tongue-in-cheek admonishment, perhaps to take a bit of the wind out of the sails of the star designers we see revered on the web. A bit of ego bashing, as if to say, "don’t think you can’t be replaced." We’re merely trying to show people, designers in particular, that a style, no matter how new or unconventional, is just a style. Even ‘no style’ is a style. Graphic design virtuosity is not that rare or special and as much as we love beautiful design, applying a pretty skin to something structurally ordinary is not that interesting to us anymore. I suppose we’re just trying to wake people up a bit and suggest that maybe there’s more to design than throwing nice pictures on top of conventional information structures.
We’re interested in making design available to everyone in the same way that desktop publishing software leveled the playing field for a lot of people. I know a lot of designers will probably be angered and threatened by this approach, but I’m old enough to remember a time when doing computer graphics was beyond the reach of anyone but a select few. And now, just about anyone who can afford a PC and some graphics software can call themselves a graphic designer. I think this is okay, because look at the richness, quantity and diversity of design we’ve seen since the introduction of the Mac.
Designers need to realize that they’ve had a monopoly on digital visualization for some time now, and that time is coming to an end. In the same way that typographers, video editors and specialists in other fields have seen their rarified positions erode as computers have become ever more sophisticated and ever more affordable and available to the general public, designers must now begin to see that they too will either go the way of the dinosaur, or they will adapt, as all the typographers and video editors have. It will be painful for some, but it’s a natural, evolutionary process.
Desktop publishing opened design up to a lot of people with no training, but after playing around and making a few really ugly newsletters, the wisest individuals soon realized that this was just another fancy tool and that they could only go so far before they needed someone with true talent and an aesthetic sensibility to come in and do it properly. We sincerely hope that n_Gen, or some other tool like it, has the same effect. Because what it really does is educate people about the value of good design. It shows us that really great design is more than the tool you’re using, and a talented designer is more than someone who is proficient at Photoshop or Flash.
Q: What’s the future of application software, in general?
A: Application software is normally very purposeful and, as it should be, optimized for accomplishing a specific set of tasks. We’d like to see applications become more entertaining. This may seem like a contradiction – when one is trying to accomplish a task quickly and efficiently, the last thing needed is to be distracted by some annoyance masquerading as fun. But if the entertainment was an inherent part of the application, something that was inseparable from the application’s fundamental purpose, we believe this could have a positive impact on how people relate to computers and their work. Some of us spend our entire day in front of the computer, we may as well get some enjoyment out of it.
We’d also like to see more automation in design applications. It’s more efficient to write a few lines of code that generates imagery and let the computer rip for a few minutes than to meticulously create an image or animation pixel by pixel, frame by frame. Obviously, it may never be possible to automate completely some styles of work, and most designers don’t, and won’t, know how to program, so the automation needs to be made accessible. The key to this is in the user interface, making it easy for people to automate repetitive tasks as well as operations that are currently not seen as being automate-able (is that a word?)
Q: And your future plans for n_Gen?
A: n_Gen is currently a demo created with Macromedia Director. We are working on developing n_Gen as a ‘real’ application in a more robust language that will enable more features and capabilities. Some of these Gen as a ‘real’ application in a more robust language fonts, and other assets. We also intend to give users the ability to create their own Design Modules. The tricky part of this is not the technology but the underlying knowledge base and the user interface. In order to create a Design Module, there needs to be an easy way for the user to be cognizant of the difference between the assets and the layout, their content vs. their design. Design Modules are a bit like templates except that they are design aware, ‘page aware’, flexible and forgiving. A bit like an expert system, I suppose, that knows which things are fixed, unbreakable structures and which things are flexible and open ended.