Ge Wang: Artful Design
by Johnathon Win
Johnathon Win (JW): So, let's start with the title: Artful Design. I've defined the title in regards to our value systems, i.e. our own, or, the value systems of the groups we are (or may not be) a part of. Foremost being that we should exercise great care in design as it in turn reflects and shapes us; this reciprocal relationship being ongoing and constantly evolving. Conversely, I'm interested in what the antithesis of artful design may be, have you considered a `non-artful design' and how it compares to the notion of `artful' design? I don't think the relationship between the two is `black and white' but rather that they each are separated by degrees in regards to their aims, affective potentials, etc. or maybe it has to do with perspective? `One person's artful is another's non-artful'.
Ge Wang (GW): I think the opposite of Artful Design is not some kind of "non-artful" design, but a kind of design that is complacent, un-reflecting/non-critical, perhaps driven too much by instrumental value, and too little by "intrinsic" value. Artful design is a quest and question to understand "why" -- why was something designed? And why was it designed the way it was designed? Was it designed, for example, to increase user engagement so that such engagement could be monetized (our current social networks, definitely Facebook, come to mind) -- or was the thing designed to promote something intrinsically good for the end user (like a tool that helps the user learn something about themselves, a craft, or some aspect of the world). I would call the latter more "artful" than the former. Artful Design invokes "artful" in the same sense one might think of Art, as something that reflects a truth about something, perhaps ourselves -- something that offers a deeper understanding of our experience. In that sense, Artful Design is and isn't subjective - I suppose it's as subjective (or not) as Art is to us. Another reason the book is called "Artful Design".
JW: Considering this critical dimension and leading on from the topic of aims and perspectives, should we as active 'designers' be consistently mindful of whom or what we may be designing for, even if this isn't immediately intelligible? In an interview you did with the Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW) podcast you said `that music making does a person good, and we can shape technology to help people really discover that...' This notion of facilitation is fascinating to me; how important is facilitation, encouragement, etc. in your own work, and, in the practice of design (more generally speaking)? This sort of exchange between parties and the aim to lessen uncertainty for me foregrounds the relational aspect of designing for one and/or another.
GW: Good design, I think, facilitates a "virtuous" kind of usage, and at the same time, perhaps paradoxically, "leaves room" for the user to adapt the tool 1) to themselves, 2) to the situation at hand, and 3) to be deeply playful. Good design both suggests and liberates the user. As an example, an AI system that straight-up gives you the answer is not as interesting as the same AI system that has been designed to let you control/play with the process of arriving at the answer, or playing with system beyond getting an answer -- and control the extent that tool acts on your behalf. (Artful Design Principle 5.19: Interfaces Should Extend Us; "We want tools, not oracles!" -- also, Principle 7.11a and 7.11b: Anything that can be automated should be... except: anything that is not meaningful to automate, should NOT be.)
JW: Many of the central tenets of Artful Design present themselves as revolving around a core theme of humanism, perhaps a clich‚, but I wonder, how may artful design as an overarching philosophy develop in an increasingly technological and `connected' age? I appreciate that your artful design is not presented as an absolute and is malleable in many practical respects (e.g. between designers, mediums, etc.) I assume artful design has changed a lot since you first realized it, and especially since you began writing the book!
GW: Yes, Artful Design, to me, is a program of reflecting on engineering as a humanistic, artistic, and social act -- an attempt to reclaim technology, through a kind of artful shaping, to be something human, perhaps even sublime, that promotes our understanding and flourishing as humans, as individuals, and as communities. It is indeed malleable, every bit as malleable as what "happiness"/"flourishing" and their pursuit mean to different people. As a philosophy, artful design posits that we can and ought to design both for extrinsic value (the "means to ends") and intrinsic value (the "ends in themselves"). Something like "flourishing", both individually and socially, are more of the latter: they are intrinsically valuable. (Artful Design is a kind of "hidden ethics book"; also, Chapter 8 deals centrally with many of these questions). Yes, as I live with the book, and now having given more than 70 Artful Design talks since last September (see: https://artful.design/events.html), various aspects of artful design continue to evolve. There are definitely parts of the book that in hindsight(!), I wish I had written differently. Yet at the same time, the central tenets of artful design continue offer for me a lens, a mirror, on the humanistic shaping of shaping technology.
JW: Then, considering Artful Design as a lens, how do you view capability (what you can do) vs. suitability (what you should do) in technology? For instance, in regards to classical music I see a lot of practitioners shifting their attention from explicitly complex works vying to be 'state of the art', to works which spotlight the relational potential and discourse between musicians, listeners, etc. I definitely do not view artful design as a philosophy predicated on consistently breaking new ground but progressing purposefully and conscientiously.
GW: (Thank you for understanding the last point!) Great designs find the exquisite balance between capability and suitability, between market-value and intrinsic value, between the means and the humanistic ends. (Artful Design Principle 1.16: Design is a radical synthesis between means and ends into a third type of a thing -- both Useful and Beautiful.) Indeed, artful design is not about breaking new ground, and much more about the craft of engaging our critical minds, our sensibilities about a world we would want to live in, our personal and collective values -- and imbuing whatever we design with these qualities.
JW: Given the comprehensive scope in which design is tackled in your book, do you feel as though a sort of 'essentialist' approach is necessary in engaging in artful design? Is this something you strive for in your own work, or even just encouragement for others to take a holistic outlook? Leading on, how do we know what to prioritize in design? And for how long? And to what extent?
GW: It is absolutely something I strive for, not just in my work, but in life. The two, to me, are not separable. Artists don't punch out at the end of the day; they live and aim to reflect the very experience of such living into the essence of what they make. Why would designers or engineers be any different? In a related sense, artful design is a mediation on function but especially form -- or how function becomes form, which in artful design, encompasses all the ways something exists in the world -- from the Material, the Structural, the Interactive, to the Emotional/Psychology, the Social, to the Moral-Ethical. (Principle 1.3; revisited on page 407 in Chapter 8). To design artfully, one ought to have asked the questions for each of these dimensions.
Artful Design website: https://artful.design/