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What role have artists played?

As a student and worker whose primary research, work, and recreational tool is accessed through the glass pane of one 14" video monitor, I am sensitive to the graphical presentation of the software that I interact with all day (& all night) long. Some interfaces appeal to me because they feel consistent and are satisfying to use. Others impress me as utter crap. In a windowed Graphical User Interface (GUI), there might be several functionally equivalent text-editing programs on the screen at once--each displayed within a window. One window might contain an editor with a tacky, awkward user interface. Another editor, visible at the same time, might feature a gracefully designed, awesome user interface. Four different editors are arrayed below:

Figure 1: Five Interfaces to the VI Editor

Assuming their underlying capabilities are equal, I will naturally be drawn to the interface that has greater aesthetic appeal. The GUI operating environment further influences the my experience by literally `framing' each running application's interface into a window, the functions and limitations of which will vary with each operating environment--windows in X-Windows have features that are different from windows on a computer running Macintosh System 7; windows in OS/2 are displayed and manipulated differently from those offered by Microsoft Windows NT.

How much have these aesthetic differences have been determined or influenced by visual artists? If my decision to use or purchase a software package might ultimately come down to `how good it looks,' why are so many feature-rich graphical applications an artist's view of chaos? According to Theodor Nelson, the `Art' we've seen in user interfaces to date has been art created by programmers, for programmers... and it is not based on the same principles that seem intuitive and aesthetically pleasing to end users...

On Artistry: Historical accident has kept programmers in control of a field in which most of them have no aptitude: the artistic integration of the mechanisms they work with. It is nice that engineers and programmers and software executives have found a new form of creativity in which to find a sense of personal fulfillment. It is just unfortunate that they have to inflict the results on users.[11]
When the Xerox PARC group published their work on the Star user interface, they described their attitude towards the process of user interface development as ``an art.'' It was good to read that from the very beginning, and in the most controlled research environments, certain issues have been `scientifically determined' to be a toss-up, where the artistic judgment of the designers should take precedence over research data.
User interface design is still an art, not a science. Many times during the Star Design we were amazed at the depth and subtlety of user-interface issues, even such supposedly straightforward issues as consistency and simplicity. Often there is no one ``right'' answer. Much of the time there is no scientific evidence to support one alternative over another, just intuition.[14]
Viewing screen captures from the Star system is not as easy on the eye as working with some of the graphical interfaces we have today. Given the limitations of their display hardware, its pretty good looking.[*] A particularly interesting theory throughout the development of the `desktop' metaphor has been the idea that the desktop serves as an extension of the user's short term memory--a user might refer to the information on screen the same way they would roll their eyes back into their head and `glance' for a bit of information in part of their brain.

A well-designed computer system can actually improve the quality of your thinking. In addition, visual communication is often more efficient than linear communication: ``a picture is worth a thousand words.''[14] The Xerox engineers' observation that visual information is communicated quickly comes as no surprise to visual artists. I've read several anecdotes relating the first thing programmers did when they connected computers to video monitors--they merely recreated a teletype printer on screen, with all of its quirks and limitations! In promoting the use of a visible interface, the Star group repeated ``a picture is worth a thousand words,'' which was probably an appropriate use of the clichè. I would add to this that those `words' will vary according to how well the interface is designed. A good visible interface will be worth a thousand words of poetry or well written prose. The thousand words worth expressed by a crummy interface might be more like graffiti on a bathroom wall or cursing someone out--definitely the kind of `noise' an end user will take pains to avoid.

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Next: The first Icons... Up: Art and the User Previous: Introduction   Contents

sean dreilinger

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