Polemic Design

Between the early adopting individualists and the aesthetically pleased seems to be a rift growing wider and wider. Unity is a not customisable, read the comments too.

The culture that surrounds the community is certainly one of individualism. We like to think ourselves as cool outsiders doing something beyond the norm. There are users who don’t care so much, but the majority of us involved in advocacy and development have come to like the ownership and the sense of self style that comes with Free and Open Source Software.

The culture of Apple is a little different, it’s one of polemic design. A place where there is one right way to do something and there is a special person who will decide what that principle must be. Because this design philosophy has produced aspiring designs there are signs that others are copying. The problem is that polemics isn’t compatible with individualism, it’s not even compatible with science or rhetoric.

My own struggle with polemic design is rhetoric. I’m far more interested in dialectics than positivism for certain classes of problems, but software engineers don’t understand dialectics and so tend to simply stick with dualism. As if argument was about proving the other person wrong instead of working out a solution that solves the problems and resulting conflicts.

Dualism has gotten us into trouble especially when it comes to design. We have often looked blind to design because we add options to solve every conflict. Not having design skills available in the ecosystem has meant the community has been unable to come up with solutions to complex design problems preferring to copy instead. This is why Mark says “the community can’t do design” and it’s “design by committee”.

It has frustrated me how hard it is to work out design problems in the community in the past; but I don’t think the answer is to jettison faith in the community as Mark has done. I think with the design skills people are learning from the new Canonical design team and some studying of dialectic rhetoric we should be able to come up with good designs without the need for Apple’s polemic philosophies.

Your thoughts?

24 thoughts on “Polemic Design

  1. All of my GUI customization is a direct result of me thinking “I know better UI design than the people that made this software,” and I’ll stand by that as being true a lot of the time.

    When that is no longer the case I don’t think I’ll feel a need to modify my interface, and I’m great with non-customizable designs as long as they’re good ones.

  2. I am having a hard time following this idea. In a nutshell are you just trying to say that people argue about symptoms of problems rather than solutions to problems?

    I would agree that people can learn design skills but I think there is a problem in that people confuse design with artistic taste. An important part of design is consistency and clarity. It is difficult to have either if every application developer decides to use his own personal style rather than building on a common foundation.

  3. I believe that humans are the most adaptable creatures on this planet. I also believe that we are creatures of habit.

    If the habits are useful and simple to follow, I think we can adopt to them and be happy. From there on, familiarity becomes key measure of what is good and what is bad in the eyes of the users.

  4. Let’s try an analogy:

    Are icon themes a bad idea? At this point, if you head to Appearance Preferences, you can choose between particular icon themes at best, but there is no button to change the look of the Trash icon.

    As I see it, this system has resulted in quite a few published icon themes people can choose between. All of them look really good; they are cohesive products designed on a stable base.

    What’s more? They are made By Users. Yes, the icon themes CAN be customized in a fine-grained way. People who want to make them have all sorts of tools to help!

    We just don’t throw this at every end user who visits Appearance Preferences, because icon themes are already finished products.

    Why can’t free software go five minutes without being attacked for that same philosophy?

    Further on that point, indicators, notifications and top level windows are perfectly adequate “extensions” for the desktop environment.

  5. Design isn`t art but it sure isn`t an exact science . The statement of learning design makes me sick . it`s like learning to be bright >:P

    People are bright from birth they can learn techniques and ways but that doesn`t make them smarter it just makes them more cultivated and that doesn`t ensure a better product .

  6. Valentin: I don’t agree that people are unable to learn design, I have no idea why it makes you sick though, that sounds like you may have a case of hyperbole.

  7. I don`t believe the community lacks design skills but i do believe that it isn`t asked to design because Mr. Mark and the Ubuntu devs don`t wan`t to bother and filter all the good stuff that will come from the community. Also the community doesn`t have a official place where to show of their designs … i remember not long ago i read on OMGubuntu that Mark didn`t even seen elementary nautilus … now that kinda shows the amount of the F***S he gives about the community

  8. I think that the people complaining about the lack of customization are the one who consider a computer as a hobby, and not as a tool.

    Let’s use a car analogy: car hobbyists like to customize the innards of their cars, normal users don’t care, as long as it works well.

    In this case, if the system is good, I’ll be happy to use it. And so will most real users. My girlfriend did not even notice that buttons changed sides in 10.10. The red button with a cross seems to be very clear, it does its job perfectly, and she does not care. She can write letters, and that’s all that ultimately matters.

  9. I`m sorry DcotorMo i did exaggerated a little but also the idea of learning everything is exaggerated some people just have talent . I just belive that some things aren`t learned . If by learning you mean adapting or finding out what users want (From courses , books , practice) then yes design can be learned. But i believe that leads to copy and isn`t really design.
    To give an example of really good design for me is the clock applet … it`s just great … it isn`t pretty but it shows the events in evolution something that the calendars of the others OS don`t and also double clicking the dates opens evo on that date now that is great design to me at least . Now i don`t know if the guy who developed this took a design course or read something about Design but i wanted this and I thought about this when i was on windows and when i tried Ubuntu i never went back mostly because of this 🙂

  10. gdeb: I want my computer to be a farm tractor … i want to be able to plow , carry , dig , water , plant , etc . I don`t want to use it as a limousine or a sport car .

  11. Valentin: I thought doctormo’s post was interesting and I feel that you’re turning it into a meaningless conversation comparing anecdotes and ironically expressing the exact problem doctormo points out in the post.

    It feels like it is impossible to change anything because people are blindly arguing their own beliefs rather then trying to find a solution to the problem.

  12. valentin:

    hehe, good point, but you know that car analogies are only analogies. You can still install any program you want on your computer, and if it is done well, you can do any work you want on it. As far as I can see, the interface changes we are talking do not remove any “useful/critical functionality”. Being able to remove or add an applet won’t help you write your report. Actually, fiddling with your computer is not productive.

    From the point of view of an end-user, a perfect interface could be a single giant button “Do what I want”. That would be perfect (but sadly impossible).

    Of course, in your case (I guess), or in mine, we like playing with our computers and such an interface would be boring.

    Also, think about a netbook. That kind of machine is underpowered to do most real/intensive kind of work. I guess that a main use of netbooks is web browsing, and a few light applications. So, a simple interface makes sense.

  13. “I don’t think the answer is to jettison faith in the community as Mark has done.”

    Hell yes. The community is quite capable and it’s short-sighted to lock them out.

    Is the Canonical design team really teaching community members design skills and letting community designers get involved, though? I had thought that was not the case. Their blog is a good step but it seems to report some of the things that they are working on rather than actively involve others and teach others. I’m unaware of any other outreach although I’m pretty oblivious to the Ubuntu community.

  14. Nathan Nutter :
    Could you please tell me where I was ironical ?
    I don`t think Doctor Mo pointed a problem he kinda disagreed with the lack of faith Mr. Shuttleworth has in the community and gave us a hint where this culture is extremely strong (Apple). And also he expresses his faith in the community if it gets educated . I disagreed with that saying that i have faith in the uneducated community ass weal it just needs to bee listened to.
    Please correct me Mo if i understood wrong.

    gdeb: I think you are on to something with the “giant button OS” i wanted to say that in response to a user (Manish Sinha) on this previous post http://doctormo.org/2010/06/14/ubuntu-a-work-in-progress/ but since i don`t have merits my opinions are wrong.
    to give an example of slightly worse design is the indicator applet , they combined all the applets in to one and i can`t separate the mesanging aplet from my background runing apps like rhythmbox or transmission. and if i want to bring up rhythmbox i need 2 clicks now and one in the past and also i can`t hide it from the applet . I think this http://ssfantus1.deviantart.com/art/My-Desktop-7-apr-159903183 was much better background running apps in the lower right (systray) messaging and calendar in the upper right to me that seemed more consistent .
    About netbooks i think i don`t want one .

    If Nutter doesn`t reply this will be my last comment here . Sorry if i upset ed anyone

  15. Interesting post. I think a HUGE problem we have in the Libre design world is that we ignore the two largest keys to design: Audience and Goal. Another problem is the fallacy that the Audience is ‘everybody’. Even Ubuntu has failed to clearly define who their audience is.

    A question I’ve pondered recently is that while we are generally good at designing things aimed at ourselves, can we really define a specific audience apart from ourselves and truly design for it if there is not a tangible benefit to ourselves? We’re good at scratching our own itches, but can we scratch someone else’s?

    I for one am glad that Mark has not thrown every idea out there for people to vote on. Granted, their design process could and should be MUCH more transparent. There is a benefit to establishing a common focused goal and it’s much easier to steer a smaller team directly for it.

    Saying all that, the power of Libre Culture can still be individualism. We have enough people and enough projects that we could have several well-designed, and truly best-in-class distributions aimed at completely separate and well-focused audiences. I’m not sure we should be trying to wrangle *everyone* to head for a common design goal. It’s impractical and more likely impossible. We are trying to design a vehicle that drives like a Porsche 911, seats 12, can carry sheets of plywood *and* goes off-road. All of those goals are great for different audiences. Surely it would be smarter and more useful for the Libre Software community to build each as a separate vehicle, sharing certain parts where applicable but ending up with a much better solution for each audience.

    And if design can’t be learned then I’ve wasted a whole hell of a lot of time and a lot of money on books. 😉 Hooey. While there will always be gifted people it’s surprising what learning, trying and persistence will get you. 🙂

  16. Valentin: The irony was that I didn’t want to see dualism replace thoughtful introspection of problems, but you comment with dualism. The language and the habit are kind of hard to get out of so I understand your method of talking and what you really mean to say.

    On the other hand I don’t believe we should listen to what the uneducated have to say about what they want, I think we should learn to listen to what these people say in all other respects. Education here would be most important for aspiring community designers.

  17. Educated people only create good design … uneducated people can`t design … isn`t this dualism?

  18. Valentin: No, because that’s not what I said, it’s only what you thought I said.

    Education in design skills is implicit in design execution and it’s by no means a guarantee or a requisite for that person to be able to retain their reputation and collaborate at the highest echelons earning them a strong voice in the discussion.

    I think you just want normal people to have a voice (which is good), even though you have no way of specifying any sort of ability to listen to them all and so your falling back on “those that shout loudest or know the right people get to have a say” It’s an old and corrupt way to socially organise which I can’t subscribe to directly even though I know it’s probably our default setup.

  19. There’s nothing wrong with designing for yourself. Most open-source developers do that, and Steve Jobs has made a spectacular career out of it. Mark Shuttleworth may have never heard of Nautilus-Elementary, but even if he ignores it DanRabbit will still be developing Elementary-OS.

    I use Ubuntu because of Mark’s design decisions. I think Ubuntu has the chance to become something spectacular, thanks to its focus — largely mediated by him — on usability. And I think it’s Ubuntu’s focus that’s helped take it places Debian could never reach.

    The difference between Steve Jobs and Mark Shuttleworth is that the Ubuntu code is open-source. Except for Ubuntu One, which is a serious problem.

  20. @valentin:

    If art and design mattered as much to the various participants as they would have everyone believe, they would all be going out and getting BFas or four year degrees art and design wouldn’t they? _That_ is what dedication to a craft entails. _That_ is what passion and commitment to field brings. Doesn’t it seem logical?

    Oh that’s right, they don’t.

  21. Troy: Degrees are nice I guess, but what do you do when you have a built in mistrust of academia?

    I know plenty of celebrated designers and artists who never went to university.

  22. I’m afraid your ‘plenty’ is likely more ‘a rare few’. There will _always_ be exceptions, but as a general rule, it isn’t a stretch to suggest that the degree holds weight. Perhaps even more so within the field.

    In practical terms, take a gander at the prerequisite entry level requirements over at any production / creative / design / etc. house.

    Have a peek over at Electronic Arts, Valve, Blizzard, Microsoft, Apple, BMW, Vanity Fair, etc. etc. etc. and try to find even a low paper shuffling entry level graphic art / design position that doesn’t list a four year degree as a _bare minimum_.

    And if we are speaking of capital A art, you would also likely find that a disproportionate number of individuals have achieved such a degree.

    I’m sorry, but that is simple reality.

    If you put your objective hat on, and distance yourself from the subjective, ask yourself how much you believe in someone if they aren’t willing to commit even a piddly four year education to the field? What does that say about dedication? What does that say about passion?

    And perhaps most importantly, what does that say about their ability to understand even the low level concepts and theory?

  23. Troy: It says that they’ve perhaps got something to prove above and beyond. Of course I’d consider it moronic to discount qualifications, but equally dumb to discount great portfolios.

    Degrees get you jobs, lack of degrees get you business empires.

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