Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Testing vs. Instinct

Another arresting quote in the letter penned by Head of Disney Studios in 1991:
Just as marketing can be overemphasized, so can another tool -- testing. In fact, it can be dangerous, because it can lead us to trust the test rather than trusting our instincts.

How often has a film tested “off the charts” and failed to do well at the box office? One of the weaknesses of testing appears to be that inoffensively pleasant films can test misleadingly high. People enjoy the films. They write down positive responses. We get excited… and then they fail to perform to our inflated expectations.

Testing has the aura of science about it. And there is nothing scientific about the movie business.  [Emphasis in original] - Jeffrey Katzenberg
I would humbly abstract that last line to "there is nothing scientific about art".

Surely there are plenty aspects of the film industry that can be reduced to a functional science; the technology that capture video and audio, the marvels of post-production editing, the methods of content delivery, even the role of film in society can be reduced to a functional science (indeed, all things Katzenberg addresses elsewhere in his letter).

What I want to tease out from Katzenberg's quote is: Designing for functionality (which can be scientifically tested) is nothing without art (which cannot be tested).

Ferdinand A. Porsche, achieved legendary status as designer of the 9111, saw the design trajectory as:
"Design must be functional, and functionality must be translated into visual aesthetics..."
A designer creates for a functional purpose elevated to an artistic plane.

But because good art is offensive, you must trust the instinct of the designer (assuming they have reason to be trusted2). We know good art inspires, transports, incites, propels, challenges, even unseats the audience. A design that is functionally equivalent, but is inoffensively pleasant art tailored to the lowest common denominator does none of this.

We see this theme of artistic offensiveness in design repeat itself across industries. Jonathan Ives, Apple Design Chief, said:
“We don't do focus groups. They just ensure that you don't offend anyone, and produce bland inoffensive products.”
I mourn the fact that focus groups are largely to blame for decades of depressingly underwhelming art from Detroit3. Chris Bangle, best known as the Chief of Design at BMW, laments the result of designers who resist being offensive:
"Probably the thing that irks me the most [in car design] is when I see this repetition of the known, because it shows people have comfort zones that are too tight to themselves and they’re really afraid to walk out of those. And then somebody comes up with a new idea, and then everybody follows that because their comfort zone has been expanded. The work that we’ve done in the last ten years has been about expanding those comfort zones"
Every movie, every car, every piece of software, every object is designed; a metamorphoses of functionality to art.4




1 It's worth noting that the Porsche 911 is the longest running nameplate that has only seen evolutionary design changes since it's inception in 1963

2 Steve Jobs brashly stated:
"A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why a lot of people at Apple get paid a lot of money, because they're supposed to be on top of these things" [emphasis added]
3 By the way, if your skeptical or curious about the subject of "cars as art", listen to this TED Talk by Bangle.

4 If any of this strikes your fancy, watch Objectified:
... [A documentary] about our complex relationship with manufactured objects and, by extension, the people who design them. It’s a look at the creativity at work behind everything from toothbrushes to tech gadgets. It’s about the designers who re-examine, re-evaluate and re-invent our manufactured environment on a daily basis. It’s about personal expression, identity, consumerism, and sustainability.
You'll see more exclusive interviews with Ives, Bangles, and my personal favorite designer, Dieter Ram.

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