Radicle blog / Notes on the article by Bret Victor, Magic Ink: Information Software and the Graphical Interface

Contrasting graphic and industrial design, Mr. Victor writes: “A good graphic designer understands how to arrange information on the page so the reader can ask and answer questions, make comparisons, and draw conclusions.” And: “A good industrial designer understands the capabilities and limitations of the human body in manipulating physical objects, and of the human mind in comprehending mechanical models.”

“Modern software interfaces have evolved overtly mechanical metaphors.”

Aside: Information software is supposed to provide tools for the exploration of knowledge.

Aside: What is a calendar app? It is a tool for remembering the promises we make concerning how we plan to spend our time.

Aside: Writing idea: ‘I don’t know of even one good calendar app.’ (I’m not kidding.)

“Compared to excellent ink-and-paper designs, most current software communicates deplorably.”

“Edward Tufte’s first rule of statistical graphic design is, “Show the data.””

On the frustration caused by difficult navigation: “Alan Cooper defines excise in this context as a cognitive or physical penalty for using a tool—effort demanded by the tool that is not directly in pursuit of a goal. For example, filling a gas tank is done to support the car, not the goal of arriving at a destination. Cooper goes on to assert that software navigation is nothing but excise:
““…the most important thing to realize about navigation is that, in almost all cases, it represents pure excise, or something close to it. Except in games where the goal is to navigate successfully through a maze of obstacles, navigation through software does not meet user goals, needs, or desires. Unnecessary or difficult navigation thus becomes a major frustration to users. In fact, it is the author’s [ie Mr. Cooper’s] opinion that poorly designed navigation presents the number-one problem in the design of any software application or system…”

Mr. Victor proposes that software design doesn’t even exist yet: “The problem [of bad software design] is primarily cultural. Asking “Why doesn’t Southwest design better software?” is challenging the symptom, not the disease. The real question is, “Does software design exist yet?” Before we can expect better airline websites, we may need to change a worldview.”

Aside: To look into: History of Graphic Design, by Philip Megg.

Mr. Victor points out some delightful irony: “People constantly settle for ugly, clunky software, but demand informative, professionally-designed books, newspapers, magazines, and—ironically—brochures, ads, and manuals for that very software. (As brochures have become websites, this duality has veered into absurdity: “Let’s design beautiful software to sell our ugly software!” The wrapper tastes better than the candy.)”

“Good design makes people happy, but feature count makes people pay.”

“I don’t know the solution to cultivating a culture of good taste, but I believe lessons can be learned from the emergence of industrial design, about seventy years ago. (See the chapter “Through the Back Door” in Henry Dreyfuss’s recently rereleased autobiography Designing for People (1955).)”

Aside: To look into: Designing for People, by Henry Dreyfuss.

Mr. Victor quoting C.A.R Hoare: “I conclude that there are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies, and the other way is make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies.” (C.A.R. Hoare, The Emperor’s Old Clothes Turing Award lecture (1980) p81)

“Much like our geological environment, a creative environment can become fatally polluted by short-sighted business interests.” — This is such sweet music to my ears. So happy to have learned of you, Mr. Victor!

Aside: To look into: Beautiful Evidence, by Edward Tufte.

—Raphael Schindler
11 Feb 2017