‘Drag ‘n drop’: design’s playful essence?
Are ‘swiftness and spontaneity’ still precious values after the advent of complex back-lit fields and facia like the app?
I can’t escape the feeling that, as a designer, it is of chief importance for me to be able to get as close to creation via pure thought as possible — that the more barriers to free play, or ‘drag ‘n drop’, there are, the less creative I am able to be.
But speed and spontaneity in creative practices are in fact exclusively modern values. Indeed, for many thousands of years artists, designers and makers harboured far fewer — if any — of the creative principals, techniques and values found in today’s (or yesterday’s) studios.
Could T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland have been conceived in 1922 without the instant effective publication offered by the typewriter?
The utterly time-consuming task of placing individual movable metal type pieces across a composition stick — literally building the structure of a page piece by piece — meant that a composition had to be plotted and planned before the production of the printed page could begin.
The typewriter was an early form of automation that enabled the modern writer to experiment with free association; where a printed sentence or passage could be juxtaposed with another — not in the imagination but on the material, printed plane of the artefact.
This affect conjured a tremendous sense of ‘outing’ on the writer’s behalf — a greater othering of artist from work. The author no longer needed to envision how a handwritten text might finally be rendered on the page, for publication was no longer the end of a linear production process. The archetypically impersonal gestalt of the printed page was guaranteed by the typewriter; its neat and neutral metal type forms enabled a process of writing-by-printing that was devoid of the compromised unclarity of hand-writing — the manifest fidelities of the angst-ridden modern writer.
The typewriter was the medium which brought us authors such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and E.E. Cummings; and it is one of several important moments in the development of some of the core creative values that we nurture, however unconsciously, as designers and spectators.
Other key and perhaps the more popularly celebrated of these moments — occurring in the visual arts — were those developments in painting that lead to Impressionism and its offshoots; movements such as Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism.
These movements saw artists developing new dynamic techniques — not concerned with gradual and technically intensive reproduction, such as the illusion of pictorial space and perspective. Indeed, some of the greatest innovations that emerged from each of these movements were those which enabled for the swift and precise reproduction of fleeting and almost intangibly momentary impressions: light hues arrested; colour, shape and emotion apparently forged in pigment.
Many new practices have been developed since these early modernistic innovations; both in letters and in painterly media, and all occurring mainly around the end of the Nineteenth Century and in the early decades of the Twentieth.
It would of course be crude to nominate speed and spontaneity as the chief outcomes or even the conscious or explicit aims of any of these movements — that is not the purpose of this reminder. The point is to recognise that the developments of modern art and design were ones that brought forward new practices and affects such as speed and spontaneity; the then curiously conscious employment of feeling, imagination, violence and inspiration — thereby crystallising these as palpable affects; thereby forming new values by converting the very production of the artwork to performance.
The minting of new value codes and qualifications for the modern era can also be observed throughout the history of modern art and design. Architecture also experienced, as it were, this electrification; acting in philosophical unison with all art and design, architects employed swift, inspired, rationalised expression which lead to new material innovations, and a new enthusiastic embrace of materials such as steel and concrete. Moreover, logistic and managerial rationalisation enable for the development of factory, or ‘system’ builds.
This new approach facilitated the mass economy production of flats and apartment buildings in the 1960s — notably in Britain after the Second World War. For all of the problems that would later emerge with these processes, at the time, architects were able to enjoy the apparent reduction of the great practical gulf between the stroke of the pen and the construction site.
We can also see analogous developments in graphic design (including the coining of the term itself by typographer William Addison Dwiggins as recently as 1922) where many of the aesthetic principles developed by artists such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, and the architectural innovations of Walter Gropius, were transferred almost directly to the printed page.
But I want to tie off this tugboat trip through history in the 1980s; namely at the point of the introduction of the computer to graphic design, and the subsequent (and recently extremely rapid) expansion of creative software like the Adobe Creative Suite.
On the one hand it could be suggested that the transference of the processes and techniques of graphic design — from the paste board and facilities not at all far removed from those of the painter — to a back-lit field of pixels has changed nothing from the point of view of the practice of the profession. Indeed, bar several [ongoing] stylistic and somewhat philosophical quibbles during what became know as ‘the postmodern moment’ (with radical technical disobedience occurring mostly in and around the music industry and pop visual cultures) design has remained much the same profession.
On the other hand it could however be argued that such an observation is far to superficial. For the introduction of the website alone — as a piece of design (which, arguably, it was not during the first five to ten years of the internet’s existence) — has changed an awful lot; and, I want to suggest, it has meant that many of the modernist values listed above — of swift spontaneous composition — have to be reconsidered.
As I’ve suggested, drag ‘n drop, or the freedom to compose with absolute swiftness, is a technique. Moreover, it is a modernist innovation that apparently closed the gulf between inspiration and application. It is thus an important technique; one that effectively underwrites modern aesthetic values. But despite the fact that this technique is still supported and has even been enhanced by the introduction of all-in-one software packages, the challenges that are presented to the designer by the new interfaces, let alone what new aesthetics these new media may yet surprise us with, are far more complex, multilayered and as yet underdeveloped — let alone fully understood.
This makes the process of designing user interfaces (UX design), websites and devices for digital marketing curiously difficult. It leaves traps for designers who still wish to employ older, what we could term ‘painterly’, techniques to these new surfaces.
Graphic design has remained much the same as painting for most of its existence. The painter (working in whichever medium: pigment, paper collage, photo collage, etc.) composes freely until some opaquely defined end point — at which the artist is free to step back and convert to the status of the observer.
The graphic designer operates in very much the same way as the painter: there is a sense of finality; of ‘finishing’ — where the paint, the glue or the ink are allowed to set, after which point any further changes won’t be likely or even possible.
But the pixel field of the website or digital application, on the other hand, never rests; there is no end point — nothing drys or sets.
The website is in part architectural. It is experienced at multiple sensory levels; it is as tactile (open to haptic perception) as it is visual. (However we still refer to [web-]‘pages’; the old medium apparently doesn’t vanish from our perception.)
Moreover the construction of this ‘page’ (for it rather resembles architectural construction than ‘composition’) is not a straightforward open field of free play — the ‘drag ‘n drop’ of painterly design practices. The design and production of a website and its code is technically intensive. Indeed it requires the designer to be quite the polymath. She must think several moves ahead. Alas, as designers will protest, it can be very time consuming.
Should these observations lead us to conclude that what we need is the conversion of the processes of designing for this new medium to closely resemble those of what I have called ‘painterly’ design practices?
For the typesetters of the early modern (Gutenberg) era, speeding up the production process of a printed page meant the gradual redundancy of much of the graphic artistry of the medieval scribes — who’s calligraphic expertise was notorious for its technical demands. Indeed the early modern process involving movable metal type forms and the mass reproduction of identical prints was archetypical of industry itself; a prototype for all industrial mass production processes, and arguably triggering some of the most vast and sweeping social changes the world (certainly the West) has ever seen.
Today, the computer has accelerated this quasi evolutionary principle of ever swifter execution of tasks to lightning fast speeds. Indeed we hardly notice the ‘procession’ in processes anymore. But as digital interfaces become ever more important is it not wise to reconsider the aforementioned modernist values?
Perhaps it is now better to liken — in both complexity and intimacy — the complex gestalt of the medieval illuminated manuscript and the richly intricate, vivid and compressed back-lit structure of the stained glass window to our new ‘smart’ surfaces?