We’re Off To See The Wizard
Designers spend a lot of time endlessly discussing and questioning technology. The question this brings up is why are we talking about this so much? Does it really matter that we use Instagram instead of a Polaroid camera? Is letterpress really better than an inkjet print? Do we really care about the authenticity of Photoshop manipulation versus working with film? Does it matter that we visualize data in Processing, Excel or C++? What we are really talking about when we question technology is uncertainty—designers get very uncomfortable not understanding how things work and what they will do.
Many designers identify themselves as control freaks—concerned with steering their work in specific directions, obsessing over esoteric details, and generally playing god to everything they oversee and create. We are enamored and empowered with the idea that we control the destiny of our creativity. When designers come up against a new technology—be it lead type or software—we get uncomfortable because of the uncertainty inherent in not understanding exactly how this technology works, and exactly what it can and cannot do, and what it will mean to our profession. Especially with recent digital technology, there is a notable sense of The Wizard of Oz syndrome—designers feel like someone that we do not know, that we cannot see, is behind the curtain pulling the levers and hitting the buttons and making the magic happen. It is important to understand that we are not worried about unpredictability, which some designers enjoy. In fact, designers today often go back to old technologies because we like the unpredictability they provide in comparison to today’s digital tools. Letterpress and photographic film are often used in contemporary design because of their unpredictable, analog nature.
Technology is a constantly evolving entity that is always in a state of flux, and its fluctuating nature is always uncertain. The irony is that technology in design is often used to reduce uncertainty, and to provide more predictable methodologies and processes to creating design artifacts. Even the analog technologies designers like to use in current work were originally introduced to dramatically reduce the unpredictability and ambiguity in the technologies they replaced. Before lead type, letters were drawn by hand, with each letterform being different. Analog photographic film reduced the wild variations in hand-painted portraiture. Even though designers do not understand exactly how a Photoshop filter actually works, the software engineers who programmed the algorithms do—it is a repeatable, predictable mechanism that works the same way under identical circumstances.
When designers debate Pinterest versus Tumblr, or Twitter versus Facebook, what we are really asking is simply this: what happens next?
And: will I get to be a part of it?