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Commentary: Paul Graham on `Taste for Makers'

This note is a commentary on one of Paul Graham's papers that is available at his site. It presents another `parallelogue' where I comment on the piece pretty much paragraph by paragraph.

DN Title Graham Ness
Leading Quotes Quotes are introduced at the beginning of the paper: The paper begins with a number of Quotes
Kuhn on Copernicus "...Copernicus' aesthetic objections to [equants] provided one essential motive for his rejection of the Ptolemaic system...."- Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution I don't get this quote, but then that probably doesn't matter much as it doesn't seem central to anything.
Rich on Beauty "All of us had been trained by Kelly Johnson and believed fanatically in his insistence that an airplane that looked beautiful would fly the same way."- Ben Rich, Skunk Works I don't know enough about aeronautics to have any idea if this makes sense or not, but I'd be curious for a bit more about the relationship between beauty and aeronautical performance.
Hardy on Beauty "Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics."- G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician's Apology I'll take a mathematician's word on this one. I'd say the same about code.
The Issue of Taste I was talking recently to a friend who teaches at MIT. His field is hot now and every year he is inundated by applications from would-be graduate students. "A lot of them seem smart," he said. "What I can't tell is whether they have any kind of taste." Having `been there' I can say it's also pretty hard to tell if they are really smart, too. Some of the most impressive during the first few weeks seem to have faded to oblivion as early as with the first round of mid-term exams. So, as far as I can see, `taste' is just like lots of other things. It's hard to tell if it's real and reliable. Paritcularly at first glance.
Taste and Design Taste. You don't hear that word much now. And yet we still need the underlying concept, whatever we call it. What my friend meant was that he wanted students who were not just good technicians, but who could use their technical knowledge to design beautiful things. I can't speak for Graham's friend. But `taste' isn't always a `constructive' resource. Many a good food critic---often epitomes of good taste---can't cook at all. Taste has many dimensions, of which only some are creative.
Mathematical Beauty Mathematicians call good work "beautiful," and so, either now or in the past, have scientists, engineers, musicians, architects, designers, writers, and painters. Is it just a coincidence that they used the same word, or is there some overlap in what they meant? If there is an overlap, can we use one field's discoveries about beauty to help us in another? Wait a minute. Rap artists may call good work "beautiful" too. And there are lots of other potentially relevant words: interesting, deep, profound, seminal, ... words are just words, after all.
Summary: The Issue of Taste For those of us who design things, these are not just theoretical questions. If there is such a thing as beauty, we need to be able to recognize it. We need good taste to make good things. Instead of treating beauty as an airy abstraction, to be either blathered about or avoided depending on how one feels about airy abstractions, let's try considering it as a practical question: how do you make good stuff? The relationship between beauty and design quality runs along a dangerous ridge of tautology. This all runs the danger of existing in a pretty airy space. But I'll go with the `how do you make good stuff' as a concrete realization of something that interests me, and I hope we're about to move into that discussion.
Subjectivity If you mention taste nowadays, a lot of people will tell you that "taste is subjective." They believe this because it really feels that way to them. When they like something, they have no idea why. It could be because it's beautful, or because their mother had one, or because they saw a movie star with one in a magazine, or because they know it's expensive. Their thoughts are a tangle of unexamined impulses. `Taste is subjective' and `I don't know why I like something' aren't equivalent statements. Something subjective can still be either carefully thought out or not thought out at all. Similarly, something well thought out may or may not be tasteful. Much like something not well thought out.

So I don't find any necessity / sufficiency relationship between subjectivity and carefulness of thought. Likes and taste are independent of one another. And the case for the relationship between taste and consideration remains to be researched before I'd have much confidence in believing it either way.

The Coloring Book Most of us are encouraged, as children, to leave this tangle unexamined. If you make fun of your little brother for coloring people green in his coloring book, your mother is likely to tell you something like "you like to do it your way and he likes to do it his way." If your mother is interested in teaching you tolerance instead of taste, that is.
Your mother Your mother at this point is not trying to teach you important truths about aesthetics. She's trying to get the two of you to stop bickering. Or giving you an early lesson in tolerating other's aesthetic sense.
Half Truths Like many of the half-truths adults tell us, this one contradicts other things they tell us. After dinning into you that taste is merely a matter of personal preference, they take you to the museum and tell you that you should pay attention because Leonardo is a great artist. But whether she is saying so because she admires Leonardo's taste or simply because she has high regard for his skill still remains to be seen.
Great Artist What goes through the kid's head at this point? What does he think "great artist" means? After having been told several hundred times that everyone just likes to do things their own way, he is unlikely to head straight for the conclusion that a great artist is someone whose work is better than the others'. A far more likely theory, in his Ptolemaic model of the universe, is that a great artist is something that's good for you, like broccoli, because someone said so in a book. And, until you have had some substantial chance to develop your own sense of taste, this may well be the best you're going to do for a good long while.
Personal Preference Saying that taste is just personal preference is a good way to prevent disputes. The trouble is, it's not true. You feel this when you start to design things. I remain unconvinced. Saying `taste is more than personal preference' requires some proof that is not advanced here. This is a limp argument at best. It smacks of saying `Taste is the personal preferences of those with good taste'---probably true, but also tautologous and therfore of limited value at most.
Football Players Lessons Whatever job people do, they naturally want to do better. Football players like to win games. CEOs like to increase earnings. It's a matter of pride, and a real pleasure, to get better at your job. But if your job is to design things, and there is no such thing as beauty, then there is no way to get better at your job. If taste is just personal preference, then everyone's is already perfect: you like whatever you like, and that's it. I think this is non sequitur. Beauty is only one aspect of design, and every other dimension of a design surely can be improved, and we can get better at it.
Tastes Change As in any job, as you continue to design things, you'll get better at it. Your tastes will change. And, like anyone who gets better at their job, you'll know you're getting better. If so, your old tastes were not merely different, but worse. Poof goes the axiom that taste can't be wrong. It probably isn't a good idea to ever describe a taste as wrong. However, this doesn't meant that tastes are simple. For example, perhaps tastes evolve in an onion-skin pattern. Thus across time tastes may wax and wane. To describe them as wrong at any point belies the fact that the same taste may, at some later point, be quite `right'.
Relativism Relativism is fashionable at the moment, and that may hamper you from thinking about taste, even as yours grows. But if you come out of the closet and admit, at least to yourself, that there is such a thing as good and bad design, then you can start to study good design in detail. How has your taste changed? When you made mistakes, what caused you to make them? What have other people learned about design? The relationship between `studying design' and the actual quality of design seems to me to be problematical. I'd like to see some research that suggests that `studying design' helps. This seems to me to be a particularly relevant question because most of the good computer program designers I have known have never studied the design process. Their design instincts seem to be intuitive.
Ideas of Beauty Once you start to examine the question, it's surprising how much different fields' ideas of beauty have in common. The same principles of good design crop up again and again. This may well be true, but I'd like more of a description of what is meant. The notion that `ideas of beauty' are common across fields is quite tantalizing, but needs some examples to rise above `argument by assertion' to me.
Good Design is Simple Good design is simple. You hear this from math to painting. In math it means that a shorter proof tends to be a better one. Where axioms are concerned, especially, less is more. It means much the same thing in programming. For architects and designers it means that beauty should depend on a few carefully chosen structural elements rather than a profusion of superficial ornament. (Ornament is not in itself bad, only when it's camouflage on insipid form.) Similarly, in painting, a still life of a few carefully observed and solidly modelled objects will tend to be more interesting than a stretch of flashy but mindlessly repetitive painting of, say, a lace collar. In writing it means: say what you mean and say it briefly. I have a problem with this. It treats `simple' too simply. There are different aspects to simplicity, and what is simple in concept may be complex in detail and vice-versa. And while Graham appears to be quite comfortable with references to Renaissance sources, what about more recent literature. For example ...there is always a well-known solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong or Unluckily, it is difficult for a certain type of mind to grasp the concept of insolubility. These strike me as certainly equally plausible observations, perhaps actually more plausible than Graham's view of simplicity.
Productivity It seems strange to have to emphasize simplicity. You'd think simple would be the default. Ornate is more work. But something seems to come over people when they try to be creative. Beginning writers adopt a pompous tone that doesn't sound anything like the way they speak. Designers trying to be artistic resort to swooshes and curlicues. Painters discover that they're expressionists. It's all evasion. Underneath the long words or the "expressive" brush strokes, there is not much going on, and that's frightening. There are many kinds of work, and different stresses associated with them. In my experience most `ornate' work is really `busy work' and doesn't really occupy much deep brain activity. This means that, for me at least, it is easy work.
Simple When you're forced to be simple, you're forced to face the real problem. When you can't deliver ornament, you have to deliver substance. I suppose. But I've seen some `simple' attacks that didn't actually ever encounter the `real problem', so while ornament may sometimes be used as a cover for lack of substance, so may some deceptive simple attacks. You have to be careful anyway, but perhaps it is a bit easier to be careful about simple attacks than it is to deal with the ornamental.
Good Design is Timeless Good design is timeless. In math, every proof is timeless unless it contains a mistake. So what does Hardy mean when he says there is no permanent place for ugly mathematics? He means the same thing Kelly Johnson did: if something is ugly, it can't be the best solution. There must be a better one, and eventually someone will discover it. This whole line of argument seems to me to make a deep structure assumption that there is only one dimension to `beauty'. Yet, we often seem be willing to admit that there are more than one kind. For some, `beauty' may reside in terseness. For others, it may be expository power. In food, it often consists of balancing things across several dimensions. `Beautiful food' may sometime be visually pretty, but it may also be incorporate other dimensions. And it is hard for me to imagine `timelessness' to be an objective of design in food.
Surpassing Aiming at timelessness is a way to make yourself find the best answer: if you can imagine someone surpassing you, you should do it yourself. Some of the greatest masters did this so well that they left little room for those who came after. Every engraver since Durer has had to live in his shadow. This may work for Graham, but it doesn't work for me. I have know clue how to `aim at timelessness'. And `long life' certainly isn't the objective of all of the situations where I have to design. In financial marketplaces, for example, systems are often built with only a very short time horizion in mind. We build a system to help us evaluate a particular merger, for example. We have no interest in the system surviving beyond a very limited decision period. `Aiming at timelessness' would truly be a waste of resources.
Fashion Aiming at timelessness is also a way to evade the grip of fashion. Fashions almost by definition change with time, so if you can make something that will still look good far into the future, then its appeal must derive more from merit and less from fashion. I find this whole line of argument somewhat self-contradictory. History seems to me to be replete with situations where fashion comes into vogue and then goes out of it. And many few designs or approaches truly seem to be timeless in the broadest sense of that word.
Appeal to Future Strangely enough, if you want to make something that will appeal to future generations, one way to do it is to try to appeal to past generations. It's hard to guess what the future will be like, but we can be sure it will be like the past in caring nothing for present fashions. So if you can make something that appeals to people today and would also have appealed to people in 1500, there is a good chance it will appeal to people in 2500. The notion of designing to `appeal to past generations' seems to me to be just about as complicated as designing to appeal to the `future'. I wonder if there's much evidence that directly designing to `appeal' to some other generations---whether past or future---has any salutary effect on the quality of the designs that are produced. It wouldn't surprise me to find that it didn't.
Good Design solves Right Problem Good design solves the right problem. The typical stove has four burners arranged in a square, and a dial to control each. How do you arrange the dials? The simplest answer is to put them in a row. But this is a simple answer to the wrong question. The dials are for humans to use, and if you put them in a row, the unlucky human will have to stop and think each time about which dial matches which burner. Better to arrange the dials in a square like the burners. Why should all of the burners be the same size? Maybe they should be different sized, and the dials should reflect size, not position. Not that we want to design stoves here, needless to say, but just to raise the issue that the notion of the `right problem' isn't---in itself---very simple, and if that's the case then spending a great deal of time looking for the `right problem' may really take us too long to allow us to effectively solve our real world problems.
Industriousness A lot of bad design is industrious, but misguided. In the mid twentieth century there was a vogue for setting text in sans-serif fonts. These fonts are closer to the pure, underlying letterforms. But in text that's not the problem you're trying to solve. For legibility it's more important that letters be easy to tell apart. It may look Victorian, but a Times Roman lowercase g is easy to tell from a lowercase y. I'm not sure that my eyes spend much time distinguishing `g's from `y's anyway. Indeed, I don't think my eyes see much of individual letters. Also, legibility may not be our only objective in printing. I once worked in an environment where each line of text was worth about $10,000 to us. In such a world, space may count for more than legibility, particularly if we do not expect each of the lines to be read in a way that demands speed.
Problems Improved Problems can be improved as well as solutions. In software, an intractable problem can usually be replaced by an equivalent one that's easy to solve. Physics progressed faster as the problem became predicting observable behavior, instead of reconciling it with scripture. I'm not sold. Does Graham really believe that `an intractable problem can usually be replaced by an equivalent one that's easy to solve? In my experience lots of intractable problems are just that---intractable.
Good Design is Suggestive Good design is suggestive. Jane Austen's novels contain almost no description; instead of telling you how everything looks, she tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself. Likewise, a painting that suggests is usually more engaging than one that tells. Everyone makes up their own story about the Mona Lisa. Current research suggests at least the possibility that the enduring attraction of the Mona Lisa may be more due to the fact that it incorporates an optical illusion than due to some `envisioning the scene for yourself'. And while many find Austen's novels alluring, many don't. The suggestion implicit in design may impact some favorably while leaving others quite cold. In any event, it seems hard to me to explicitly pursue a goal of making a particular design `suggestive' in any useful way.
Use it how you want In architecture and design, this principle means that a building or object should let you use it how you want: a good building, for example, will serve as a backdrop for whatever life people want to lead in it, instead of making them live as if they were executing a program written by the architect. This seems a surprising turn for Graham, from his espousal other places of user-centric design. It ends up leaving me completely confused about whether we should, or should not, spend design efforts understanding the user. Other places he seems to suggest the central importance of user needs and wishes, while here he seems quite dismissive of them.
Basic Elements In software, it means you should give users a few basic elements that they can combine as they wish, like Lego. In math it means a proof that becomes the basis for a lot of new work is preferable to a proof that was difficult, but doesn't lead to future discoveries; in the sciences generally, citation is considered a rough indicator of merit. Or, in other circles, citation is regarded as a measure of the willingness to play politics. Look at the whole phenomenon of citation in blogs or other forms of net distributed information.

However, that being said, I think I am in substantial agreement with the notion that it is best to hand basic tools that strike at the essence of the problem over to the user, for them to use in their own creative and innovative ways.

Good Design is Slightly Funny Good design is often slightly funny. This one may not always be true. But Durer's engravings and Saarinen's womb chair and the Pantheon and the original Porsche 911 all seem to me slightly funny. Godel's incompleteness thorem seems like a practical joke. I don't think that this point works at all. At least not for me. Humor seems to me to be so essentially socio-centric while the problems for which we design generally transcend local sense of culture. Maybe I just don't get the `joke' in the Pantheon. But whatever it is, I have a hard time that a Thai used to temples covered with glittering glass would see the same humor in it that might attract someone from a different cultural tradition. What makes something funny is such a complicated issue in and of itself, that it seems to me to be of little use in considering how we might want to structure our designs.
Humor and Strength I think it's because humor is related to strength. To have a sense of humor is to be strong: to keep one's sense of humor is to shrug off misfortunes, and to lose one's sense of humor is to be wounded by them. And so the mark--or at least the prerogative---of strength is not to take oneself too seriously. The confident will often, like swallows, seem to be making fun of the whole process slightly, as Hitchcock does in his films or Bruegel in his paintings-- or Shakespeare, for that matter. I don't buy this at all. Some powerful people are funny, some aren't. Some funny people are powerful, some aren't. The relationship seems to me to be casual at best.
Not Humorless Good design may not have to be funny, but it's hard to imagine something that could be called humorless also being good design. I guess I just disagree. Belaboring the point probably won't help.
Good Design is hard Good design is hard. If you look at the people who've done great work, one thing they all seem to have in common is that they worked very hard. If you're not working hard, you're probably wasting your time. I'm going to reserve judgement on this one. Some good designers seem to me to design almost effortlessly, and do not show any of the usual signs of thinking that their work is `hard'. I associate `hard' work on design with mediochre designers attempting (and usually failing) to achieve greatness, much more than I associate it with great designers, but I don't know enough about the historical record yet to be at all sure about this.
Hard Problems imply Great Efforts Hard problems call for great efforts. In math, difficult proofs require ingenious solutions, and those tend to be interesting. Ditto in engineering. Some modern mathematics seems to me to truly require `great effort', but I don't generally associate `ingenious' with `hard'. If anything my intuition suggests the reverse.
Climb Mountain When you have to climb a mountain you toss everything unnecessary out of your pack. And so an architect who has to build on a difficult site, or a small budget, will find that he is forced to produce an elegant design. Fashions and flourishes get knocked aside by the difficult business of solving the problem at all. I like this point. Constraints often help produce good design. In my opinion, Philadelphia's greatest Chef actually cooked better when he was constrained early in his career by having to deliver $12.50 5 course meals, than he does now when he can charge any price (it's now about $125). He was tested by the constraints, and he was good enough to respond well to them.
Not All Hard is Good Not every kind of hard is good. There is good pain and bad pain. You want the kind of pain you get from going running, not the kind you get from stepping on a nail. A difficult problem could be good for a designer, but a fickle client or unreliable materials would not be. But not the kind of pain you get from running too much. And that's where the difficulty lies. Telling `nail' pain from `running' pain may not be so hard, but telling `good running pain' from `bad running pain' may be much harder. Just ask Jim Fixx or any anorexic runner.
Paintings of People In art, the highest place has traditionally been given to paintings of people. There is something to this tradition, and not just because pictures of faces get to press buttons in our brains that other pictures don't. We are so good at looking at faces that we force anyone who draws them to work hard to satisfy us. If you draw a tree and you change the angle of a branch five degrees, no one will know. When you change the angle of someone's eye five degrees, people notice. I didn't (or don't) know this. And it strikes me as wrong, although I will have to claim that my interest in art is quite amateur. People notice all kinds of things. A Klee may consist of only a few lines and still be clearly a face. And lots of Picassos have eyes that are a lot more than five degrees off kilter, and yet many of us love them. I don't tend to see faces, and yet I can spot an error in a page of complex code without seemingly much effort. And Oliver Sachs has charmed us with the story who mistook is wife for a hatrack.

Hoever, I don't see where the point is going anyway, it doesn't seem to fit in to the discussion here.

Bauhaus When Bauhaus designers adopted Sullivan's "form follows function," what they meant was, form should follow function. And if function is hard enough, form is forced to follow it, because there is no effort to spare for error. Wild animals are beautiful because they have hard lives. Philosophy, perhaps, but not design principles. The relationship between wild animals, hard lives and beauty is one for our philosophies, not for our reasoned design.
Good Design looks easy Good design looks easy. Like great athletes, great designers make it look easy. Mostly this is an illusion. The easy, conversational tone of good writing comes only on the eighth rewrite. For some authors, yes. But not for all. And not for many of the great ones, some of them seem to write effortlessly. Of course that may just be their `public face', they may work hard but in secret.
Seemingly Simple In science and engineering, some of the greatest discoveries seem so simple that you say to yourself, I could have thought of that. The discoverer is entitled to reply, why didn't you? But there are many reasons, not the least of which is is that `discovery' strikes us all (or me at least) at odd moments when the alignment of `what I know' is just right.
Leonardo Pen Sketches Some Leonardo heads are just a few lines. You look at them and you think, all you have to do is get eight or ten lines in the right place and you've made this beautiful portrait. Well, yes, but you have to get them in exactly the right place. The slightest error will make the whole thing collapse. And this raises a point that Graham leaves out of his explicit list. We'll treat it below. The notion is that `Good Design is Supple'.
Line drawings Line drawings are in fact the most difficult visual medium, because they demand near perfection. In math terms, they are a closed-form solution; lesser artists literally solve the same problems by successive approximation. One of the reasons kids give up drawing at ten or so is that they decide to start drawing like grownups, and one of the first things they try is a line drawing of a face. Smack! I don't know enough about this to be able to argue, but the analogies of line-drawings to `closed form solutions' are not immediately convincing to me.
Appearance of Ease In most fields the appearance of ease seems to come with practice. Perhaps what practice does is train your unconscious mind to handle tasks that used to require conscious thought. In some cases you literally train your body. An expert pianist can play notes faster than the brain can send signals to his hand. Likewise an artist, after a while, can make visual perception flow in through his eye and out through his hand as automatically as someone tapping his foot to a beat. Appearance of ease with respect to physical skills comes, it seems to me, from practice that may be substantially augmented by innate skill.
The Zone When people talk about being in "the zone," I think what they mean is that the spinal cord has the situation under control. Your spinal cord is less hesitant, and it frees conscious thought for the hard problems. I understand the concept of `the zone' when it is applied to physical activities, but it's applicability to design situations is problematical to me.
Good Design uses Symmetry Good design uses symmetry. I think symmetry may just be one way to achieve simplicity, but it's important enough to be mentioned on its own. Nature uses it a lot, which is a good sign. I find this a tantalizing principle, but I must confess that I am not really clear about what it means. I'd like to hear more about how nature exploits symmetry before I am willing to accept the point.
Repetition and Recursion There are two kinds of symmetry, repetition and recursion. Recursion means repetition in subelements, like the pattern of veins in a leaf. And Graham's use of `symmetry' seems somewhat metaphorical. I think I understand the simple, straightforward, notion of symmetry---as in a symmetrical object, but I don't really understand what `symmetry' is meant to suggest when one applies it to things like novels.
Unfashionable Symmetry is unfashionable in some fields now, in reaction to excesses in the past. Architects started consciously making buildings asymmetric in Victorian times and by the 1920s asymmetry was an explicit premise of modernist architecture. Even these buildings only tended to be asymmetric about major axes, though; there were hundreds of minor symmetries. Since I am not getting the analogue here, it is difficult to comment on this. But even if I did get it, I believe I would have difficulty seeing how this is relevant to the design milieu.
Writing Symmetry In writing you find symmetry at every level, from the phrases in a sentence to the plot of a novel. You find the same in music and art. Mosaics (and some Cezannes) get extra visual punch by making the whole picture out of the same atoms. Compositional symmetry yields some of the most memorable paintings, especially when two halves react to one another, as in the Creation of Adam or American Gothic. I am lost in `writing ... symmetry at every level'. I don't get what it means. And the issue of whether you get `extra visual punch' out of what Graham is calling symmetry here seems to me to be, at best, idiosyncratic.
Induction In math and engineering, recursion, especially, is a big win. Inductive proofs are wonderfully short. In software, a problem that can be solved by recursion is nearly always best solved that way. The Eiffel Tower looks striking partly because it is a recursive solution, a tower on a tower. I'm not convinced. In my experience one needs to be very careful about recursive solutions, as their looks may be deceptive. It is quite easy, for example to propose a recursive solution which is terse and easy to understand, but which nevertheless has terrible computational characteristics.

I'm not clear that the `look' of the Eiffel Tower has much to do with being a `recursive solution' or not. I've looked at it countless times, and am one of those counted among the `love it' group---while others seem to hate it. But its relation to `recursion and induction is a bit loose for me to be willing to generalize about.

Danger of Symmetry The danger of symmetry, and repetition especially, is that it can be used as a substitute for thought. Isn't this a danger that can equally well be associated with any number of different `modes' of thought?
Good Design resembles nature Good design resembles nature. It's not so much that resembling nature is intrinsically good as that nature has had a long time to work on the problem. It's a good sign when your answer resembles nature's. Maybe. But the whole notion of a piece of code `resembling' nature is a bit hard for me to swallow. I'm not quite sure what it would mean to `resemble' nature in this situation.
Copying OK It's not cheating to copy. Few would deny that a story should be like life. Working from life is a valuable tool in painting too, though its role has often been misunderstood. The aim is not simply to make a record. The point of painting from life is that it gives your mind something to chew on: when your eyes are looking at something, your hand will do more interesting work. I'm unclear about `few would deny that a story should be like life' means. I would suppose that it shouldn't `count out' such things as science fiction, but am unclear about what Graham is trying to suggest here.
Imitating Nature Imitating nature also works in engineering. Boats have long had spines and ribs like an animal's ribcage. In some cases we may have to wait for better technology: early aircraft designers were mistaken to design aircraft that looked like birds, because they didn't have materials or power sources light enough (the Wrights' engine weighed 152 lbs. and generated only 12 hp.) or control systems sophisticated enough for machines that flew like birds, but I could imagine little unmanned reconnaissance planes flying like birds in fifty years. Is this saying more than `starting from somewhere may well be easier than starting from nowhere'? If it's more than that, I don't get it.
Computer Power Now that we have enough computer power, we can imitate nature's method as well as its results. Genetic algorithms may let us create things too complex to design in the ordinary sense. It seems to me that there are some rather substantial assumptions behind this statement. Do computer simulations of genetic algorithms really imitate `nature's method'? I confess that I do not know, but it isn't obvious to me that the argument here really works.
Good Design is Redesign Good design is redesign. It's rare to get things right the first time. Experts expect to throw away some early work. They plan for plans to change. I don't know many experts who `plan' for plans to change. They often know full well that plans are quite likely to change, but generally find it a waste of time and energy to have too many `contingency' plans about this. Experts have a deep competence that allows them to function well when the situation does change, but they don't, at least in my experience, spend much time `planning' for such change.
Throw Work Away It takes confidence to throw work away. You have to be able to think, there's more where that came from. When people first start drawing, for example, they're often reluctant to redo parts that aren't right; they feel they've been lucky to get that far, and if they try to redo something, it will turn out worse. Instead they convince themselves that the drawing is not that bad, really---in fact, maybe they meant it to look that way. I agree. Past work should be viewed as `sunk cost', and it requires some real courage and intelligence to be willing to throw away work that represents substantial effort, even when `fixing' it would cost more than starting over.
Dangerous Territory Dangerous territory, that; if anything you should cultivate dissatisfaction. In Leonardo's drawings there are often five or six attempts to get a line right. The distinctive back of the Porsche 911 only appeared in the redesign of an awkward prototype. In Wright's early plans for the Guggenheim, the right half was a ziggurat; he inverted it to get the present shape. But here I cease to be sure. I'm not sure that `dissatisfaction' is a goal in any way. At the moment I don't know whether I believe great work is more the result of dissatisfaction or not.
Mistakes are Natural Mistakes are natural. Instead of treating them as disasters, make them easy to acknowledge and easy to fix. Leonardo more or less invented the sketch, as a way to make drawing bear a greater weight of exploration. Open-source software has fewer bugs because it admits the possibility of bugs. I guess I agree that `mistakes are natural.' But the road from there to `open-source software has fewer bugs' is an unclear journey to me. I am confused as to where this is going and why it is important.
Impact of Medium It helps to have a medium that makes change easy. When oil paint replaced tempera in the fifteenth century, it helped painters to deal with difficult subjects like the human figure because, unlike tempera, oil can be blended and overpainted. A good prototyping medium is useful. But prototyping and experimental stages of a process have different characteristics than other stages. The very mallability that makes something good for prototyping may make it bad for longer run use. The value depends on the circumstance.
Good Design Can Copy Good design can copy. Attitudes to copying often make a round trip. A novice imitates without knowing it; next he tries consciously to be original; finally, he decides it's more important to be right than original. Aren't we back to the `onion-skin' again? Whether copying is appropriate in particular situations depends on the intimate characteristics of those situations.
Imitation Unknowing imitation is almost a recipe for bad design. If you don't know where your ideas are coming from, you're probably imitating an imitator. Raphael so pervaded mid-nineteenth century taste that almost anyone who tried to draw was imitating him, often at several removes. It was this, more than Raphael's own work, that bothered the Pre-Raphaelites. I'm not sure I believe this. First, I'm not sure there's much difference between `imitating an imitator' and `imitating someone great who happend to be having a bad day.' As Picasso is reputed to have said: `Not all Picassos are Picassos.' Second, as to the specifics about Raphael, it's not clear to me what that has to do with this problem.
Ambitious The ambitious are not content to imitate. The second phase in the growth of taste is a conscious attempt at originality. But I assume it's a rather fine line between `being content' to imitate and `being willing' to imitate---which is elsewhere here described as a sign of strength.
Great Masters I think the greatest masters go on to achieve a kind of selflessness. They just want to get the right answer, and if part of the right answer has already been discovered by someone else, that's no reason not to use it. They're confident enough to take from anyone without feeling that their own vision will be lost in the process. This may (or may not) be true. But it isn't particularly helpful advice to give a designer to `be a great master'. Most of us have to be content to work with the capabilities that we are given. `Be great' is wonderful advice if you happen to be great. But it's not much help if you're only real good.
Good Design is Strange Good design is often strange. Some of the very best work has an uncanny quality: Euler's Formula, Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow, the SR-71, Lisp. They're not just beautiful, but strangely beautiful. I suppose in a sense good `new' design is strange. Almost by definition. If it was `old' then it wouldn't be strange. And I'm me not sure I share Graham's taste about `strangeness'. I don't see much `strange' in Lisp, for example, but then maybe that's because I first saw it in the late 1950s and it's hard for anything that old (`time-honored') to be deemed as `strange'.

Perhaps I'd buy `unusual' instead of `strange', but then we're just moving closer to a tautology.

Uncanny I'm not sure why. It may just be my own stupidity. A can-opener must seem uncanny to a dog. Maybe if I were smart enough it would seem the most natural thing in the world that ei*pi = -1. It is after all necessarily true. This is my favorite piece of mathematics, too. But I'm afraid I don't get what this is doing here, unless it is one of Graham's jokes. If it's not that, then the point blows by me.
Cultivation Most of the qualities I've mentioned are things that can be cultivated, but I don't think it works to cultivate strangeness. The best you can do is not squash it if it starts to appear. Einstein didn't try to make relativity strange. He tried to make it true, and the truth turned out to be strange. Mostly I buy this. I'm not sure any of what has been discussed can really be `cultivated', but I totally agree that if you do find something strange but tantalizing then it is best not to squash it.
Personal Style At an art school where I once studied, the students wanted most of all to develop a personal style. But if you just try to make good things, you'll inevitably do it in a distinctive way, just as each person walks in a distinctive way. Michelangelo was not trying to paint like Michelangelo. He was just trying to paint well; he couldn't help painting like Michelangelo. But `painting like Michaelangelo' may be an important experimental state in developing a personal style. It is like doing finger exercises. So while this does not seem to be a very useful longer range objective, it may be a useful place on the road to accomplishing something more that we may want to do.
No Shortcuts The only style worth having is the one you can't help. And this is especially true for strangeness. There is no shortcut to it. The Northwest Passage that the Mannerists, the Romantics, and two generations of American high school students have searched for does not seem to exist. The only way to get there is to go through good and come out the other side. I don't get what Graham is trying to say here.
Design happens in chunks Good design happens in chunks. The inhabitants of fifteenth century Florence included Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello, Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Verrocchio, Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. Milan at the time was as big as Florence. How many fifteenth century Milanese artists can you name? Good design may happen in chunks, but perhaps that is a tautology---given how rare good design is. Any good design is `a significant chunk'. The argument should go this way: take Michaelangelo. He's probably a 6 or 7 standard deviation outlier given his level of talent. So we don't expect much more than one or two of him anywhere in the world. That he would be in, or migrate to, a world class center for his kind of art is not such a stunning surprise. He didn't go to Venice. If he'd been a musician, perhaps he would have.

As to naming the Milanese artists, I can't claim to know them well, but if I was looking for Venetians I might mention Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Lorenzo Lotto Carpaccio, Tiziano, Polo Veronose, Tiepolo, Vivarini, and I suppose others. And my impression is that in the 1500s Milan, Venice and Florence were all about the same size. So whatever argument applies here, it seems to be---at best---a loose one.

Firenze in the 15th Something was happening in Florence in the fifteenth century. And it can't have been heredity, because it isn't happening now. You have to assume that whatever inborn ability Leonardo and Michelangelo had, there were people born in Milan with just as much. What happened to the Milanese Leonardo? We called him Leonardo. He was from Vinci. And after spending his teen years in Florence he went to Milan for an important segment of his career.
US and Florence There are roughly a thousand times as many people alive in the US right now as lived in Florence during the fifteenth century. A thousand Leonardos and a thousand Michelangelos walk among us. If DNA ruled, we should be greeted daily by artistic marvels. We aren't, and the reason is that to make Leonardo you need more than his innate ability. You also need Florence in 1450. And maybe most of all you need the diMedici. Those responsibe for re-distributing some of the wealth of Venice seem to have preferred music to painting, although Titian's great joys seem quite at home in di Friari and elsewhere.
Community of Talented Nothing is more powerful than a community of talented people working on related problems. Genes count for little by comparison: being a genetic Leonardo was not enough to compensate for having been born near Milan instead of Florence. Today we move around more, but great work still comes disproportionately from a few hotspots: the Bauhaus, the Manhattan Project, the New Yorker, Lockheed's Skunk Works, Xerox Parc. It seems to me that this is getting a little silly. I've had the good luck to spend some time in the milieu of two of these `hot spots', and had frequent dinner-table conversations with someone one generation older who was at the Manhattan Project. My conclusions apparently differ from Graham's. I find, first, that lack of accountability for money is the most important similarity. Few of the `projects' within my experience were ever effectively resource constrained. And just `how hot' are the hot spots anyway? In some of these cases I find the public view of the importance of the output vastly outstrips any reasonable look at the actual product.
Hot Spots At any given time there are a few hot topics and a few groups doing great work on them, and it's nearly impossible to do good work yourself if you're too far removed from one of these centers. You can push or pull these trends to some extent, but you can't break away from them. (Maybe you can, but the Milanese Leonardo couldn't.) I won't argue the hotspots theory. I think there's an element of truth in it. But the formulation presented here goes about it the wrong way. Lots of very good work is done `far removed' from the hotspot centers. In my experience hotspots often lend consequence and weight to work that would otherwise be regarded as quite marginal.
Good Design is Daring Good design is often daring. At every period of history, people have believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you risked ostracism or even violence by saying otherwise. And some of these things proved to be fantastically important. But, most of them proved to be just as absurd and rediculous as we thought. So the whole issue is knowing the difference, and whether the `apparent absurdities' are `real absurdities' or not. So it's not clear to me that this discussion does anything other than beg the issue to another level.
Our Own Time If our own time were any different, that would be remarkable. As far as I can tell it isn't. Right, and today a startling number of people believe that John Edward has, indeed, crossed-over and conversed with people on the `other side'. Many `modern' Americans believe in Ghosts, pre-cognition, and all kinds of other things equally absurd. So paying too much attention to the absurdities is probably a worse error than not paying enough.
Every Field This problem afflicts not just every era, but in some degree every field. Much Renaissance art was in its time considered shockingly secular: according to Vasari, Botticelli repented and gave up painting, and Fra Bartolommeo and Lorenzo di Credi actually burned some of their work. Einstein's theory of relativity offended many contemporary physicists, and was not fully accepted for decades---in France, not until the 1950s. Another fine line. Burning one's own work is a rather severe exercise in self-criticism, In his prime, Frank Sinatra is reputed to have killed lots of near-perfect recordings, only allowing his finest work to be published. So it's not clear to me that this is a `problem'.
New Theory Today's experimental error is tomorrow's new theory. If you want to discover great new things, then instead of turning a blind eye to the places where conventional wisdom and truth don't quite meet, you should pay particular attention to them. This is common mythology. The vast majority of `today's experimental error' is, in fact, just that: experimental error. Only an incredibly tiny proportion of it will prove to be the basis of any of tomorrow's new thory. If you follow Graham's advice here, you are very likely to waste most of your time. There are so many incredibly stupid and erroneous places where `conventional wisdom and truth' don't meet, that paying attention to them would be a real waste of time.
Ugliness As a practical matter, I think it's easier to see ugliness than to imagine beauty. Most of the people who've made beautiful things seem to have done it by fixing something that they thought ugly. Great work usually seems to happen because someone sees something and thinks, I could do better than that. Giotto saw traditional Byzantine madonnas painted according to a formula that had satisfied everyone for centuries, and to him they looked wooden and unnatural. Copernicus was so troubled by a hack that all his contemporaries could tolerate that he felt there must be a better solution. I'd be interested in seeing the evidence for this argument. It is not at all clear to me that `most people' who have made beautiful things did so by `fixing something ugly'. Until I see some data, I simply don't believe this assertion.
Intolerance for Ugliness Intolerance for ugliness is not in itself enough. You have to understand a field well before you develop a good nose for what needs fixing. You have to do your homework. But as you become expert in a field, you'll start to hear little voices saying, What a hack! There must be a better way. Don't ignore those voices. Cultivate them. The recipe for great work is: very exacting taste, plus the ability to gratify it. While I don't disagree with much of this point, it doesn't tell me much that is helpful to me. I hear it saying `Have taste and the ability to gratify it'. I guess that's fine if you have taste and the ability to gratify it. But then you probably didn't need to hear it. And if you don't (yet) `have taste' or don't (yet) have the ability to gratify it, it is unclear to me how to proceed.
Notes Some notes follow: These notes followed the body of the original text.
Sullivan Sullivan actually said "form ever follows function," but I think the usual misquotation is closer to what modernist architects meant. A well known quote, but I'm not clear about its relevance to the discussion here.
Brush Stephen G. Brush, "Why was Relativity Accepted?" Phys. Perspect. 1 (1999) 184-214. I don't know why this is referenced.
Addendum A few principles can be added, at least for discussion purposes. Here are some tries.
Wright Form follows function - that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union. (Frank Lloyd Wright)
Good Design handles Next Wider Context Good design handles the next wider context. This is a design principle due to Eliel Saarenin, and often exercised by his son.
Good Design exploits Time Good design exploits time. This notion is adapted from some observations made by Arthur Whitney. The point is that there are lots of designs that can be made very much cleaner and simpler by exploiting a time dimension if one exists.
Good Design is Supple Good design is supple.
Good Design exploits Paradigms Good design exploits paradigms.

© Copyright 2003 David Ness.
Last update: 2003-03-09 21:05:43 EST