I spent most of my undergraduate education and a good chunk of my graduate education being immersed in the question “What is the essence of a medium?” My college’s film program, much to the chagrin of many hopeful undergrads with prosumer cameras and copies of Final Cut Pro, is heavily focused on film theory. So that’s what I marinated in for four years. And when conversations about the ontology of UX happen, it’s what I think about.
Ever since motion pictures were invented more than a century ago, film theory has been struggling with the following questions: Can film be art? (Yes) Is it always art? (No) Who is the artist or author? (No one, or everyone involved) What is the craft that differentiates film from other media? (Editing, probably)
In the contentious, opinionated world of user experience, similar questions seem to come up over and over again. Is designing a UI an art form? Who is or is not a designer? What differentiates a digital interface from other media?
And I think a lot of the arguments we have around them spring from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the argument is about. So I’ll posit a couple points.
UI is a medium; design is just what’s most commonly done with it
Computers were first built to accomplish practical tasks, to offload work that the human brain is not well suited for. Their original user interfaces catered to the computer’s need, not the human operator’s, and as such were pretty awful. User interface design as a practice arose to improve it: a purely practical need. Computers would not be accessible to most of the human population without easily-understandable UI.
As professional designers, part of our job continues to be to abstract away technical necessities in a way that makes interacting with technology easy and understandable to humans. But the various tools and technologies that have emerged to build those abstractions have multiplied and become more sophisticated: websites, computer operating systems, mobile operating systems, kiosk touchscreens, voice assistants, video game consoles, virtual reality headsets, etc. Each of those media has its own strengths, limitations, and aesthetic capabilities.
When doing practical design for a UI, we as craftspeople understand and take into account those elements of the medium we’re working within. Much in the same way that an architect needs to understand the innate abilities of reinforced concrete or a cabinet maker needs to understand the innate abilities of oak. The architect or the cabinet maker doesn’t need to be an artist; they’re designing a thing for a purpose within business constraints.
But in performing their craft, they can (and are expected to) also think about more than just utility. They can add decoration and aesthetic beauty to increase the value of their work. They can add small details that elicit emotional responses from the people who will use their product. They can do these things dispassionately. What they are doing is still design, not art.
Any medium can be used to create art
I’m not going to indulge in the cliche of including the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a word in a Medium article (I won’t do it, goddamn you!). But my personal definition of art is something along the lines of “an aesthetic work created as an expression of ideas and emotion, intended primarily to convey that emotion to an audience rather than to have a practical use.”
A medical illustration isn’t art, but a Rembrandt portrait is.
An industrial training film isn’t art, but Breathless is.
A textbook about American history isn’t art, but Song of Solomon is.
The scent of Windex isn’t art, but a perfume is.
Each of those pairings uses the same fundamental tools and is bound by the same technical limitations. The fundamental difference is the intent of the creators, not the physical work that’s actually done. And because knowledge of the medium is really the only requirement for performing either art or design, there’s no reason why someone doing design on Monday can’t be making art on Tuesday, using the same tools and techniques.
One of the big takeaways from film school was that art doesn’t require a single author or artist. Movies, much like most digital experiences, are the result of collaboration. Every person who works on a movie is responsible for the final product, because all of them make choices that have an effect on that product.
So what about UI? How and when is a digital experience elevated to art? Why would UI be chosen as the medium for artistic intent?
This incongruous and wildly popular 2-week series written and illustrated by John Bois and developed by Graham MacAree was published on the sports site SB Nation in 2017. Were it only a short story made up of text and maybe images, it would have still have been funny, interesting, and well-written, but fundamentally not that remarkable. The reason, in my opinion, for its huge success was the way in which it uses the nature of a user’s interaction with the medium of the web to evoke emotion.
In the first installment, for example, the repetitive action of scrolling through calendar pages required to get from one of Nine’s transmissions to Ten’s response almost a year later puts the user into Nine’s desperation and loneliness in an acute way. And when, after the monotony of scrolling through all those calendar pages, the calendar dissolves into a jubilant animated GIF of flying through space, it’s exciting and freeing.
This is not a UI with a practical purpose. It’s not informing the user about sports news or helping them accomplish a task. Repetitive scrolling through limited information doesn’t fit into any framework of “user-friendliness.” But it evokes an emotional response, and is only really possible using the medium of a website, because a website requires a proactive interaction from a user. It requires user choice and intent, and thus more engagement than a more passive medium like film or television.
The Designer’s Lament
When a designer makes the argument that developers and product managers shouldn’t be allowed to say they do design, or when a designer tries to claim that what they are doing when they perfect the drop-shadow on a button is art, I think at their core, all they’re trying to do is elicit respect for the time and effort they put into becoming proficient at a medium. They want others to understand the value and skill in what they do.
Again, this isn’t a struggle even slightly unique to UI. The world is full of people at the “unconscious incompetence” level of understanding of a medium. People who think having learned rote grammar rules in school means they understand writing. People who think the simplicity of an abstract painting makes it bad or lazy. People who like the Transformers movies.
Film theorists spent decades making the case for why this new medium was valuable and should be taken seriously in the same way as entrenched media like music and painting, which had gained public respect and understanding over the course of centuries. I think it’s fair to expect a similar struggle for digital interfaces. As more and more of our lives take place in digital spaces and more and more designers and artists find ways to make digital experiences elegant and emotionally evocative, I think it will happen. But we need to be patient, and stop freaking out about it.