Finding the spot where art and science meet

How can we reach a utopian existence where both creativity and logic can coexist and enhance one another.

NOTE: This article is based on a conversation I had with Ewa Gasperowicz, Front End Developer on the Google Developer Relations Team, for our YouTube series called “Designer Vs Developer”, which you can see here on our Chrome Channel. You can also listen to a longer version of the conversation by downloading or subscribing to our podcast on iTunes or Google Music.

Whenever I think the UX world is over regulating the creative process, the story of Jonas Salk, the inventor of the first polio vaccine, reminds me that there’s always hope and a way to find that creative spark.

Salk wanted to establish an institute that encouraged cooperative, yet argumentative, dialogue between scientists. The goal was to create a space that allowed everyone to ask and answer questions while encouraging critical thought. This method, which is also known as Socratic thinking, draws out ideas and presumptions for scientists to develop.

When Salk began looking for an architect to fulfill his vision, a colleague recommended Louis Kahn, who had recently given a lecture titled ‘Order in Science and Art.’ The legend goes that when they met, they devised a plan and aspired to create a space where “art and science can coexist.”

Salk Institute, Photo: Gabriel Salvatierra, Creative Commons

Following this brief, in 1960 the Salk Institute for Biological Studies was established. Taking inspiration from monasteries, Kahn sought to create a place that could be an “intellectual retreat”; a place that could provoke thought and encourage discovery.

Jonas Salk was considered a creative scientist and Louis Kahn worked closely with engineers and contractors on his buildings. Both had a keen appreciation for the other’s discipline.

Salk Institute. Photo: Jason Taellious, Creative Commons

This is the aspiration of every tech and design team: to reach a perfect state where both disciplines can complement each other, playing off one another and growing together. The UX movement, I feel, initially intended to meet in the middle and find this exact spot. In other words, it was meant to be an analytical and academic approach to design that could justify the creative process. Before that, it seemed designers went unchallenged because we sit in our magical boxes and create dreams with no explanation of how or why they exist (save for some convoluted statement about how we’re trying to use our art to define the meaning of life.) By using various research methods to inform the creative process, the UX movement believed that it could reinforce design’s value and its reason to exist in practical terms. If you can prove the effectiveness of what you created then it would be hard to dispute why you chose that particular shade of lapis lazuli blue. That was the idea anyway.

The problem in my opinion is that the UX world has gone too far. Being so data driven makes us lose our spark of ingenuity, resorting to UI patterns that we repeat because a study says one model works better than another. It seems to me that the pendulum has swung way too far to the data-driven side and we have lost our discovery and playful ways in the process.

Late last year, I attended a talk given by Luke Wroblewski, who remarked that whenever he heard the term data-driven, he would correct the person telling them, “no, no, we aren’t data driven, we’re data informed.” That is where I feel we need to push the needle back a bit. Having a well-researched starting point is fabulous, but its purpose should help inform our designs and not be the sole driving force of what we create.

We can expand on existing designs but should always seek to create new ones. Perhaps even looking back throughout design history, sometimes known as traveling through the earth, to discover the artistry that came before us. Then after reviewing these discoveries, we can use them as a source of inspiration to create something new. This is what Louis Kahn did at the Salk Institute and this is what we strive to do in the industry as well. Rather than resorting to soulless, repetitive and Modernism inspired frameworks, libraries, and design patterns, we can make products, apps or fun little things on the web that have a soul.

Ewa and the team were able to find that sweet spot with Santa Tracker, a collection of apps released over the Christmas period, with the grand finale on Christmas day, which allowed children to track where Santa was delivering presents in fun and imaginative way. These games allowed children to explore while learning how to do things such as code. Surely this is what we all are trying to achieve, even in the corporate world — making things that have reason to exist.

Louis Kahn believed that “Every building must have… its own soul.” And I believe that whatever we do on the web or in the UX world, we should seek to make things that have a soul and a deeper meaning otherwise we may lose that opportunity to discover that spot where art and science can coexist.

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