She sensed that she was surrounded by others — some very like her and many very unlike her. Yet — she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was not right.
She felt — bound up. She wasn’t free to grow in the way she really wanted to. And now she was moving in a most peculiar way. Her ancestors had seldom moved in such a way as this except in times of great catastrophe such as an earthquake. Suddenly, she found herself completely disconnected from the nourishing earth. Beneath her was nothing but cold hard metal and a whirring vibration.
Now the warming sun disappeared, not as a gentle sunset. No. This was a sudden and violent transition from warm noon sun to complete and utter darkness. She sensed that she was not alone in this sunless prison. All of her fellow prisoners were also in a panic. Again, she sensed the cold hard metal beneath her and a deeper rumble of whirring vibration.
Then, and completely without warning, the sunlight again began to beat upon her with its full force.
Soon, she felt herself unbound. She struggled to understand. She tried to stretch her roots out, tentatively at first, as you might begin to wiggle your toes after waking from a deep coma. She felt an unslakable thirst, Then, she sensed moisture nearby and minerals.
She still felt as though she were in a very strange place. Had she formed her thoughts into words, she might have thought: “I have no idea why they would place me here of all places.” If rose had been human, that would have bothered her a great deal. But among her many distant aunts, uncles, and cousins, those who spent their energy decrying their placement, few survived. Her strategy, like those of her successful ancestors, was rather to spend her energy being as beautiful and varied as possible.
Her faith was strong. Had she had a verbal creed, it might have been something like this:
“I believe in the bees and the breeze.
I believe in my own heritage.
Like all other living things on earth today, my ancestry is 4.5 billion years old.
I believe in the power of my roots to seek out and find the nourishment I need; to keep in mind my goals of water and minerals. I push and push, and when I reach the impenetrable, I seek a way around. I dance the dance of life. I don’t avoid the strife. I relish it.”
In the next few days, visiting bees told her that there was plenty of sunshine around even though Rose herself was mainly in shade. That bee-speak was enough to give Rose all the hope she needed to grow tall and wide. She explored in every direction.
The bees that buzzed near Rose told her, in their own way, of the vibrant and varied colors of her many other neighbors. She found their descriptions exotic and evocative. From time to time, she attempted to emulate those neighbors. The buzzing bees would pause in their busyness on occasion to give her feedback on how well she matched the colors of her unseen neighbors.
Over time, she sensed the vibrations of other beings besides the bees. Feathering beings and furry beings, some large and some small. Mainly, they were friendly beings who admired her artwork. But there were also those who cared little for her artwork and instead simply came to feast upon her. Rose’s body became sustenance for mites and snails and aphids. Sometimes, other creatures came to protect her. She liked that. Sometimes, they failed to protect her and the pain became unbearable. But bear it she did.
Rose resolved to use the pain to make her creations more beautiful still.
It seems odd to specify a property of natural order in terms of what it is not. On the other hand, I cannot come up with a positive alternative that doesn’t bring other connotations with it. I think it’s related to “unified” or “integral” or “belonging” or “inter-related” but none of those seem quite so on the mark as does “Not-Separateness.”
Christopher Alexander’s degree from MIT was in architecture. Part of the reason he may have chosen this particular term is in reaction to some examples of architecture in which the architect seems to be in the business of constructing a building whose primary purpose is to make them famous regardless of what that building does to the neighborhood or the occupants.
Imagine Mr. Bigg designs a house that is a perfect black cube set on on vertex. In effect, this design says to me: “I am BIG. I am Mr. Bigg! I am a genius! You would have never been brilliant enough to design a house that is a cube on its vertex! You would have wasted your time and done something mundane like placed the cube on the ground on one of its faces. Anyone could think of that! But I put it on a vertex!” Indeed, we may easily imagine that he says words to this effect when his interview is reported on in the (mythical) architectural journal, Things that look different!
“Mr. Bigg, you made the Bigg House out of black steel and black glass. Some critics have argued that this doesn’t fit with the existing neighborhood of stone cottages with thatched roofs.”
“Of course, little minds will always criticize Bigg ideas.”
“Yes, yes. It also means that the construction costs of the house were quite high. And, the estimated costs of heating and cooling are much higher as well.”
“Nothing that a worthwhile (i.e., wealthy) client can’t afford.”
“Some have also argued that it is inconvenient for the occupants who have to walk up and down at a steep angle and that furniture such as dressers, tables, chairs, and beds do not accommodate well to the tilted walls.”
“Let me ask you aquestion. Would you have ever thought of putting a cube on its corner? No. I didn’t think so!”
Of course, this is exaggeration. But not much.
We would hope that User Experience designers take into account the users, their tasks, their contexts, and the way in which their designs interact with other related artifacts, people and processes. We would hope that applications and artifacts and services are all designed with the property of “Not-Separateness.”
In the early 1980’s, I worked in the IBM Office of the Chief Scientist. My main assignment was to get IBM to pay more attention to the usability of its products. As part of that process, I visited quite a few IBM development labs around the world and spoke to many development teams. On many of these visits, I was accompanied by the Chief Scientist, a brilliant physicist, who “got” usability.
On one occasion, we watched a new printing technology. Instead of printing out black printing on a white sheet of paper sized 8.5” x 11” or A4, this printout was of no standard size. The printing was black on a shiny silver sheet that curled severely. The Chief Scientist asked the head of the development team how they envisioned this being used.
Chief Scientist: “Once someone printed this out, what would they do with it?”
Answer: “Oh, anything they liked.”
Chief Scientist: “I mean, would people tape this into a notebook or paste it? Or would you imagine notebooks that would bind such paper?”
Answer: “It’s not up to me to decide how people would use it. Doesn’t it look cool?”
Another type of answer we heard more than once to the question, “How would this be used?”
— “Oh, it’s a (replacement/upgrade) for this other IBM product.”
“But who would use it and for what?”
“It has three main components. Would you like a description of the components?”
Of course, there is a place for “playing around” with technology and thereby discovering things which someone else may find a use for. But in design and development of a product or service, having a clear notion of context of use and the users and tasks is fundamental. Of course, other users may appropriate a product or service for purposes beyond those envisioned by the original designers. That’s cool.
What’s not cool is designing a device that is to be used in the bright outdoor sunlight and then testing the display in a typical office environment. Have you ever run across something like that? I have.
A more subtle lack of contextualization in design occurs when the design team fails to realize how many interruptions happen to the user while they are trying to accomplish a single task with the new application. If you “test” the application while the user is in a quiet “usability lab” and can give your tasks their undivided attention, then necessitating them to remember the invisible internal state of “Insert” versus “Edit” mode may not be a big deal at all. They will simply remember. But in their office environment, they may be interrupted by a phone call, a message, or their boss entering their office and asking a series of detailed questions. If they now go back to the task at hand, there is about a 50-50 chance that they will correctly guess whether they are in “Edit” mode or “Insert” mode.
A design which shows the property of Not-Separateness is the natural result of a process which shows not-separateness. Here are a few common ways to help ensure the design process grows organically from the users and their goals & contexts.
* Put people on the design team who are familiar with the users, and/or their tasks, and/or their contexts.
* People on the design team observe people engaging in the relevant processes, whenever possible, not — or not only — in a “Usability Lab” but in the actual work environment.
Jointly develop a product or service with the group who will use the product or service.
Observe people actually using product P (or service S), version N so that version N+1 will be better attuned to the needs of the users.
Gather and understand feedback from service calls and help desks and customer complaints in order to improve over time.
There will be benefits to a company who takes such approaches beyond initial sales. If you’ve done any gardening, you will appreciate that the quality of the tomatoes you enjoy eating is related to the quality of the soil and the quality of the care you give the tomatoes. Similarly, a product or service that has the quality of Not-Separateness will not only be useful — users will fight to keep your product or service. It becomes integrated with the environment. To change the brand means that they will have to change the way they work; possibly even with whom they work. Not-Separateness is likely a path to what business people like to call a “Cash Cow.”
If you’ve ever walked through a neighborhood after a hurricane, you’ve likely seen many uprooted trees. When you look at the roots of an uprooted tree, what do you see? Of course, you see roots. But what else? You see rocks and soil all around and embedded into the roots. They are Not-Separate. In a hurricane, there are typically not only high winds. There is also a lot of rain. The trees are hit with a double whammy. The wind pushes the tree but the rain weakens the solid soil in which the tree is embedded. It is the combination that makes it very difficult for the tree to “hold on” and keep from falling over.
Living things, just like us, have a 4.5 billion year history of living. The living things adapt over time to their environment and they mold the environment to their needs. They are not separate. Flowers appeal to the insects who pollinate them. The insects who pollinate them are adapted to the characteristics of the flower. A horse adapts to their rider and the rider adapts to their horse. A product or service must have a design that serves the needs of its stakeholders. For a product or service to have maximum beauty, utility, and longevity, it must also have a way to adapt to the changing needs of the users and other stakeholders. At the same time, if the users and their organizations adapt to the product or service, then true Not-Separateness is achieved.
If you want to skimp on designing your product or service, you can make it more separate, more divorced from its context, its users, and its tasks. Of course, if you do that, you also make much easier for your users to abandon your product and switch to a new one.
Another way to think about this in terms of systems theory is where you draw the boundary. If you draw a sharp boundary around your product, you may find that, over time, your product becomes ever more peripheral to the community you’re trying to support and your product is ever more fungible with others in its class. On the other hand, if you draw the boundary around the product or service and the people and organizations who provide the product or service then, you are on the path of ever tighter interconnect.
Not-Separateness is not only a quality of good design in terms of not overly separating the context and users from the product or service. It is also a good quality for the organization that produces products & services. Of course, some people today must manage a giant amorphous “organization” of tens of thousands of people so they set up divisions, and departments, and groups, and teams, and positions etc. There may indeed be a “UX Department” and a “Software Department” and a “Hardware Department.” That’s all fine. But it is counter-productive if the UX Department sees itself as separate from the rest of the company. To a great extent the success of the UX Department depends on the success of the Hardware and Software Departments. The Sales Department’s success will, of course, depend partly on the skills of the Sales Department. But it will also depend on the success of the UX Department, HW, SW and Services.
Have you ever had a paper cut? It isn’t just the skin on a quarter inch of the inside of your ring finger that’s cut. You’re cut! It isn’t just that the finger feels pain. You feel pain! That causes you to take steps to ameliorate the pain and to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s why empathy in leadership is important. A leader must feel empathy for all, or the organization will disintegrate from lack of Not-Separateness. At some point, a raccoon may chew off its own arm in order to escape a trap.
But it isn’t the first thing that occurs to them every time they experience a thorn in the paw!
The raccoon doesn’t say to itself: — “that paw is giving me pain! I’m going to chew it off! Then, it won’t hurt any more.”
Evolution did not evolve a raccoon that acts that way. Self-mutilation exists but it is typically a last resort.
But not for corporations. It is the first thing they think of:
“Our (you name it) Department is not performing well. Let’s lay them off and outsource it.”
What does that say to every thinking employee in the entire corporation? It says:
“You know what? All this talk about teamwork and pulling together is a total bunch of bull$hit. You cannot trust management to do what’s best for everyone. You can only trust them to do what’s best for them.”
Living forms in nature are living forms. Their parts have severe Not-Separateness with the other parts of that form. Often, as in well-functioning families or teams, that extends to all members of the group.
Not-Separateness is essentially deep cooperation. I give to the larger community by becoming a part of it and doing my part in it. I lend strength to the community. In return, I gain strength from that community. It is not a zero sum game, of course. The community, if it is functional, is much stronger than the sum of the individuals in that community.
This is so deeply embedded in 4.5 billion years of evolution that it does not surprise me that we recognize beauty as being even more beautiful if it is not separate. Not-Separate enhances beauty because, like all the other properties, it is essential to life.
Eventually, if humanity is to survive, we will realize that Not-Separateness applies to all of us. We are not there yet. But that doesn’t mean we cannot appreciate and design Not Separateness in our products, in our services, and our lives.
Thomas, J.C. and Kellogg, W.A. (1989). Minimizing ecological gaps in interface design, IEEE Software, January 1989.
Thomas, J. C. (2012). Patterns for emergent global intelligence. In Creativity and Rationale: Enhancing Human Experience By Design J. Carroll (Ed.), New York: Springer.
Thomas, J. C. (2001). An HCI Agenda for the Next Millennium: Emergent Global Intelligence. In R. Earnshaw, R. Guedj, A. van Dam, and J. Vince (Eds.), Frontiers of human-centered computing, online communities, and virtual environments. London: Springer-Verlag.
Thomas, J.C. (1985). Human factors in IBM. IBM Research Report. RC-11267. Yorktown Heights, NY: IBM Corporation.
(Christopher Alexander, architect and city planner, proposed fifteen properties as characteristic of natural order. I’m considering them one by one in terms of society, design generally, and user experience in particular. “Simplicity and Inner Calm” is number 14.)
“Send me $50,000 and I’ll enroll you in a two year course in Simplicity and Inner Calm. All you have to do then is follow the twenty-five hundred rules on the Path to Enlightenment while renouncing everything else.”
Somehow, that does not seem to be in the spirit of simplicity and inner calm. Some of the properties I discussed earlier are closer to being about something “out there” that is somewhat measurable; e.g., levels of scale, boundaries, alternating repetition, roughness. Simplicity and Inner Calm are characteristics of things “out there” but they cause or at least resonate with simplicity and inner calm in a person.
I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a place to enforce a particular emotional state. If someone arrives at a beautiful still lake with hate and rage in their heart and possesses a determination to stay mad by God because he deserves to be mad! Then the mere presence of beautiful scenery won’t calm them in some immediate and magical way. But, I would bet money that they would be less upset an hour later than when they arrived.
Meanwhile, let’s imagine their identical twin also had an identical quantity of rage in their heart and arrived at a loud buzzing booming construction site and had to sit there for an hour. Such a setting, I would imagine, would do nothing to calm them and might make them even more enraged.
Of course, as any therapist can tell you, what you do inside your head often has more to do with how you feel than does the objective situation. I certainly believe that. Yet, I also believe that situations out there make a difference on average. In my experience, being in a safe situation surrounded by natural beauty tends to make nearly everyone feel better.
Not all situations “work” equally well for everyone, but for most of the people I have interacted with, views of distant mountains; calm clear lakes; ocean shores; a clearing in the woods — especially if there is a calm animal there; a single tree on a small hilltop — these tend to induce a feeling of simplicity and inner calm.
There are two things that have amazed me for a long time about natural settings. I think they both relate to why natural settings seem to produce more simplicity and inner calm.
The first mystery is auditory. I have heard the calls of many creatures in nature. Most are, in and of themselves, attractive. Some are beautiful. A few are more annoying sounds. But for me, at least, they never seem to clash. Walking through a field and forest, I may hear insects, frogs, and a dozen species of birds. But none of them clash. That adds to inner calm.
The second mystery is visual. I’ve walked through many natural settings and have seen what must be every color possible to see. But the colors never “clash.” How can that be? It’s one thing to mix and match greens and blues. They don’t really seem to clash that much even in artificial settings. But what about pinks, reds, oranges? I’ve seen plenty of people wearing clothing that clashes and likely been guilty of it myself. But autumn leaves? They are all over the place, but they don’t clash. This also adds to inner calm.
I think the genetic reason that clashes are not prevalent in nature is that we co-evolved with the environment. Perceiving harmony in what is would have been adaptive in two important ways. First, since harmony is the natural state, feeling good while surrounded by harmony would mean that you would feel good most of the time. As Harry Potter once put it, you would have something worth fighting for. If you enjoy life, then, when the going gets tough, you are more likely to tough it out.
Second, when things go sideways in external reality, you would quickly notice the disharmony. While normally, you would feel peaceful, when the birds suddenly starting fleeing in one direction and squawking, your feeling would change and you would be more likely to survive whatever comes next.
These reasons are manifest in some of the other fifteen properties. For example, the roughness of shape of autumn leaves means that there will be natural variation in color as seen even if they are actually identical (which of course, they are not). Having distributions of color is a kind of “roughness” characteristic of nature’s colors. Clothing on the other hand is another matter. The goal of mass production is lack of variability. So, 10,000 items are precisely the same color (or as close as humanly possible). If one is slightly off, it is noticeable. If each of the 10,000 items were part of a very broad, multidimensional distribution, being slightly more extreme than most would not produce a perception of clash.
That, to me, is also the problem with monoculture as a social philosophy. I delve into this in more detail in the blog post — “A tight flock united by division.”
Briefly, the more everyone is supposed to “toe the line” to a particular way of doing things; e.g., which restaurants to go to, which shows to watch, which religion to believe in, what clothes to wear, what food to eat, etc., the more intolerant it becomes. And the more intolerant it becomes, the more people try desperately to adhere to the middle of the crowded road they share with everyone they know. Everyone who does anything differently comes to be seen as a reproach to the lack of individuality in the middle of the road. And the people who insist that everyone must stay in the middle do not want to move. Not only that. They insist that they are exercising their freedom of choice by being exactly in the middle as determine by everyone else and not at all by them. It is kind of humorous at one level.
But just as such sharp and arbitrary boundaries in artificially produced goods mean clashes are more common, so too in human societies, when there is a group that insists everyone be exactly like them and, at the same time, insist that they are expressing their freedom, clashes are inevitable. Harmony and truth are no longer conceived of as being desirable. When people reject the resolution of conflict via agreed upon rules of law, what results is inevitably chaos and death. It is almost the polar opposite of Life.
Some epidemiologists think the various recent explosion in the variety of pollutants that we are all subject to has resulted in a much higher incidence of auto-immune diseases and allergies. The immune system sees so many different invaders, it has trouble distinguishing real threats (streptococcus, covid, cancer cells) from imaginary ones (peanut oil, cat dander, tree pollen).
In similar fashion, people stuck on a thin sliver of what they feel is “normal” feel assailed from all sides. They can no longer distinguish real threats (COVID 19, Climate catastrophes, racial inequities) from imaginary ones (chip implantation via needles, Medicare for all, mask mandates). Clash. Clash. Clash. No “Simplicity and inner calm.”
But from their perspective, there would be “Simplicity and inner calm” if only everyone were just like them! They will deny this, when put so baldly, but that is essentially what they strive toward.
There can be many such factions, all with different rigid and implacable beliefs or only two (Right/Left; Catholic/Protestant; Striders/Walkers) or really, only one. It only takes one faction to reject all connection to truth in order to destroy simplicity and inner calm — even though, ironically, that is what they are actually trying to achieve.
Moving from societal beauty to user interfaces, for the most part, I would have to say most UIs lack simplicity and inner calm. They seem to be splattered with functions and features everywhere. This is not surprising since most product managers believe that sales will be greater with more functions and features.
When I use pages, I would say my user experience is mainly one of simplicity and inner calm. That mainly comes from the fact that my attention is almost entirely on writing and I ignore everything else the interface offers “around the edges” of my vision. Sometimes, something untoward happens and the “harmony” of my environment is temporarily destroyed. Then, I have to stop writing and pop out to the interface level in order to diagnose and fix the problem. Once I do that and return to writing, I again feel “simplicity and inner calm.”
On much rarer occasions, I will wish to do something “unusual”; e.g., I might want to put a table in the text to illustrate a point. Then, before I can word on the task at hand — creating the proper table — I must first search for the proper functionality. Since I do not typically do this, I am like the creature in the forest suddenly alerted to the presence of possible “predators” (such as accidentally destroying my file).
I have found very few UI’s that, in and of themselves, are conducive to feelings of simplicity and inner calm on first use. I have often come to feel that way fairly quickly after I become conversant with the basic functions.
We evolved for millions of years to resonate with the simplicity and inner calm of peaceful natural settings. It’s not surprising that it would be difficult to reproduce that feelings with an artificial interface. But familiarity does move us in that direction. When I glance at the toolbar across the top of the “Pages” page, e.g., I see a set of pull-down menus. I don’t recall exactly how the entire menu structure is laid out, but I do know how to use it and explore it. This familiarity, in and of itself, helps me feel more serene, more secure, safer.
Although I am very interested in seeing new ideas in UI, I am more likely to use a different sort of UI if I am seeing a completely new kind of functionality or access to new kinds of data. I would be far less interested in trying a completely new UI for writing, say, or an application that had the same features and functions as twitter but with a completely different UI.
Sometimes, even radicals are conservative.
If you wanted to design something that evoked simplicity and inner calm, would you yourself want to be in such a state while you were designing? Would that help or hinder you? Or, perhaps you would use the design experience itself to force yourself to experience simplicity and inner calm. Do you have any examples of a UI with simplicity and inner calm? I don’t refer here to an application whose sole purpose is to guide you through meditation. There are surely many things available whose content is meant to evoke simplicity and inner calm. But are there UI’s which, in and of themselves, evoke simplicity and inner calm?
While all the previous properties of natural order seem positive, clear, and obvious, this one seems mildly scary. It reminds me of death, somehow. It’s true that individual death is part of the overall reality of life, it still seems scary. It’s reminiscent of whirlpools, caverns, the abyss. I suppose some of our tiny distant ancestors may have faced the dark mouth cavity of a large predator — a shark, a cave bear, a saber toothed tiger. And a few of those who were terrified enough to flood their bodies with adrenalin may have escaped to reproduce and pass on the terror of utter darkness genes to their offspring, including me.
In a friendlier interpretation, the void could be thought of as “empty” space, or more accurately, extra space not filled with functional items. From that perspective, The Void promotes rest, relaxation, rebirth, regeneration. Your day should include “The Void” in terms of activity — sleep, certainly, but also times that are unscheduled and restorative. If you are scheduling a day long meeting and every minute is accounted for ahead of time, there is no “margin” for something which catches the passion of participants to spill over. There is no time for unanticipated contingencies or for people to reflect on what is happening.
Similarly, a space (whether computer memory or physical space) that is completely “taken up” with data or things becomes inflexible. In extreme cases, nothing can be done because there is no room to move things.
When I was a kid, I used to enjoy puzzles that consisted of 15 square pieces and one blank space. The idea was to move the pieces around until the pieces were arranged into a particular numeric sequence (or made a picture). It’s immediately obvious that if there is no space, there is no way to move the pieces and whatever order they are in is the order that they will stay in.
It seems that people who want to control everything want exactly that — no space — no void — no possibility for change. It may be related to the mystery of overworking so many people with long hours despite decades of research showing people are more productive with shorter hours.
In a living human being, there is typically “space” in our respiratory system and our digestive system. To have zero space means we cannot eat and we cannot breathe. We do have spaces within our body — ventricles in the brain, sinuses in the head, and — crucially — females have a place that can accommodate the creation of a new life within.
A hive, or a garden, or a city may indeed be crowded, but if it literally has zero space, it dies, just as we would. The void allows flow — in the case of the individual human body, space allows for the flow of food and the flow of air.
A science that has no void, no space, has no flexibility. It is no longer science but dogma.
A budget with no space, no void, means every penny has been pre-assigned and this is not an effective way to budget.
Games typically have space (Go, Chess, Checkers, Monopoly) as do sports (Tennis, Baseball, Soccer, Basketball). Play often consist of using, changing, and manipulating space. The baseball pitcher tries to throw the ball so that it crosses through spaces where the hitter cannot easily hit it well. The hitter tried to hit the ball where the fielders cannot reach the ball. The tennis player tries to “build a point” by creating more space; e.g., by pulling their opponent progressively wider so that a shot can be hit into such a large space that it cannot be reached at all. In most games and sports, the amount of empty space, particularly at the beginning of play is relatively large. In chess, as in American football, play begins with a large space between the teams. In many games, there are special terms for spaces. A “Luft” in chess is a place for your King to go if attacked on the back rank by a queen or rook. In American football, the quarterback throws passes from the “pocket” which is supposed to protect them from tacklers.
To me, “The Void” connotes more than space, however. “The Void” seems to refer to a relatively large, concentrated space. In music, for example, without any space, there is just a long, annoying noise. But “The Void” isn’t just the space between notes. It seems as though it must be a significant silence such as after the tuning and before the first note is played or the space between movements in a symphony.
Of course, we can contemplate things at different scales. If we see Alternating Repetition from a distance that allows us to see the alternating repetition, we might see gaps as spaces, but not as examples of “The Void.” If we moved our point of view so that only one such gap were visible, it might become an example of “The Void” at another scale.
Most of our everyday reality is physically made up of empty space. Every atom is more than 99.999 % empty space. At that scale, it’s mostly void or at least mostly space. And, at the other extreme, although it may seem that space is crowded when you see the Starship Enterprise go through the universe at “Warp 9” that’s an illusion to make it more interesting. Most of the universe (and our solar system) is empty space. The sun which is by far the largest object in our solar system has a diameter of 865,000 miles. That’s big! But the nearest planet, Mercury, is 40 million miles away. And, that planet is the only thing in its orbit.
Once I was driving with my family from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. Around 3 am, in the absolute middle of nowhere with no lights and no moon, I stopped the car and ran a quarter mile from the road into the desert to look up at the stars. It doesn’t “look” empty of course. Far from it. Yet the sheer blackness of the background and the vastness of it made it seem like a true void. In fact, because of contrast with the sharp and sparkling stars, the vast void was made into even more of a vast void.
An atrium, a central courtyard, a reflecting pool — can these be voids that strengthen the center?
If we look at a void, does that produce a different aesthetic feeling from when we are in a void that surrounds us? If you and your family or friends or tribe huddle around a campfire at night, the fire is a center. You can see the faces of people in the firelight. But you are aware that each of you knows that surrounding your little group is darkness. Sometimes, in movies, someone will remark, “Well, it’s quiet.” To which, the proper response is, “Yeah. Too quiet!” When the frogs and crickets stop making noise, the heaviness of the silence becomes oppressive. It might mean that large predators are about, each with their own maw of void. Being in a large space that has no perceptible features is awe-inspiring or even fear-inspiring. Looking at a large space that is situated in the context of a pattern may echo that feeling slightly, but to me, it feels very different.
The same tune can be played on a piccolo or a base vile.
When it comes to user experience, what comes to mind for me is the empty page or the empty canvas or the empty spreadsheet. These are large unfilled spaces. To compose, whatever the medium, requires of us a kind of courage. We must “enter” the empty space. In order to write, we must also allow for empty space within us. As I write, I find that there is always a rhythm of “describing” things that have “come up” for explication and then pausing — staring as it were into the blackness, the void, of my own consciousness. I allow things to arise from that inner void and show themselves. I don’t always know what it will be.
I think that process (and not wanting it disrupted) is one reason that I, like so many others, found “Clippy” to be so annoying. Whenever I was allowing for the void to reveal to me what I wanted to say, “Clippy” would imagine I was stuck and offer a suggestion (invariably irrelevant).
Perhaps you or one of your kids has played “8-ball.” You ask it a question then you shake it a little and an answer “appears” in a little window. The most enthralling time is that space between when you ask the question and the answer appears. Of course, it’s fun thinking of the questions and interpreting the answers, but the most dramatic part is waiting for the answer to appear. In that moment, you may suddenly realize what answer you want to appear.
If an application is to support any kind of creative activity, it should not “rush” the user and it should provide the user empty space in which to create. That emptiness can be intimidating, but I still think it’s necessary.
My desktop has many icons, tool bars, and windows. The only true void is the blank part of the writing pane in Pages. Visually, since the blank part of the page is white, it doesn’t seem much like a void. There is enough space between the icons and menu items to make them legible, but there is no “void” there. Visually, the only thing that really strikes me as a void is the totally black rounded rectangle beside the color sphere in the Format window. It’s black because that is the color of the text I’m writing in. Its function is nothing like that of an actual void.
The void may symbolize death, but it also symbolizes life. It is the happening place. It is the dance floor. It is the game board. It is the playing field. It is waiting for the curtain to rise. It is the movie theater when the lights go out but the movie has not begun. It is also the movie theater when the credits have done rolling but before the house lights have come up. If it is death, it is also rebirth. If it is birth, it is also the end.
As every moment of our existence and our attention becomes commoditized and sold to the highest bidder, there is ever more pressure to eliminate the “wasted space” inherent in the void.
Running into the ocean; diving into a pool; deciding to have a child; moving; divorcing; falling in love; losing a loved one; starting a composition; beginning a design — these are moments when we brush up against the void or enter it or avoid it or incorporate it into ourselves. We like to fool ourselves that there is some process or routine or formula or piece of software that can take all the uncertainty out of these transitions into the unknown.
That’s all illusion. It’s the very nature of life itself — that dance on the razor edge between chaos and repetition — to embrace the void. We try always to “avoid” The Void.
Nature doesn’t “abhor a vacuum.” Nature is mostly vacuum.
But we abhor a vacuum. Our productivity tools are geared toward reducing “The Void” as much as possible. Children are shuttled from one high intensity activity to another to ensure that when they apply to college, they will get in one which will ensure that they will get a high-paying job that will enable to them to work their entire lives so that there will be no uncertainty.
I am also a product of that “Avoid The Void” culture, so I find it hard to imagine what it would mean to design a tool or UI or app that embraced and encouraged The Void. There are some specific mobile apps that support meditation or listening to music or breathing. What of composition though? Whether it is programming, writing, drawing, or creating a business plan, is there a place for The Void to be supported? How would you encourage it? What visual elements or other sensory elements could be used to support it? How would you measure how well you did?
Materials and organisms in the natural world such as wood, rock, clouds, reeds, water, animals, and plants exhibit a degree of roughness. By contrast, mass production ideally produces items that are identical and “sharp” or “smooth” at the boundaries.
Think of the difference between a hand-thrown pot and a cup that is mass produced. Think of the difference between a cottage made of stone and a house made of prefabricated walls. Think of a path with flagstones and gravel versus a “sidewalk.”
Perhaps because our ancestors evolved in a natural world for billions of years, we sense that roughness connotes something natural. To me, the property of “roughness” evokes beauty and comfort while perfectly straight lines and rectangles makes me feel as though I am in a purposefully constructed space. Someone who builds a tower of stones or wooden blocks must be mindful of the whole. Tiny to moderate variations in size, angle and texture mean the constructor must pay careful attention. No two constructions are identical. By contrast, if you and I were to build a plastic rectangular lego tower of a specified size out of specified blocks, the results would be indistinguishable. It is much like cursive script versus printing. It is much like making a stew from scratch versus heating up a TV dinner.
An old house is prone to crumbling, leaks, misalignments, idiosyncrasies, and cracks. If we allow the house to go completely to ruin, it becomes impractical or at least quite inconvenient to live in. On the other hand, a little bit of roughness gives the abode more character. Since glass is actually a fluid, old windows begin to “flow” slightly introducing irregularities in the glass and therefore in what is seen through the glass. A new window, on the other hand, it typically “perfect” and therefore somewhat boring.
As a driveway ages, the effect of nearby life and natural forces begins to produce small cracks. These make the surface more interesting visually. It also requires someone walking to pay more attention to where they are stepping; that is, to be more in the moment. Such cracks encourage further incursions by living forms.
Flowers often exhibit beautiful symmetry. The symmetry, to me, is made more beautiful because of slight variations in the size, angle and color of the individual petals. If instead, you imagine a mathematically perfect flower in which there is zero perceptible difference in the size, angle and color of the petals, do you feel that is more beautiful? Does it make you feel more comfortable?
I don’t mind that your keyboard may be identical to mine. I use the computer as a tool. Sometimes, it is used to produce art of one sort or another. But if the art that everyone produced were as much the same as the keyboards, it would seem sterile, non-living, mechanical. A brand new chair will hopefully be evenly painted and the upholstery will be unworn. Over time, the paint will begin to chip and the upholstery will be threadbare and potentially stained in places.
We have been taught to see such things as flaws, defects, and imperfections. But are they? At some point, the “ravages of time” (or, more accurately, perhaps, the “ravages of entropy”) can make things less than ideally functional. For instance, your tires wear over time and, while they may look more interesting, worn tires are a safety hazard for you, for your passengers, and for everyone else on the road.
Similarly, if you must undergo surgery, there’s a good reason for your surgeon to use a machine-tooled scalpel with a “perfect” edge. Railroad cars and railroad tracks that were too diverse from each other might look more interesting, but they would be less safe.
In many cases, however, roughness does not negatively impact functionality. It looks better without negatively impacting functionality. A chair, baseball glove, or pair of shoes that is slightly worn still works. Perhaps it even works better.
Roughness in the body of a living things often allows local adaptation. The muscles in your body, for example, are not of a “pre-specified” and precise size. If you exercise a muscle, it will get stronger and grow larger. That allows you to adapt to your circumstances. Your skin is also capable of growing stronger in places where it needs to be. Your bones grow stronger if they are required to bear a greater load.
Roughness also exists across individuals within a species. Unlike items that come off the assembly line, items that come from life have slight variations from each other. Some seeds are smaller; some are larger; some are stickier; some are smoother. In some cases, these differences will have no impact on the viability of the seed. But sometimes they might. Life is always trying little “experiments” of small variations to see whether one might be better than another. And, by the way, that is not some minor feature of life: in many ways, that is life: the balance between repetition and variation.
It’s ironic that our minds, which sprung from this balance, often strive for imbalance. To make things “simpler” we like to over-regularize and over-specify. Sometimes, you can go a rather long ways in one particular direction if you take such a drastic step. But if you’ve miscalculated in any way, or if your data were inaccurate, or if conditions changed after your data were collected, you’ll be stuck speeding down a railroad track toward what is now obvious disaster. Trying to impose an absolute pre-specification of action for every set of circumstances is impossible. To achieve something like it, people sometimes ignore the complexities (the roughness) in real life, and throw things into a small number of buckets. Making decisions on the basis of what bucket something is in, is a lot like judging a book by its cover. Such a process takes things which are, in fact, rough and treats them as though they were mathematically perfect.
Because of the “roughness” of circumstances, many societies have found that putting in place the human judgement of many with countervailing interests often works best. In America, for instance, there are three branches of federal government. The judge conducts a trial, with different people advocating for the two sides. In many cases, a jury of twelve decides guilt or innocence.
Living systems are robust to various changes in circumstances. A conventional car engine, for instance, is designed to use gasoline or diesel. Put in the wrong fuel and you might ruin the engine. But what about a human being? You can use a tremendous number of different kinds of fuel in the form of food. Once actually working inside your body, it’s actually one of a much smaller number of types of fuels: carbohydrates, sugars, proteins, fats. This is just one of the many millions of ways that various life forms show resilience and robustness. Because life endlessly plays; because it exhibits roughness; because it is diverse; because of this, it adapts and it evolves.
Meanwhile, as we look at things, we feel intuitively that “Roughness” is conducive to life and is also one of the quintessential aspects of life.
“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” — Robert Frost, Birches
If you have ever swung on birches, or tried to climb any other kind of tree, you know that each is shaped and branched a little differently. From the ground, it’s easy to glance at a tree and think the branches are all basically the same. They are not. And if you are a kid who actually spends a lot of time climbing trees, you pay attention to the peculiarities of specific trees and specific branches on those trees. Why? So as not to kill yourself, or worse, hear your parents say “I told you so!” after you break your arm swinging from a tree, say. But the miracle is that, although you are not immortal, you can heal your broken arm. In order for that to happen, obviously, some parts of your body have to do things differently than they have been doing. The “Roughness” of life isn’t only a visual characteristic. It’s also a characteristic of the processes of life. It’s also characteristic of a the processes of a healthy organization.
When it comes to the elements of a User Interface, in most cases, the elements are modeled after machines, not natural phenomena or living things. Is that necessary? Perhaps designs that project “Roughness” would be harder to program, harder to maintain, and may be even confusing to users? What do you think?
In physical objects, usage often creates or exacerbates “Roughness.” Could it be advantageous for this to happen with UI elements as well? Would window edges that looked “handmade” or “rough hewn” be more beautiful? More comforting? More usable? Less usable? Right now, conventional systems would make it harder to “calculate” the edges of a rough window than a conventional, straight-edged window. Must it be so? Or, could different architectures make roughness easier to calculate and require fewer resources?
My first conscious memory of thinking about “gradients” was in college biology. Gradients of chemicals make a difference in terms of cell differentiation, our professor explained.
For the past few days, I’ve been walking the garden on the lookout for “gradients.” As an experiment, I’m going to break up the discussion of gradients into sub-categories.
Visually, all the various gradients look similar. I am categorizing them by the cause of the gradient.
So, first, we have “Perspective Gradient” … as we look at identical or nearly identical items at different distances, they will obviously appear to have different sizes and different distances between those items.
Second, we have “Light Gradient.” For example, a series of spheres or cylinders lit by a single source, the three-dimensional shape will result in a gradient of light and dark from most angles.
Third, there are often “Color Gradients” for both animals and plants.
Fourth, there are “Growth Gradients.” Color Gradients, are often a specific example of Growth Gradients. However, there are other types of Growth Gradients. For example, in many plants new growth is at the distal end and is smaller. Old growth is more central or more toward the roots; it is older, and is larger.
Growth Gradients not apply to many plants and animals. They often apply to organizations as well. Imagine a multi-national distributor with field offices in half the countries in the world. If they move into a new country, at first, there will only be a few
Conversely, Color Gradients can be quite intentionally added by the artist! Here’s a detail from a John Lennon lithograph. Note that “Boundaries” and “Gradients” reinforce each other. The Gradient makes the Boundary Stronger and vice versa.
There are also “Force Gradients” that appear in response to water, wind, gravity, magnetism, etc. One could argue that “Growth Gradients” are due to forces as well. Historically, gradients can arise from evolutionary pressures. These, in turn, are instantiated, in many cases, by chemical gradients of hormones that control growth. However, there are also many non-living cases of gradients.
Finally, there are “Intentional Gradients” that are put in by artists, architects, landscape gardeners, designers, and UX designers.
Although the examples above are visual, there are also gradients in music. There are gradients in activity.
Gradients are also present in narrative. Think of the rising passion between two lovers or the increasing tension and suspense in a mystery or horror film scene.
Are there gradients in User Interfaces? One example that springs to mind was in the “Audio Distribution System” and “Olympic Message System.” These were audio messaging systems from IBM that allowed subscribers to the service to leave an audio message to a person or distribution list “on a person’s phone.” (Of course, the message was really on a server and played upon demand.) The UI’s only visual elements were an ordinary touch tone key pad circa 1980 and possibly a small booklet or template with the various command options. Primarily, the user was meant to hear Prompts for actions.
The gradient part came in the fact that the user could speed up the audio more and more as they became more and more familiar with it. That variable speed applied to prompts and also to messages. A typical user would experience slow messages, then faster messages, then, still faster messages, and so on.
In another IBM project, we built a “Personalized Education System” that would allow IT personnel to build a “Custom Course” for on-line learning that could vary continuously in length and difficulty. However, while each individual user could choose length and difficulty, they typically did not experience a gradient in that regard. By analogy, some insects may prefer to chew on new growth while others may like more mature leaves. An individual insect only experiences one “size & tenderness” yet the plant taken as a whole provides a gradient. Similarly, if your fellow citizens ever get there act together enough for you to have a barbecue party again, you might offer up a range of options on how done you cook the burgers. In this case, we might say the BBQ service offers gradations though an individual burger is not a gradient. This isn’t strictly true. A well-done burger is fairly consistent throughout but a rare burger may be much more rare in the middle and charred on the edges. So, for that choice, there is a gradient of experience.
Compared to the natural environment around me, which is positively thick with gradients, I don’t see (or feel) many gradients in any of the UI’s I interact with (games aside). The fisheye lens provides one way of introducing gradient into the UI. It produces, a kind of “Perspective Gradient.”
It would be possible to put gradients into many of the visual elements of a UI. Would it make the interface look more like nature? Would it be more beautiful? Would it be distracting?
Here’s a poem that illustrates a gradient of love.
With zero contrast, nothing can be seen at all! Beyond that however, it is interesting how many plants and animals as well as good designs show the property of Contrast. Plants “use” contrast, if I may speak in teleological terms, to attract pollinators such as butterflies and bees to their flowers. Plants also use contrast to “announce” to animals who spread seeds that their fruit is ripe and ready to be eaten. If the fruit part of a plant did not make such an obvious “announcement,” a forager might damage a plant by eating all of it rather than just the sugar-rich fruit.
By contrast, fall leaves show high contrast which adds to their beauty, but this is probably just a “side-effect” of the leaves “saving” their water & chlorophyl and leaving other colorful compounds in the leaf. I suppose there could be an evolutionary advantage to a tree that is beautiful in the fall. I could imagine that bright colors attract animals and birds to “hang out” nearby and this means that the soil will be enriched by animal excretions and sometimes deaths. In some cases, the color might “signal” animals that fall is coming and if the animals take more appropriate actions, this makes for a healthy ecosystem for the trees. I know of no such evidence however. It seems likely the bright colors are a beautiful side-effect of the tree breaking down the no-longer-useful chlorophyl to components that are stored in the roots. The more we learn about trees though, the more “clever” they seem so I wouldn’t put it past them to have “reason.”
Some animals, such as zebras and tigers, use contrast as a kind of camouflage. If you see a picture of a zebra or tiger out of context, you may think, “What? How is that camouflage?” But in the bright sun, grazing in tall grass (or lurking there, hoping for dinner), it actually does serve such a purpose.
There is also a more subtle kind of camouflage that some animals employ. High contrast can make it difficult for a potential predator or prey to “parse” the visual image. I believe some of the professional tennis outfits, for instance, make it harder for an opponent to “read” the actual body positions from across the court, especially with non-foveal vision. Is that what’s going on in the picture below?
Considered separately, the shadow of the fence in the photo below strikes me as more beautiful than the fence itself. This is largely due to the higher Contrast in the shadow. I think another property “Roughness” also plays a part. The fence is machine milled and regular. The shadow falls on uneven ground. Rather than obscuring the Contrast, the Roughness actually enhances it. In addition, the fence appears quite separate and distinct from the greenery behind it. However, the shadow is partly determined by the fence and partly determined by the uneven ground. This means the shadow exhibits more “Deep Interlock and Ambiguity.”
I do think the combination of fence and shadow is more beautiful than either taken alone. Taken together, there is an additional layer of Contrast between the “mechanical” regularity of the fence and the rougher feel of the shadow.
One of the things that trees do is add contrast by virtue of the branches and leaves casting irregular shadows in many places but letting bright light through in other places. Here is a simple case.
In the photo below, the landscape architect has likely intentionally designed this arbor partly with contrasts in mind. Dark vs. Light; Horizontal vs. Vertical; Straight vs. Bent; Built vs. Growing. What other contrasts do you see?
Contrast is often desirable not just in terms of vision, but also for other senses. A good salad, for instance, shows contrast in color, but also in terms of textures and tastes. Orchestral music shows contrast in terms of loudness, timbre, harmony, melody, etc.
Living things also exhibit contrast, not only in their visual appearance, but also in terms of the rhythms of life. Many plants and animals exhibit both daily cycles such as sleep and wakefulness, but also yearly cycles (hibernation, aestivation, migration, mating season, losing fall leaves, blooming & fruiting, etc.). In fact, many animals & plants only live one year.
Stories typically exhibit contrasts of various sorts. A story (whether play, movie, novel, or short story) is often more interesting when set in both wartime and peacetime, in both country and city, in two different times, etc. In addition, a good story often has contrasting characters such as hero and villain, or two less extreme characters, one of whom is a “foil” for the other. The plot itself is constructed of contrasts in value. The hero loses an athletic contest. Then, the hero wins! Then, the judges unfairly strip the hero of the medals. Then, an investigation reveals that the hero was framed and the hero prevails after all. Love may conquer all — but never without a struggle!
This succulent pictured below seems beautiful to me partly because of Contrast. Is there an aesthetic “purpose” to the contrast shown? Or, is the real “point” to provide the sharp spikes on the edge of the plant and in order to make those spikes effective, the plant needs to be drier near the edges or have a yellow pigment that somehow facilitates the growth of spikes? Perhaps the plant’s growth is limited (in the Southwestern US) by the available water and not at all by sunshine (which is plentiful). Therefore, there is no “point” to having the entire plant green.
If it seems too far-fetched to imagine a plant exhibiting contrast because it’s more beautiful, it is not to far-fetched to imagine animals exhibiting contrast to attract other animals; most notably, a mate. Insects, birds, mammals, fish, sometimes exhibit “displays” of high contrast color in order to attract mates. Typically, such displays are only used during actual mating season.
In addition to seasonal and daily “contrasts” in behavior and appearance, animals often exhibit contrast at a finer temporal granularity. As humans, we breathe several times a minute and our heart beats about once a second. Some aspects of our anatomy and physiology have evolved to provide antagonistic forces and processes. We have, for instance, our sympathetic nervous system that prepares us for “Fight or Flight” reactions. The para-sympathetic nervous system turns on a “rest and digest” mode also called “feed and breed.” Our sensory and motor systems use both excitatory and inhibitory processes to “sharpen” what we perceive and the actions we take. Our musculature often has muscles that produce “opposite” results. Our biceps bends our arm and our triceps straightens our arm. The adductors in our legs move our legs inward toward our trunk and the abductors move our legs apart.
Contrast is so prevalent in the natural order of things “out there” and in the structure and function of our own bodies that it is hardly surprising that our conceptual structures often exaggerate contrasts. We often think, for instance, in terms like these: “Up or Down? Liberal or Conservative? Good or Evil? Strong or Weak? Black or White? Growth or Decay? Orderly or Disorderly?”
If we return to the photo of the fence and its shadow, for example, we are tempted to describe the darkest parts of the shadow as being places without light while the spaces between have light. Of course, there is light, even in those shadows. Light is reflecting off the nearby trees, houses, grape vines, sand, cars, etc. There is nothing shown in this photo that has no light.
As Amanda Gorman pointed out in the recent Presidential Inauguration —
“For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
When it comes to User Interface design, contrast has many uses. For example, contrast is often used to signal whether an item is chosen or not, or whether an action is available or not. Interfaces often include text and the text is easier to read if the contrast is higher. In the early days of human computer interaction, text was composed of a relatively small number of bits that were either on or off. High contrast came with the technological limitations of the devices. More recently, text often appears as dark gray on light gray rather than as black on white. Why? I have no idea. People sometimes claim that low contrast is “easier on the eye.” So far, no-one has been able to point to empirical evidence. However, text is harder to read when the contrast is low. If the user is old, or trying to read in glare, or has limited vision, or the reader or device is moving or vibrating, low contrast text can become illegible. The “worst” cases I’ve seen are on devices such as CD players or smoke alarms. To simplify (and therefore cheapen) manufacture, the letters are not painted at all but simply embossed as white on white or (even worse) black on black. From my personal experience, few things in modern life are as pleasant as being awoken around 3 am by a screaming smoke alarm which has cryptic and unreadable directions in white on white.
At a more abstract level, a high level of conceptual contrast can often make the user experience less frustrating, more enjoyable, and more productive. What do I mean by “conceptual contrast.” In this context, I mean that two related actions or situations that are clearly differentiated in the commands, the explanations, the terms etc. are less prone to confusion. Let’s pick on what I see right before me: the high level “Pages” tool bar. “File Edit Insert Format Arrange View Share Window Help” At a visual level, these are nearly white on a black background; i.e., easy to read. But what is the conceptual contrast between “Format” and “Arrange”? How about “View” and “Window”? Are there other terms that would be better cues as to what these groups of functions do?
The same for menus within the document. I see above the material I am actually typing another use of the words “Insert” and “Text” appears right next to it. But how is this different from “Text” on the right? It’s not that any of these items are so confusing that they cannot be learned. “Style” when you are writing (as opposed to “word processing”) generally refers to something much more abstract that the type of font and the size or color of the text or the spacing between lines.
I think a more fundamental issue is that typical text editors, after the “Clippy” fiasco, have steered away from explicitly supporting the process of actual writing. That would be much more difficult. I’m not going to try to design such a system here. To give a hint of the kind of thing I mean though, suppose that a text editor explicitly supported writing a short story. Embarking on writing a short story, the user might be presented with a choice for guidance. Perhaps this hypothetical writer wants to try writing a “locked room” mystery. And, maybe they want lots of guidance. So, the software leads them through an idea generation phase. In that phase, perhaps it is more productive to turn off various kinds of “autocorrect.” Perhaps the author is encouraged to “solve” the basic problem (how was the murder committed) before actually beginning the writing. Maybe there is a high level of visual Contrast which serves as a constant reminder to the author that they are, at this point, generating ideas.
Von Oech suggests that problem solving involves four stages that he illustrates with four “hats” — an explorer’s pith helmet for the Exploration phase; an artists beret for the Creation Phase; a judge’s wig for the Editing or testing phase; and a Viking warrior’s horned helmet for the marketing and sales phase. If such a model were supported by the software, you might expect a strongly contrasted visual interface to reinforce the phase of writing that the user was in. The Exploration phase might consist visually of cards that various fields that would support research. The artistic phase might be a mind-mapping tool. And, so on. The user would know at every glance which phase of the overall writing process they were “in.”
It may be that any such process involves too much overhead or is too rigid. But what is the alternative? At present, the author must either keep almost all the information about their goals, ideas, and processes in their head or in a separate document or spreadsheet. As I look at the screen in writing there is almost no clue about “where I am” in the process of writing. Whether or not you buy into the specific four-stage model of Von Oech, I do believe that various phases of writing do offer contrasts in terms of how that phase should be supported. I only chose writing as one example.
Nearly any task that the user is engaged in has some structure to it. Scientific research, learning a foreign language, organizing a tennis tournament, planning a trip, finding a house, buying a book on-line, etc. All of these have different sub-tasks. In some cases, the user wants more flexibility; in some cases, less flexibility is actually helpful. But most “application programs” seem to me to be deficient in terms of guiding the user through a process; giving any visual indication of where the user is in the overall process, or of tailoring actions to which subtask the user is engaged in. If a user is generating ideas, for example, pointing out grammatical errors, typos, and spelling errors is distracting and not that helpful. On the other hand, if the user is finished writing and is proofreading, then such suggestions may be helpful and appreciated.
What do you see as the uses of Contrast in User Experience? Is it best thought of as a visual property which may be nice to have but is not crucial? Or, does Contrast also apply to different subtasks or phases which need to be reflected in both the appearance of the UI and in the way the functionality works?
In many cases, the various 15 properties that Christopher Alexander poses as characteristic of natural beauty seem to contradict each other. They don’t contradict each other. They are forces that sometimes oppose each other or work at angles to each other. This should not surprise us because the same is true of life in general. Of course, I want my bones to be bigger because that will make them stronger. But bigger bones will make me weigh more and demand more nutrition. I want the biggest brain I can have, but a big head makes childbirth almost impossible. One way out of the conundrum is to risk having human babies born way earlier in their development than for most animals.
So, Good Shape plays off against Deep Interlock & Ambiguity. Partly, it solves this problem by asking a third character in this morality play to step onto the stage — Levels of Scale. If one focuses attention on a single leaf or flower or petal of a flower, one typically finds “Good Shape.” In clusters of well-shaped leaves, or well-shaped flowers, one often sees the flowers or leaves interleaving with the space of other well-shaped leaves or flowers. Thus, at one level of scale, there is Good Shape. But at a higher level, all of these Good Shapes interact with each other so as to interlock.
Typically, when we design User Experiences, we try to make things clear, not provide “Deep Interlock and Ambiguity” — that sounds like something to be avoided. Perhaps we can see how some decorative elements might exhibit Deep Interlock & Ambiguity, but surely anything that is functional should be clear.
I think there is a place for Deep Interlock & Ambiguity in design — even functional design. First, we need to distinguish two sorts of reasons for having Deep Interlock & Ambiguity. On the one hand, the application itself may require deep interlock and ambiguity. Insisting that the user make absolute or irrevocable decisions when inappropriate is not good design. The importance of pliant design I’ve mentioned before. Here’s the paper that first introduced me to the term.
Harris, Jed & Henderson, Austin. (1999). A Better Mythology for System Design.. 88-95. 10.1145/302979.303003.
Consider the relationship between a father and son, or between spouses. Do you think such intimate relationships could be reduced to a black and white set of clear, consistent, precise rules? I doubt it. It’s a “natural relationship” and, as such, will be ill-suited to predefining everything. That doesn’t mean that there need be no rules or that each person themselves should not have a “Good Shape.” Multiple “Good Shapes” with the right spacing will include both “Boundaries” and “Deep Interlock and Ambiguity” and as a result help produce “Positive Space.”
On the other hand … (did you forget the first hand? It was quite a diversion. Well, the first hand was about revealing to the user the Deep Interlock and Ambiguity inherent in their particular context, task, and the field they are working in. That is much better than hiding that truth.
On the other hand, are you adding ambiguity because you’re not really clear about how a function is supposed to work? Or, are you pushing decorative elements so hard that it is obscuring the relationship of functional elements? A decorative example of mis-using “Deep Interlock & Ambiguity” (which I doubt anyone would actually do) would be to interlace two different menus like interlocking fingers of the two hands. It might indeed look more interesting visually. Perhaps someone out there could even make a good argument for having interleaved menus in certain situations. One example that might make some sense would be interlocking food and wine menus.
Deep Interlock & Ambiguity is not only a property of visual beauty. Good drama, poetry, and music exhibit them as well. In various ways, so also do most sports. Almost every sport allows and requires the athlete to make decisions that have tradeoffs. Should they attempt the riskier move or the safer one? Should they attempt a higher bar, the heavier weight, the faster start? In addition, many sports (soccer, basketball, baseball, American football, hockey, rugby, etc.) have the two teams interacting directly. In tennis and volleyball, the players stay on their own side of the net, but the players need to shift constantly depending on the positions & motions of everyone else and the position & trajectory of the ball and the capabilities of the various players. I think this qualifies as a sort of Deep Interlock and Ambiguity. Such sports seem not that different from a simplification and stylization of the kinds of interactions that take place in natural ecosystem interactions.
Many simplified childhood games seem quite close to re-enactments of life and death struggles: Hide and Seek, Tag, Hare and Hounds, Cops and Robbers. In my neighborhood, when a new movie came out, the kids would typically go see it and then “play out” variations on the theme of the music. We would play in the setting of the movie (in our imaginations) and adopt characters from the movie. Movies aimed at children typically don’t exhibit quite as much Deep Interlock & Ambiguity as those aimed at older audiences when it comes to Character development. But the plot swings back and forth between apparent victory & defeat, loss & gain, life & death, honor & dishonor, etc. In that sense, the “experiencer” — whether adult or child — doesn’t know (or let themselves know) how things will turn out.
My childhood friends and I moved far beyond re-enacting the actual movie. We improvised entirely new plot lines, we created new lines of deep interlock and ambiguity. Were we taking actions we “really wanted to do” or merely taking actions we thought the characters in the movie would do if they were in the new situation? If we, as an actor, acted too “angry” with one of our friends, would it carry over into real life? If we, as ourselves, acted a certain way and liked it better than our ordinary way, could we “keep” the new behavior (or name, or hairdo, or way of dressing, or favorite expression, etc.?).
Something like that continues throughout adulthood as well, both within our careers and in our personal lives. Or, at least it may. As you take on different “roles”, you begin to notice that you are better than most people at some things; worse at other things; and roughly average at still other things. You may also notice that doing certain kinds of things is very enjoyable while other activities leave you cold. Your preferences about what you want to do might stay fairly constant through your whole career. Or, your preferences might change quite a bit. If you allow yourself to really “get into a role,” you’ll have a better time deciding if it is a role you really relish. You might find yourself falling in love with your work, which of course is quite different from falling in love with the rewards or the trappings of work. If your life is like most, you’ll spend a lot more time working than enjoying the rewards or trappings of work.
Good Shape. Positive Space. These seem to be highly related concepts. Most of the pictures I used as illustrations of Positive Space could equally well illustrate Good Shape. A Positive Space is often composed of multiple good shapes arranged in a “balanced way.”
In order to illustrate “Good Shape,” I decided to take some pictures to illustrate “Bad Shape.” Since I have surrounded myself mainly with nature or with artifacts that were intentionally designed to be aesthetically pleasing, it turned out to be more difficult than I imagined at first. The other issue is that when I take photographs, I (like most people) “frame” the picture so that “Good Shape” is clear. I began to intentionally brake that habitual way of framing with pictures of flowers that overlap. The natural beauty of flowers is so rich that, to me, even a quasi-random framing still results in a beautiful picture.
This turns out not to be the case with artifacts however.
Although some of the elements of this seem to have “Good Shape,” the overall composition lacks a coherent center. It seems to me to be an artificial “kludge” of colors, textures, and shapes and there is no overall “Good Shape.”
By re-arranging the elements into this form (above), to me, it seems to get closer to “Good Shape” but the purple “tennis ball” seems ill-proportioned and out of place. In “real tennis” there is a physical reason for the ball to be fuzzy but here, the fuzziness of the ball seems added on and arbitrary.
Here too (above), the overall composition lacks “Good Shape.” The large semi-random dark blob in the middle has no real “Center.” The elements around the edges do not cohere or reflect off of each other. None of the elements around the edges are complete enough to have “Good Shape” except possibly the links of the small chain.
Here is another example of quasi-random elements brought together into a single picture. Though to me, both the wood and the stone are in and of themselves beautiful, there is nothing about the composition that integrates into a whole. There is no center, no echoes, no alternating repetition, no levels of scale, and despite the nice texture of the stone and wood, the overall effect, to me, is lacking in “Natural Order” and in beauty.
By way of contrast, the flower here seems to have a good overall shape reinforced by a Strong Center, Alternating Repetition, and each of the petals themselves has Good Shape. Around the flower, to me, is a “Positive Space.” Note that one of the petals seems slightly out of place. To me, however, this does not spoil the “Good Shape.”
The same can be said of these flowers.
It isn’t necessary to have overall “simplicity” in order to have “Good Shape.” These flowers are not “simple” in shape, but they still have “Good Shape.”
The bird on a branch shown above seems to me to have “Good Shape” even though it is (in outline) lacking symmetry. Though lacking symmetry in profile, the shape strikes me as “balanced.” I don’t perceive the bird as having to exert a lot of energy to keep from “falling off the branch.” The bird’s shape, like the shapes of most animals and plants is the result of 4.5 billion years of evolutionary history.
Many people view some creatures as “enemies” and therefore “creepy” or “yucky” or perhaps even as dangerous. If you can set that aside and simply look though, I think you can see that “Good Shape” characterizes all sorts of animals (as well as plants).
At a more abstract level, it even seems that natural animal behavior often shows beauty. That also seems characteristic of skilled human behavior. The Olympics show plenty of examples. It is hard to imagine an “ugly” baseball swing resulting in a home run. The runners, jumpers, throwers, gymnasts, tennis players, and so on produce “Good Shape” in three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension.
I play tennis several times a week. I’m not averse to winning a point even if the ball hits my frame, skids off to the net cord and drops over for a winner. But — I never feel as pleased by such outsized luck as when I hit a good shot that results from proper choice, preparation, and execution (and a history of practice and reflection). I never think of a lucky mis-hit as “beautiful.”
The concept of “Good Shape” even applies to more complex human organizations and endeavors. Racism, for instance, to me is truly ugly. It is not based on truth, but on a kludge of lies masquerading as truth. White Supremacy for instance, basically says, “We’re white! That makes us superior! In fact, we’re so superior, that we insist every aspect of our society be tilted so we can be guaranteed a win!”
Bad logic is never beautiful.
The “Good Shape” exhibited by most plants and animals reflects both a long evolutionary balance of forces (phylogeny) and the development of a particular organism (ontogeny). When biology goes awry, as in cancer, the result is not beauty. The “logic” of cancer is that billions of years of evolution that allows our bodies to work harmoniously is put aside for short-sighted egotism. A random cell says, in effect, “I’m no longer going to do my part for the body as a whole. Instead, I’m going to grab all I can for myself and grow in an unrestricted way!”
Such a cell, by making that decision, signs its own death warrant. Either the body destroys the cancer and therefore the cancer dies — or, the cancer prevails and in that case it destroys the life of the organism it was supposed to be a part of — and then it dies anyway! It’s an “ugly” decision both because it is disproportionate and because it is illogical. It aims to be self-serving, but it is not even self-serving. It guarantees its own death and kills more life along the way.
It’s the same, to me, with any dysfunctional human organization. If democracy is perverted by some people demanding that decisions be made so that they can have their way regardless of how it impacts the overall tree of life and the overall health of a city, state, or nation, it lacks “Good Shape” and instead becomes a distorted kludge lacking symmetry, lacking balance, lacking life. It is no accident that “Gerrymandered” districts do not have “Good Shape.”
In extreme cases, not surprisingly, dictatorships have resulted in a war on truth, beauty, and life itself. It’s no “accident” that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were each responsible for millions of human deaths. Their activities also show utter disregard for the beauty of the natural environment and the plants and animals of the planet.
When it comes to User Experience, the most obvious way to apply “Good Shape” is to the visual elements of the interface — icons, windows, menus, tool bars etc. However, I think it also applies to the design process. Are the needs of all stakeholders taken into consideration?
Do the various disciplines involved in design respect each other? Do people tell the truth and show trust? Does the company treat its users with respect and tell the truth in its various communications?
If a company provides “free games” or “free services” that are purportedly for entertainment or education but the real purpose is to gather data to sell to advertisers or foreign powers trying to use the data to destroy democracy, it would seem to me that business model itself — the raison d’êtrefor the entire project is an “ugly shape” regardless of how pretty the icons are.
What do you think? Do the concepts of natural beauty apply to the design of organizations and even governments?
(This is the fifth in a series of 15 blogs that explore Christopher Alexander’s “Fifteen Properties” of good design, natural beauty, living spaces, etc.).
Life is a dance on the edge between chaos, on the one hand, and sameness & repetition on the other hand. Repetition without variation or change is not life. On the other hand, endless random variation without any pattern or principle is also not life. Planet Earth is sometimes said to be a “Goldilocks Planet” — not too hot and not too cold — to support life. Most of the life forms on planet earth themselves exhibit a “positive shape” — a shape that wants to expand and fill out — and yet, there are limits because of circulation, gravity, communication etc. so that growth is typically not unrestricted. The tension between trying to grow and having to stick close enough to form creates positive space.
Life may not always be “a bowl of cherries” but nonetheless, a bowl of cherries does illustrate the property of “positive space.” The bowl connotes living things trying to expand right up to the boundaries possible. A bowl that is filled with cherries and even slightly over-filled but without inducing a fear of spillage, to me, connotes life being vigorous and healthy. To me, a single cherry sitting all alone in a large bowl seems to exhibit positive space much less — at least at the scale of the bowl.
When I look at an individual cherry, I also see positive space. The cherry is not a perfect sphere, featureless and smooth. If it were, to me, it would be a much less positive space. The fact that there is a stem and a noticeable indentation where the stem goes provides a kind of center. So too does the slight asymmetry of the cherry. It appears as though it might have developed as two halves that tried to circle a space at the same time from two different directions – clockwise and counterclockwise. They met and merged to form the almost spherical cherry.
The cherry is not the only natural food that has this kind of positive space. Think of corn on the cob. Each kernel seems to have tried to grow as large as it can. It pushes up against and into other kernels. Each kernel seems therefore to be “bursting with life.”
Consider a cucumber. It’s roughly cylindrical. But “roughly” is important here. To me, it would seem much less an example of “Positive Space” if it were literally a cylinder. It tapers at the ends and it bulges at the middle. That seems more “positive.”
A person who doesn’t understand that life is primarily a cooperative endeavor among all the parts of the vast tree of life, but instead sees the world only as a zero-sum game, it must seem as though the positive living space of a cucumber makes the space around the cucumber less positive and less living. But this is not true! The space around the cucumber’s slightly rotund shape is much more positive and living than the space around a perfect cylinder.
Think of a tree trunk compared with a telephone pole. They are both made of wood and they are both approximately cylindrical. But a tree trunk feels much more alive to us than a telephone pole. I don’t think this is simply because we “know” a tree is alive. It looks more alive and if you allow yourself to “tune in” to it, it feels more alive. And, importantly, not only does the space that the tree inhabits seem more living. So too does the space around it! A long line of telephone poles may exhibit “Levels of Scale” and “Alternating Repetition” and such a picture may make us feel some life to it.
But a single telephone pole does nothing to stir life in me. In that sense, it’s nothing like a tree. It’s flat and it kills the space on either side as well. The columns in the Parthenon are roughly cylindrical and obviously not literally alive. But they, unlike a telephone pole, have positive space and create positive space around them. Life is not fundamentally a zero-sum game. The bee does not “steal” the flowers pollen and thus damage the flower. The bee helps the flower. The flower helps the bee. Positive space in an object does not steal from or detract from the space around the object. It enhances it!
Similarly, the “competition” for space among the kernels of corn on a cob of corn shows that competition can be a beautiful thing. I like to see the kernels pushing against each other. All of them seem living and positive. Imagine instead a cob of corn in which one kernel had grown like a giant spider of orange cancer and took up 98% of the cob. Aside from this one ultra-greedy cell, there were only a few widely spaced and shriveled up kernels. Would you pick that from the pile of corn? Would want to slather it with butter and bite into it? I sure wouldn’t! And to me, that is exactly what cruelty, unfairness, and greed look like. It might seem positive — after all, the dictator is trying to “grow.” That is true but he’s rigged the game. Competition is no longer beautiful when the game is rigged. Competition is no longer beautiful when your tennis opponent slices off your leg before the match starts or pays off the chair umpire to call everything you hit out.
I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about cucumbers or cherries or corn. I just happened to have been washing vegetables before writing this. These radishes also exhibit positive space. And, although their shape is not the same as a cherry or a cucumber, the radishes also enhance the space around them. And, so does the avocado. An avocado that is just past ideal ripeness begins to flatten irregularly and the “pebbles” of the skin also flatten making a less positive space. The pebbles of a perfectly ripe avocado are themselves tiny positive spaces that add to the overall impression of vigor.
Flowers provide numerous examples of positive space. And, so far as I can tell, the positive space of flowers invariably also enhances the positivity of the space around them.
Animals also generally exhibit positive space. Their shapes, after all, come about through a struggle among different tradeoffs that have been “learned” by each species over four and a half billion years. But whether you look at the leg of a turtle, the leg of a turkey, or the leg of a polar bear, you will see positive space. The shapes are quite different because their histories are quite different. But in every case, the shape is determined by the history and each of those histories is the same length — 4.5 billion years. The fact that each of these shapes comes about through the dance of trying to survive and thrive in all their various habitats makes every one of them beautiful in its own right — even those whom most of us don’t particularly like to interact with such as rattlesnakes or lions. Even if we don’t wish to come face to face with a lion or grizzly bear we do recognize their beauty. And, I would claim that as those animals walk through any landscape, they will not only exhibit their own positive shape; they will also enhance the positivity of the shape around where they are walking. Think how many times photographers and painters have put an animal in the foreground of a landscape! Of course, doing so makes the scene immediately more living, more interesting, and more beautiful.
What does this have to do with the user’s experience on a computing device? I would have to say that most interfaces on most devices do not do a lot to bring the interface “alive” including having positive space. The tool bar icons on this version of my Mac are very slightly “bulging” like a living cell (or kernel of corn). Even more subtly, the windows have slightly rounded corners.
It’s an entirely different story with many games though. It seems to me that some of the game artists are among the best artists in the world. They have created many very beautiful games. Could they be more beautiful still if game designers consciously thought about using Christopher Alexander’s “Properties” in general, and “Positive Space” in particular? I think so, but for many games, such as Horizon Zero Dawn, many of the elements are copied so closely from nature that aspects such as “Positive Space” are mostly already taken care of by evolutionary bias toward the beautiful. (Yes, I do think there is such a bias, but it will have to be the subject of a different post.)
What about other applications and systems? Do you think you’ve seen good examples of “Positive Space” in such systems? How could you see incorporating “Positive Space” in UX?