Sunday, February 03, 2008

Is creative software too precise?

I had a conversation last week with MM about the downsides of creative software and he brought up an interesting point. First, I'll note that he's coming from a creative background and has only recently added computer tools to his mix. He's been trying some painting software, and finds it sort of bland to work with because of its over-predictability and lack of interesting response.

We design creative software to give users exactly what they specify, but this isn't really how traditional media works. I'm going to use drawing as an example, since I draw frequently (MM used watercolor, which is more extreme).

Some drawings are destined to be rigid, precise studies that are created with the goal of realistically matching the appearance of the subject. Others are scribbles quickly jotted down to remember the shape of things. Some are refined, clean illustrations that communicate a concept. Others are loosely drawn figures where only a few important features are rendered with precision. It seems to me that the majority of today's artists see the latter as far more interesting. These approaches leave breathing room; that is, room for personal expression of the subject and greater freedom for the artist's style to come through. My own work, when I am at my strongest, feels like a dance. The drawing instrument is precise only when needed, and the way I partially relax my arm and hand comes through the rest of the time. This is different than how anyone else does it.

The media also comes into play here, and this is the big thing MM brought up. Every surface you create on, every marking tool you use, has a certain precision to it. More interestingly, it has a certain imprecision. The imprecision is your dance partner, in a way, as you create. This can be the paper, the pen, the conte, the water and pigment mix, or even the ricketiness of the easel on which you're working. These all introduce forms of imprecision. As a computer scientist, I'd be tempted to say that one of the benefits of software is that this can all be avoided. But is it good to avoid? As a creative person, your dance partner takes you in new directions and spawns new ideas as you work. An unintended line from a crease in the next sheet of paper might lead to part of an imaginary setting. A line that doesn't quite follow the actual subject's form can lead to an exaggeration study. Watercolor pigment that spreads in a particular way can lead to a style of mark--a symbol--for representing something with partial abstraction.

Does this mean that this imprecision is always good? No. Sometimes we need to avoid it. In my case, by working slowly and being careful. I'm always more careful with eyes, unless I don't have the time. Then they become quick, broad marks that leave most of the content to your imagination. In software, maybe it's good to look into creating imprecision in a controlled way. Something to put in place that can be turned down or off as desired. I've seen it in some features of 3D software, but it's missing all over the place in most of the tools we use day to day. Maybe it's hard to design in a way that is predictable and controllable. In the places I have seen it, it certainly is hard to work with.

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