How do we celebrate Umbrella Day? Put up an umbrella tree with little paper umbrellas we’ve collected in a lifetime of drinking fruit flavored nerve poison? Hey! Here’s one way we could celebrate: get rid of the necessity of a nuclear umbrella and while we’re at it, why not get rid of war altogether? It benefits very few of the people involved. Look it up.
No, I suspect that how we are really supposed to celebrate “Umbrella Day” is to buy more umbrellas. Buy more umbrellas? That sounds right. No doubt, this was something cooked up by manufacturers of umbrellas. I doubt the raindrops lobbied for it. A group of consumer fans who just happen to love umbrellas to an inordinate degree? Possible, but extremely unlikely. It’s not the umbrella’s fault; it’s that an umbrella addresses a miserable problem: getting wet when you don’t want to get wet. And, the umbrellas never do a perfect job. They wet the interior of your car and home. They pinch your fingers. People use them! I use them. They are useful. But I don’t think people love them enough to spontaneously beg their government for Umbrella Day. You can call me a cynic; it’s okay. I’m pretty sure it was the Umbrella Manufactures.
That doesn’t mean I won’t appropriate Umbrella Day for my own purposes which are to have fun writing and to entertain some folks out there. Whenever I think of umbrellas, one of the first things that comes to mind was a “QUALITY” meeting all managers in an anonymous telecommunications company (ATC) were required to attend. We listened to talk after talk, many with exciting PowerPoint pie charts and bar charts. No fewer than seven members of the audience were carried out on stretchers for tachycardia brought about by the sheer exuberance of the final slide showing the PILLARS of ATC QUALITY.
At the conclusion, to make sure that the excitement we all feel when sitting for non-interactive presentations all day didn’t somehow dissipate when we walked out the door, each manager was presented with an ATC QUALITY umbrella of our very own!
Whether ATC management arranged for the downpour that hit the city the moment we left the meeting or whether it was sheer happenstance, I don’t really know. In any case, it was a fortuitous event from the perspective of the quality folks because now we would instantly see just how important quality is in our daily lives.
The raindrops came down.
The umbrellas went up.
The umbrellas broke.
The umbrellas served their purpose: they showed just how much top management cared about quality.
(By the way, there really are useful approaches to the important topic of quality. This wasn’t that.)
The umbrella is a device that can be used in many situations. In the summer between my Junior and Senior years in college, I worked as a child care worker at a psychiatric hospital for kids. I lived in a tiny basement studio apartment in the “Little Italy” part of town. My cheap bed had a line of broken springs so my umbrella served as a brace so that I didn’t sag onto the floor. The umbrella bent but did not break. I was much lighter then.
On one occasion, one of those tiny non-human vampires some might call “a bat” broke into my tiny room and flapped endless noisy loops inches from my head.
Slowly, I eased my way out of bed. I slid the umbrella out of its place and when the bat was at the far end of my cell, I opened the umbrella and slowly worked my way toward the door end. My left hand held the umbrella shield before me, much like a muggle version of a Patronus Charm. I slid my right hand over and opened the door. The next time the bat approached the door, out they went. Yay! I like win/win solutions even with mini-vampires. Bats, incidentally, are really cool critters! They are useful to us for a number of reasons, and that’s pretty nice. But they are also just cool in their own right. Their “bat-ness” is every bit as marvelous in its own way as our “human-ness.” The point is that we can use the umbrella in ways the umbrella manufacturers probably never envisioned.
Now, we turn to the one of the most powerful umbrellas in the world.
For several years, my wife and I attended the Newport Folk Festival — a wonderful outdoor concert with two score of the very best folk performers. One of the reasons I like outdoor concerts is so that I can dance. I mean by that that I can dance the way I want to and not get ejected from the venue.
The Newport Folk Festival was no exception. Typically, we had very good luck weather-wise, but one year, it poured. It wasn’t a drizzle. It wasn’t a sprinkle. Nor was it short, hard summer shower that lasts a half hour and then the sun comes out and the rainbow comes out and everyone’s clothes dry in the sun. Nope. This was a constant downpour.
We knew it “might” rain so we came prepared with rain clothes and large umbrellas. The stage was protected so the performances went on as scheduled. I, like most, huddled under layers of clothing and beneath an umbrella.
I was cold.
I was not dancing.
I thought to myself, “I came here to dance. I am going to dance.” So I did. I shed my clothing save for my bathing trunks and I traded in my UMbrella for an UNbrella.
Four hours later, it was still raining. But the mood was completely different. Now, half the crowd was dancing in their bathing suits. Everyone was happy! All thanks to the power of the unbrella.
Speaking of vampires and werewolves…
“Beware when you wear ware that you are aware that it is merely ware you’re wearing. You are not your wear.”
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.
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?
Among other things, I think human beings enjoy making “connections.” That applies to interpersonal connections. It also applies to connections in our own heads. “Oh, you’re the new friend I’ve been hearing so much about.” “Oh! That’s why my omelettes always stick!” “Oh, I can move immediately after I hit the ball! I don’t have to wait and see where my opponent hits it.” In other words, we like to learn. We like to see relationships that we didn’t see before.
I think this is why I find “Echoes” a very beautiful property in architecture, in music, in poetry, and in natural beauty. Echoes need not be perfect duplications. In most cases, it’s better if that’s not overdone. Perfect duplications at the same scale are more evocative of machinery or mass production that natural beauty.
At this point, I am sorely tempted to tangent off on why, when you yell into a canyon, what comes back is not a perfect duplication or the original sound waves you sent out. But I will resist.
When nature, or a designer, puts subtle echoes, it’s delightful because it allows us to make a connection that is “across” or “different from” the main show. For example, in poetry, one typically reads from start to finish. It is a linear experience. At the same time, there are often rhyme schemes so that words “echo” other words in an auditory sense. Poetry often uses metaphor which becomes a kind of “color scheme” for the room that particular poem created.
In social interaction, if it is done skillfully, there are also echoes. Things are hinted at, shown only partially, or suggested. Slowly, a listener may become hooked on an attractive lure and end up swallowing, as they say, hook, line and sinker! If someone came right out and said up front, “Now look, I’d like to become dictator and what I need from you is to send me lots of money and thirdly, swallow any bull-crap I spew and actually, come to think of it, you might have to kill your granny and or your kids. On board?” No. Very few would take that on. Instead, it is hinted, intimated, insinuated that: “Everything that’s bad in your life — that’s not your fault! I know who is to blame and I can help right all those wrongs!”
Echoes aren’t always bad in human interactions. Far from it. One of the most amazing things to observe is how a two or three person team in trivial pursuit or Who Wants to be a Millionaire throw twenty miscellaneous and various possible answers — all wrong!! — into the air and after several minutes of being nowhere close to the answer, someone shouts: “The Mad Hatter!” And that is exactly right.
In music, there are harmonies, themes, motifs, recapitulations, etc. In some musical settings such as cathedrals, the music may produce literal echoes. Regardless, themes are repeated, varied, morphed into something different and so on.
So too, in architecture. If we try to imagine how buildings first came to be, it would be quite natural for them to have “echoes” because the entire building would be constructed of local materials. Stones, reeds, skins, bricks, logs, caves, etc. naturally lead to echoes because it’s all the same “stuff.” In modern skyscrapers however, it’s quite possible to design something with no echoes at all. The only point of the skyscraper is to be as efficient as humanly possible to make as much money as possible. What would be the point of “echoes”? Would it generate more profit? Sure, it might be an interesting experience for those who looked at our building. To which, a likely answer might be: “Who cares?”
Isn’t it interesting that back when most people had next to nothing, they bothered to make cathedrals as beautiful as they knew how. But now that we have much, much more, we can’t spare the cash. (“We may be rich, but we are not yet the richest.”)
Nature is rife with echoes. Here’s one I have the privilege to witness almost every night. As the sun goes down, the light in the garden turns yellow. This means that flowers, trees, and so on will appear in higher contrast and in more golden light. A close up of white roses will look golden in the setting sun and so too will tree branches in the background.
If you walk (or run, bike, etc.) through a garden or a forest, the experience will typically be full of echoes because you will walk by many individual oaks, beeches, roses, mayapples etc. each of which echoes to an extent all the others. In the same way that a poet puts rhyme, allusions, and other figures of speech to cause echoes both within the poem and with your memories, so too, a walk in nature will remind you of other previous experiences and of other plants and animals that you see earlier in the walk. The actions of walking themselves (or of wheeling, running, biking or cross-country skiing) are a kind of echo in much the same way that a steady rhythm in a poem causes echoes among all the stressed syllables and among all the unstressed syllables.
Where do echoes occur in user interfaces? One of the few things that I think of are that logos associated with various pieces of software appear in different places and at different scales. For example, I recognize the small version of the Safari logo on my tool bar. To the right are open file locations in that browser. There is a small image of the landing page of each website, but each little icon also has a teeny version of the Safari logo. If I go to the Safari website, I’ll no doubt see other sizes of Safari logos.
To the extent that developers use a common style guide, that also causes a kind of echo effect. I might see something to the right of my writing pane and say to myself: “Ah, under ‘font’ I see a common widget next to ‘11pt’ — a widget consisting of an up and down arrow. I’ve see that before! I’ll bet I can change the font size with it. Clicking on the up arrow will make for larger font; clicking on the down arrow will make a smaller font.”
To the extent that the use of various conventions causes correct patterns to be accessed out of my memory, those echoes seem mildly aesthetic and quite useful. Where else do you see “echoes” in user experience or in user interfaces?
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.
Complex organizations typically have many levels of organizations. In life, there are cells which often have symmetry. The human body has large-scale bilateral symmetry (two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, two sides to the brain, etc.). If we look at our hands, we see a thumb and four fingers. Each finger, and the thumb, each have roughly bilateral symmetry. Symmetries such as these are visible.
There are also often functional symmetries in living systems as well. We breathe in. We breath out. Our nervous system has excitatory circuits and inhibitory circuits. Most complex organisms reproduce via two sexes. Many animals have cycles of sleep and wakefulness. Often birds, and other animals have migrations tied to the cycle of the seasons. Trees are able to draw water up and move water down.
The structural symmetries and the functional symmetries are often connected. When a person runs, for example, they use one leg and then the other. In fact, as your left leg goes forward, typically so does your right arm. As you move your right leg forward, you move you left arm forward. As you breathe in, your rib cage expands on both sides symmetrically. As you breathe out, your rib cage contracts on both sides symmetrically.
Human organizations often have functional symmetries as well as structural symmetries. For example, most organizations have an “onboarding process” as well as a “termination process.” Our physical artifacts often exhibit local symmetries and these are often related to our physical and behavioral symmetries. A long boat, for instance, allows for multiple rowers to row in unison. The boat and oars are symmetrical and so is the rowing of the boat.
Human artifacts of many scales may exhibit local symmetries for two reasons. First, since most natural living things exhibit local symmetries, copying that may strike us a more beautiful. In addition, if one learns the skills necessary to make the left half of a canoe, one already knows a lot about how to make the right half, provided the canoe has bilateral symmetry. The same is true of an oar, a cane, a bowl, etc. It also makes it easier for the user of the artifact.
As a user of an artifact such a chair, for example, you come to expect that the right arm rest and the left arm rest will be at the same height and be equally hard. If the arm rests are at different heights, you will, I believe, be more likely to bang your elbow when shifting position or reaching for something.
One could, no doubt, adapt fairly quickly to a chair which had two different kinds of arm rests, but imagine a keyboard for your computer in which every key was a different size and shape. Or, imagine a piano keyboard in which all the keys were at different spacings, and sizes.
Local symmetries also offer another advantage. Systems with local symmetries are easier to repair or maintain. Imagine how much more expensive it would be to maintain a piano, for example, if a repair shop had to keep 88 different sizes of keys! In a similar fashion, imagine a programmer decided it would be fun to program every pull-down menu with completely different algorithms. When the next release of the application required changes or additions, it would make understanding and modifying the code much more difficult.
Why does local symmetry, as opposed to merely, symmetry, make sense? Let’s go back to the chair example. It might make sense for a family to have three chairs for three different sized people; e.g., a papa bear chair, a mama bear chair, and a baby bear chair. Or, think of tee-shirts that come in Small, Medium, Large, and Extra Large. It makes no sense to make every tee-shirt the same size. People differ a lot in their size. But for mass manufacturing, it does make sense that the left and right sleeves match for any particular size. Similarly, it doesn’t matter that the arms on papa bear’s chair are of a different size than the arms on baby bear’s chair. It doesn’t matter if the teeth on my comb are different from the teeth on your comb. It doesn’t matter if the tires on my Saab match the tires on your Range Rover. And, generally, this is true for most artifacts, organizational structures, architectural features, and anatomical features. Local symmetry almost always has four advantages: 1) it adds to beauty. 2) it’s easier to create 3) it’s easier for the user and 4) it’s easier to maintain or repair.
Design always carries messages. Design which solves our problem or beautifies our world or resonates and echoes the properties of natural beauty carries the messages: “I care. I am a bit like you. I am making this for you and others like it. It shows the beauty that I see is a lot like the beauty (and usefulness) that you see. You are not alone. We are in this together. You and I both belong to “Team Humanity.”
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?
(This is the fourth post in a series of 15 which aim to examine the fifteen properties of natural order postulated by Christopher Alexander. I wonder whether the property of “Alternating Repetition” could be more frequently incorporated into User Experience and what the pros and cons might be).
4. Alternating Repetition
In nature, whether we look at clouds, waves, mountain ranges, forests, plants, the leaves of plants, or almost any animal, we see alternating repetition. Such natural repetition is almost never precise and complete replication. Just as every reproductive act of life introduces an element of recombination as well as the possibility of mutation, so too the repetitions we see in life are not mathematical. We indeed see patterns repeated in a line or in a circle, but the instances in living things show variation. Similarly, human artifacts made with the hands; e.g., weaving or poetry or rock walls or tennis strokes show repetition but with slight and subtle variations.
If you look at modern industrial society, you see many examples of exact repetition. It’s true that if you looked at 10,000 examples of the same brand and model pen, or notebook, or scissors, or streak knives under a microscope, you could likely find small differences. To the naked eye, however, they would appear identical. Seeing 10,000 pebbles, leaves, or waves you would always see slight to moderate differences. To me, it makes a difference in terms of beauty. Handmade items and human actions naturally show more variation than things produced by machines.
The various “elements” of a User Interface generally have the feel of something made by machine. The size of all the application icons on the tool bar for instance are the same. They are all almost the same exact shape and size. On my tool bar the icons for Finder, Launchpad, Mail, Safari, Chrome, FaceTime, Messenger, Maps, Photos, Contacts, Calendar, Reminders, Notes, System Preferences, Keynote, Pages, Preview, and News are the same. However, the Kindle icon is slightly larger and more square. The Zoom icon is very slightly rounder and the icon for Facebook is circular. In other words, there is some slight variation, but mainly the icons are the same in outline, but different inside. But the set of icons on the tool bar has no sense of “harmony.”
Instead, each icon seems to scream out its individuality without regard to its neighbors. (Which reminds me of things like masking, vaccinations, telling the truth, etc.). Anyway, the layout of the toolbar, to me, it’s reminiscent of driving down the highway and seeing a sequence of billboards, each advertising some random product or service in no particular order. Often, each billboard is the same size but they are independent of each other. The one exception I can think of were the “Burma Shave” signs along the highway. Each sign was a small rectangle with several words on it. About a quarter mile down the road, another sign would appear. They were meant to be seen in a specific order and together, they made a kind of “story” which usually rhymed. Typically, the signs touted the joys of the product — “Burma Shave” — or, provided public service announcements about safe driving.
In the early days of computing, putting in “variation” would have been insanely wasteful of space and processing time. This is no longer true. Yet, the “look and feel” of User Interfaces remains, for the most part, quite “mechanical” or “mechanistic” rather than “natural.” Sometimes modern computer games include naturalistic looking variations in how repeated plants, rocks, clouds, etc. are represented. Look at the palm trees and you will see variations among the trees that are reminiscent of the real palm trees I see every day. In addition, each tree contains a number of fronds that repeat a generic theme; yet, each front is somewhat different. The fronds themselves each contain alternating repetition, just as do real palm tree fronds.
We might consider whether it would make sense to put more natural looking alternating repetition into the more utilitarian aspects of user experience. For example, could it be both more beautiful and more useful to allow more variation in the way files are represented visually? Will Hill, James Hollan, Dave Wrobleski, & Tim McCandless suggested (in a CHI ’92 paper) that physical documents such as manuals naturally show wear in places where they are most used. They suggested that the visual representation of computer documents might be altered slightly to show which documents have been used or edited more and also that such cues within a document might also be useful.
Hill, William; Hollan, James; Wrobleski, Dave; McCandless, Tim; “Edit Wear and Read Wear,” Human factors in computing systems: Striking a balance. Proceedings of the 9th annual conference. SIGCHI ’92 Proceedings (Monterey, CA), Addison-Wesley, 1992, pp. 3-9.
One of the few cookbooks I use with some regularity is entitled, Fat Free and Flavor Full. The recipe I’ve used many times is the black bean salad. If I open the physical book, it naturally falls open to that particular recipe. “Open Recent” I find a very useful features of the Pages application, but I don’t see a way to look at files based on overall frequency of use. It could be the case that there are some applications for which you would want specific files to be easily found depending on the season or the date. The authors of “Edit Wear and Read Wear” were mainly talking about the utility of encoding information about a file into its visual representation. There might well be aesthetic reasons to do so as well.
The wooden blinds shown below exhibit alternating repetition in several ways. First, there is the matter of perspective. Some variation almost always presents itself simply by virtue of the fact that I typically view the blinds at an angle and some are closer to me than others. This means that the size, and the retinal shape are slightly different. Second, there is variation caused by slight changes in the angle of the slats relative to vertical. Third, each slat is made of wood. The wood itself shows rings (or more commonly a planar projection of the concentric cylinders.
The wooden blinds, because they are illuminated from the outside by tree-filtered sunlight also show further variation; however I don’t think that is typically “alternating repetition.” Perhaps not coincidentally, although I find it a little interesting, I can’t say I find that source of variation to be beautiful to me. The other three all add to the aesthetics, at least to me.
Is it feasible to introduce alternating repetition with slight variation into User Interfaces? Would it be desirable? What negative side-effects might arise? Do you even agree with Christopher Alexander that Alternating Repetition is an aspect of natural beauty and beautiful design? One thing that occurs to me is that if some element of the UI is more variable in outline etc., it may mean that the actions upon that object must deal with that variability. If designed greenfield, that might not be too difficult. But if, for example, the code for dragging and dropping was written under a presumption of zero variability, that might be problematic. What do you think?
Discussion of Alternating Repetition with additional visual examples can be found here: