Essays

The only constant

Reflecting on the authorship of designed artefacts that live a life beyond the hands of those who crafted them.
Last updated 5 min read

Several years ago a fellow UX designer was explaining to me how disappointing he found the transient nature of the designs we put out into the (digital) world. The interfaces and interactions we ‘sketch’ and ‘paint’ are no sooner ‘built’ and ‘published’ than we (or another designer) are redesigning them. Isn’t the term ‘digital product’ designer somewhat of an oxymoron? Can the intangible claim to have been produced? The digital world exists outside of time and design portfolios grasp at legacies the present cannot access. All that remains are screenshots—the spectres of former endeavours.

Though dissolution is an intractable truth of everything (bar the metaphysical), it’s hard to imagine much in the modern physical world that experiences the pace of continual overpainting and reinvention of digital ephemera. Like parchment, the web is a palimpsest, the surface of which is repeatedly scraped and rescored as the traces of its previous layers gradually erode from collective memory (no doubt we will one day build museums of the Internet, but they will be archives of a recent past that feels ancient). Such persistent mutation suggests somewhat uneasily that the work is never—can never—be done. But this relentless changeability is also part of what makes the internet such a thrilling place.

Designers are rarely able to retain control over the products and services they design. The raison d'être of design is to be used, and through use occurs ungovernable change. Designing digital services and experiences is like maintaining Theseus’ ship. Despite being composed of pixels, they seem nonetheless to weather and age. We sand and smoothen, patch holes and fix rot, implementing the latest construction techniques and moulding to the contemporary aesthetic, building higher and faster until several years later our designs, gradually formed anew, cease to be the original designs. When done well, this is not erosion, but evolution, as a consequence of use.

As Jose M. Gilgado writes in his article on the beauty of finished software:

“When it comes to software, we usually have the ingrained expectations of perpetual updates. We believe that if software doesn’t evolve it’ll be boring, old and unusable. If we see an app with no updates in the last year, we think the creator might be dead.”

One should be wary of desiring a stable and permanent oeuvre. It is thrilling when someone creates work that they—having put everything they can into it—believe cannot be improved further, but what musician doesn’t later wince at an imperfect passage in their recording? What artist doesn’t baulk at the sight of their earlier daubings? Witnessing the route carved through doubt and inexperience to one’s current state of expertise can be both a humbling and uplifting experience.

The taste gap

A friend who works in retail design and illustration recently told me how, upon encountering pieces she’d designed just a couple of seasons prior, she barely recognised them as her own work. I thought this was wonderful. Though in retail design one’s mind always operates several seasons ahead (so quickly is the present subsumed into the past), her comment illuminated the extent to which she has grown since designing that collection, inching closer to the perfection one pursues in any act of creative endeavour. To quote Ira Glass, “Everybody I know who does interesting creative work … went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be”. The bridging of that shrinking gap between one’s taste and the ability to reify that taste is the barometer of progress in one’s craft.

For designers, artists, and creators more generally, our output is less the result than the by-product of continued self-improvement and the honing of craft. As Kenya Hara suggests, “The basis of the artistic mind is the overcoming of human error through strenuous practice and training”. Each new project presents a tabula rasa, a blank sheet upon which an increasingly steady hand may inscribe its ink. This is no less the case for digital projects of overpainting in which one’s previous work undergoes perhaps only modest augmentation. The white page exists nonetheless in the mind of the designer who is emotionally charged to impart something new upon it.

When mourning the changeable, intangible nature of digital design, it is worth questioning why one chooses to design in the first place. Speaking for myself, I was (and continue to be) driven by irritation at the countless examples of poor design in my immediate surroundings, and a desire to produce user experiences that work flawlessly. Perfect solutions to an imperfect world; the god complex that sits somewhere deep in the psyche of all of us, whether we’re willing to embrace it or not.

Slouching towards Bethlehem

Subjective audience impressions and the cultural and aesthetic values of the time play as much of a role in the perception of cultural objects as the objects themselves. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty explains, “human existence can never abstract from itself in order to gain access to the naked truth”, and frankly, would it not be boring to do so? The sculpting of order from chaos and the pursuit of truth—now that’s where the fun lies.

There are no perfect poems, paintings, stories, or songs, though many come impossibly close. And those that come impossibly close do so only because their creators were willing to settle for nothing less than absolute perfection. But I am talking here of design which, in how it plays out day-to-day, is something entirely apart. Design is the alchemical act of blending imperfect knowledge over and over in the hope that something of use is fashioned. We can’t go on; we’ll go on. Design must be received, it must be used, and it must continue to evolve beyond the hands of its creator(s). Thus, to have designed is essentially to have handed over to another.

To return to the earlier conversation with my designer friend, the frustrations he expressed over his inability to fix his work in time betray not only an ontological conundrum but a concern over the slipperiness of authorship. Where does his work end and another’s begin? To what can one point and say ‘This is my design, with all its virtues and flaws’? To hand over a crafted artefact is to transfer ownership whilst retaining authorship; to be recognised for the role one played in an object's history as it continues to mutate and decay. A Starck juicer, an Eames chair, a Hadid building.

If we consider that the identities of design artefacts are co-created by those who use them, an object that does not change nonetheless morphs in the eyes of a changing world. No identity is stable. However, though we cannot stop the digital artefacts we create from shedding their skin, we can strive to ensure their underlying DNA persists. Though the constituent parts may be replaced, each contributor instils through their personal sense of integrity and taste a flavour that forms the ever-evolving essence of the whole.

What counts is that through the application of this sense of integrity and taste to their work, the craftsperson also crafts themself. Despite its reconfigurations of form and matter throughout the centuries, the ship of Theseus remains Theseus’s ship.

Further reading

  • Gilgado, J. M. (2023, October 31). The beauty of finished software. Jose M. Gilgado. https://josem.co/the-beauty-of-finished-software/
  • Hara, Kenya. White, 2009, Lars Müller Publishers.
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The World of Perception, 2004, Routledge.
  • Popova, Maria. “The Taste Gap: Ira Glass on the Secret of Creative Success, Animated in Living Typography.” The Marginalian, 2 Nov. 2015, www.themarginalian.org/2014/01/29/ira-glass-success-daniel-sax/.

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