Art and Technology Clash Center Stage

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I've often pondered the distinction between designers who know technology and technologists who know design. I've watched as the two disciplines -- once polar opposites -- have come together since the introduction of the computer to the design and production process. Like two rivers -- one icy clear, rushing from mountain peaks, the other muddy brown, meandering across the plains -- they have merged to form a single, vegetation-rich, free-flowing source of inspiration.

That's the image I have in my mind, at any rate.

But often I stumble across evidence that confirms that there are indeed strong differences between artists and geeks. My most recent observations arose from attending the recent HOW Design Conference in San Francisco. Now I know it's dangerous to make generalizations, but I'm going to anyway. Feel free to disagree.

The Stage
Throughout my professional career, I've been to a lot of trade shows and conferences, and to be frank, most of them were tailored to buyers and sellers of personal computers, its software and services. And not once during 13 years have I seen a conference open with a woman wearing a 6-foot hat bedecked with the skyline of San Francisco and belting out "San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gates..." as it did at the HOW conference (Bay Area folk will recognize this visual from the long-running cabaret act "Beach Blanket Babylon.") Not to be outdone, the next morning's session opened with a concert played by Those Darn Accordions who memorably covered War's "Low Rider," among other classics. Most tech trade shows I've been to open with recorded inoffensive pop like Sting warbling "Fields of Gold" or with hired community theater players brightly singing marketing jingles.

It wasn't just the entertainment, either. The stage setup was visually pleasing. Elegantly lit simple scrims flanked the stage. Flat-panel screens seemed to float in space. As for technology, it was one G4, one Powerbook. Very designerly in that minimal chic kind of way. By contrast, at most tech conferences I go to, the stage holds at least four complete systems, both Mac and PC, wires and cables snaking across the stage like a pit of vipers.

But also by contrast, when HOW's projection system acted up, leaving frustrated presenters to plead for technical help (more on this topic later), help was not immediately visible (at least from my vantage point). After repeated entreaties a technician reset the projector, only slightly improving the focus. True, technical glitches always happen, but at a tech trade show, at least a dozen IT geeks in the audience would have been screaming solutions and storming the stage to save the day and earn bragging rights. Here the designers let the technicians do their thing. Maybe that stems from the division of labor in design studios, but it was more likely because the accordions had stunned them into a state of submission.

The Screen
It wasn't just the setting that added fuel to my intellectual fire about designers and technologists. The presentations themselves seemed to underscore my thesis. The slides shown by the designers just looked better: readable type, strong color schemes, clear organization, great graphics. I suppose that shouldn't be surprising coming from people who make their livings doing just that for clients. But during presentations by a couple of more technologically savvy people on the HOW docket, I couldn't help but be surprised by the contrast. I would have thought a tech-savvy presenter would have the know-how to put compelling slides together; heck, PowerPoint virtually does it for you.

Two people whom I admire very much and whom I've seen speak on numerous occasions at tech conferences -- Nathan Shedroff and Lynda Weinman -- seemed like fish out of water here, at least in terms of their visual styles on screen. Small type crowded the screens, and the organization was somewhat lackadaisical, especially Nathan's which was served up in a Web browser. To be charitable, using a browser as presentation software may have limited his design choices, but still...

It's not that I'm trying to bash these two for some snobby aesthetic reason. It's just that: (a) as seasoned presenters, you'd think they'd know what works visually for large crowds, and (2) as technologically savvy folks I'd have thought they'd know that type projected on screen is difficult to read at the best of times. Lynda's presentation -- with its menu-style hierarchy -- looked like some design thought had gone into it, but it was impossible to read. What looked good on a high-resolution monitor in the office didn't translate to the big screen in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

And that got me to thinking. These are smart people. Really smart people. So smart they jumped on the Internet early enough to both own domains that are just their first names (www.nathan.com and www.lynda.com). Perhaps they get their heads so wrapped up in the technical accuracy of what they want to say that the visual stuff just slips by the wayside. It is better to be smart or to look smart? I don't know the answer to that one.

The Headspace
But what made me so darn convinced that my premise is correct -- that there is indeed a big difference between those who approach design from technology and those who approach technology from design -- was the kind of psychological quirk I saw in back-to-back presentations by World Famous Designer Paula Scher and Lynda Weinman.

It was during Scher's retrospective presentation of her work that it became clear that the screen wasn't -- that is, that the projector was out of focus. Scher called for technical help a few times, but when it wasn't forthcoming, she just soldiered on. She talked about her early work for CBS Records through her current gig at Pentagram to her pro bono work for The Public Theater in New York. Even though her work appeared somewhat compromised by the fuzzy screen, she didn't let it distract her. The work spoke for itself and her polished narrative enhanced the visuals and kept the presentation on track.

By the time Lynda took the stage, the fuzz factor had become a real issue. Of course the lack of focus rendered the aforementioned small type nearly unreadable. But unlike Scher, Weinman clearly seemed rattled. Technology let her down and she referred to its shortcoming over and over again. "If this were in focus... If you could read this... It's too bad you can't see this..." I felt for her, but then again I also wanted to say: "It is what it is, just keep going. Explain your points well enough and we'll still get the gist of it even if the screen is a blur." But she couldn't, and what had been an interesting talk about trends in Web site design fell apart (I'll share her trenchant observations with you in another column).

It was as if Scher, a designer's designer in every sense of the word, knew that computers are nothing more than a tool on her drafting table. It's the expression of the thought that counts. For Weinman, the technology is the main means of expression, and when it let her down, she couldn't get past it. Or at least that's the way it seemed from my vantage point.

The Battle
Those of us who spend most of our days pirouetting at the intersection of design and technology yearn for those times when the two disciplines dance together in harmony. It's that moment when you don't think about which keyboard shortcut manually kerns letter pairs. Your fingers go there, instinctively because your mind is engaged in the pure expression of your vision. Of course, your fingers fly to the right keys because you've spent six months toiling in front of a monitor mastering the latest version of the software. And that's only if your system stops crashing long enough for you to install the software in the first place. That's the conundrum.

But some of us -- and I have been there -- are such slaves to our computers that we let the technology dictate what we do and how we do it. I recently finished a small personal piece and was slightly aghast at how the scan turned out when printed. For a moment, a brief moment, I despaired about redoing the entire piece. Then I realized that this piece said what I wanted it to say. That's what's important. I let it go.

For once the designer in me met the technologist head on -- and won. It feels good.

Read more by Pamela Pfiffner.

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