Opinion: Aesthetics matter – especially in computing

NeXT formed the foundations of Apple's visually appealing re-birth.

NeXT formed the foundations of Apple’s visually appealing re-birth.

Aesthetic experience matters in all other aspects of life so why, asks Jason Walsh, do software developers treat it like a frivolous luxury?

Steve Jobs is a pompous ass – but he gets one thing right: aesthetics matter. Anyone who knows anything of Jobs’s history will know his obsession with aesthetics.

Most tech-inclined people dismiss aesthetics as mere ‘chrome’, shiny bolted-on fins that have no actual function other than to please and titillate the user.

This is entirely the wrong attitude – and precisely what leads to the train wreck that is not only most human-computer interfaces, but also the astonishing ugliness of most consumer electronics devices. Jobs, while he was chief executive of NeXT Computer – his home after being booted-out of Apple – famously said that Microsoft lacked art.

“The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste. And I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas, and they don’t bring much culture into their products,” he told the makers of the documentary film ‘Triumph of the Nerds’.

Sadly he was right – and not just about Microsoft. The manner in which software is developed actually encourages unpleasant user interfaces and the fact that desktop computing is, in terms of its basic paradigm, a dead and un-innovative space doesn’t help.

As more and more features are added to applications the interfaces become increasingly cluttered, confusing and downright ugly. The latest abomination to be unleashed upon the hitherto productive computing public is the desktop Flash application – thanks Adobe. That’s exactly what we needed: a thousand and one non-standard interfaces.

Of course, Apple doesn’t always get it right – far from it – but at least the company’s developers realise that there is more to the user experience than the technical underpinnings of an application. One important issue is that we are not talking about art. NeXT – and Apple since Jobs’s return – has a tendency to produce arty interfaces. This is not a good thing.

There is a strong argument for form following function but this does not mean dispensing with aesthetics. In fact, anyone who knows about the history of design will immediately associate the phrase ‘form follows function’ with modernism and the Bauhaus in particular.

The perfect human-computer interface should be small to the point of near invisibility. Where we do see it, it should be simple, clean and formal. It should never confuse and it should have a beauty in its simplicity.

For the past month or more I have been searching for the ‘perfect’ word processor. It sounds ridiculous, but I write tens of thousands of words every week and so, inevitably, I spend a lot of time staring at a screen. I want this time to be spent in an environment that is conducive to writing.

Microsoft Word, the word processor used by most of my colleagues, is hellish. It’s busy, cluttered, over-powered and just plain annoying. Apple’s Pages is a much more pleasant experience but it is let down by insisting on using its own quixotic file format. This results in me having two copies of every saved file – something that quickly becomes a real headache and is, in its own way, an aesthetic problem.

I will continue to search for the blank page that allows beautiful typography and includes no features other than a word count and a spell checker. I doubt I will ever find it though.

Jason Walsh is a journalist and the editor of forth

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