on Sun, 9 Sep 2001 02:23:49 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] talks to the creator of n_Gen 09/09/01


   Peter Spreenberg of Move Design, creator of
   n_Gen - a sharp-eyed Photoshop parody that
   critiques current trends in contemporary
   design practice - talks to about
   the project that hopes to answer a lot of


   First off, n_Gen is clearly a satire on
   contemporary design habits. Was this the sole
   intention of the project, or did you have some
   other agendas or aims in mind before you

      n_Gen represents a combination of
      objectives. It was first exhibited through
      ioResearch's 10th edition of The Remedi
      Project, and for this we were parodying
      contemporary design habits and what we see as
      the emulation of celebrity design currently in
      vogue. It was presented as a kind of in-joke
      for designers who would recognize the work of
      their heroes. It was also an attempt to
      respond to an undercurrent in the design
      world, every designer's wish for a 'magic
      design machine' that could crank out finished
      designs by simply pressing a button.

      But in fact, the concepts underlying n_Gen
      represent the culmination of research and
      explorations we have been engaged in over many
      years. In some of our past work, we have
      developed systems that build graphics on the
      fly, using software algorithms that yield
      random and unpredictable visual results. Most
      often, the resulting designs are quite raw and
      ugly, but once in a while, you get images of
      sublime and surprising beauty.

      In part, this was driven by a desire to speed
      up the design and production process, but we
      also were interested in creating new and
      unusual imagery. We have wondered if it is
      possible to create algorithms and formulae for
      designs that are not simply random assemblages
      of imagery, but are more 'intelligent',
      informed and behave according to a set of
      rules. What we're really getting at is: Is
      there a universal code for beauty?

      By analyzing what we believe to be successful
      designs, is it possible to determine formulae
      for what is pleasing to the eye? What are the
      rules and principles that talented designers
      instinctively employ in their work and can
      these rules be simulated by a computer

   As a design firm yourself, you must be aware
   that you're subjecting yourselves and your
   client work to criticism in the same way that
   you are others. Is there a Move Design plug-in
   available for n_Gen? If not, why?

      The Design Modules that most closely reflect
      our current aesthetic are perhaps Spacefarm
      (although it's a bit too techy and over the
      top for our taste), and Urbivore, which is
      already becoming a bit passe. I guess we'd
      like to think that we're beyond having a
      recognizable style, that we're nebulous and
      always evolving. But of course we probably
      do. I think maybe we're too close to it to see
      it. Perhaps it's up to someone else to do a
      parody of us, the Move Design module.

   n_Gen mimics the interface of Adobe
   Photoshop. Is there a critical reason for this
   to be so? Do you think your project would have
   been as successful if it hadn't adopted that
   familiar look and feel? What does this say
   about "radical" interface design practices?

      We designed it this way because we wanted the
      interface to look familiar, generic and
      vanilla so that the aesthetics of the content
      and the concept behind the design machine
      would stand out. We weren't trying to make a
      statement with the interface, in fact we
      wanted it to be understated and
      invisible. What better way to make something
      invisible than to make it familiar and

      As a design firm, we enjoy and appreciate
      radical, outrageous and unconventional design
      as much as anyone, but having designed quite a
      few user interfaces, we feel that this is one
      area that requires restraint. It may sound
      boring, but we still believe in
      usability. Innovative interface is great for
      challenging convention and experimentation,
      but if you're creating a tool or utility that
      will be used by people for extended periods of
      time, it only makes sense to do something that
      won't annoy them.

   There is something inherently amusing about
   the capricious nature of the [ n_Generate ]
   button, and how that contrasts with the
   prescriptive view modes (Poster, Flyer, Web
   Page, etc). Is this a subtle comment on the
   sort of work you're asked to do
   commercially? Do you think there's any
   credibility in suggesting that there might be
   a serious break from this sort of stale
   corporate new media usage by deploying radical
   systems (such as generative software) in their

      Branding is a fairly recent marketing concept
      that has been applied to everything from
      products and services to fashion, music and
      films. Even the attitude and speaking voice of
      your local Starbucks employee is something
      that has been branded (or at least they're
      trying to do this!)

      And of course user interface is not immune
      from this phenomenon. In many of the projects
      we've worked on, there is a desire to brand
      the 'user experience.' This is a pretty high
      level concept that usually ends up getting
      diluted to the point where one brands the user
      experience by shaving just the right amount of
      pixels off the edges of the user interface
      buttons and applies the product logo to the
      desktop icons.

      It was only natural for us to try to apply
      this branding approach, ad nauseam, to the
      n_Gen interface. There was a sort of sick
      satisfaction in overdoing it, we even invented
      our own product-ized verb/action/interface
      element that contained the product name. What
      self-respecting product manager wouldn't aim
      for this? I think in a way, we were acting as
      we imagined our own most unrestrained client

   The issue of authorship seems to make people
   groan these days, but how do you think writing
   generative software will change peoples'
   perceptions of creativity and authorship in a
   digital environment? Have we already
   experienced a transformation but not realised

      One of the things we enjoy about n_Gen is how
      detached it makes you as a designer. You can't
      claim total credit for a design that looks
      great (all you did was press a button) but you
      also can't be held responsible for a horrid
      design either (all you did was press a

      In creating n_Gen, we wanted to emphasize
      using computers for design in a way that is
      often overlooked - that is, using the
      computer's inherent capability and
      time-honored status as an automation
      device. So many of us in the design world
      spend so much of our time doing arduous and
      repetitive tasks day in and day out, tasks
      that could easily be automated if we only knew

      We see a lot of software out there that is
      intended to streamline the production process,
      but it's as if the design/conceptualizing
      process is a sacred cow that mustn't be
      touched, as if creativity and hard work go
      hand in hand. Of course, we don't seriously
      believe that a machine will ever replace the
      subtle and unpredictable creative capabilities
      of the human mind. But perhaps there is some
      middle ground, a way of supplementing what the
      designer does anyway and automating the
      repetitive, routine parts of the process.

      Part of the reason for creating n_Gen was for
      fun but also as a tongue-in-cheek
      admonishment, perhaps to take a bit of the
      wind out of the sails of the star designers we
      see revered on the web. A bit of ego bashing,
      as if to say, "don't think you can't be
      replaced." We're merely trying to show people,
      designers in particular, that a style, no
      matter how new or unconventional, is just a
      style. Even 'no style' is a style. Graphic
      design virtuosity is not that rare or special
      and as much as we love beautiful design,
      applying a pretty skin to something
      structurally ordinary is not that interesting
      to us anymore. I suppose we're just trying to
      wake people up a bit and suggest that maybe
      there's more to design than throwing nice
      pictures on top of conventional information

      We're interested in making design available to
      everyone in the same way that desktop
      publishing software leveled the playing field
      for a lot of people. I know a lot of designers
      will probably be angered and threatened by
      this approach, but I'm old enough to remember
      a time when doing computer graphics was beyond
      the reach of anyone but a select few. And now,
      just about anyone who can afford a PC and some
      graphics software can call themselves a
      graphic designer. I think this is okay,
      because look at the richness, quantity and
      diversity of design we've seen since the
      introduction of the Mac.

      Designers need to realize that they've had a
      monopoly on digital visualization for some
      time now, and that time is coming to an
      end. In the same way that typographers, video
      editors and specialists in other fields have
      seen their rarified positions erode as
      computers have become ever more sophisticated
      and ever more affordable and available to the
      general public, designers must now begin to
      see that they too will either go the way of
      the dinosaur, or they will adapt, as all the
      typographers and video editors have. It will
      be painful for some, but it's a natural,
      evolutionary process.

      Desktop publishing opened design up to a lot
      of people with no training, but after playing
      around and making a few really ugly
      newsletters, the wisest individuals soon
      realized that this was just another fancy tool
      and that they could only go so far before they
      needed someone with true talent and an
      aesthetic sensibility to come in and do it
      properly. We sincerely hope that n_Gen, or
      some other tool like it, has the same
      effect. Because what it really does is educate
      people about the value of good design. It
      shows us that really great design is more than
      the tool you're using, and a talented designer
      is more than someone who is proficient at
      Photoshop or Flash.

   What's the future of application software, in

      Application software is normally very
      purposeful and, as it should be, optimized for
      accomplishing a specific set of tasks. We'd
      like to see applications become more
      entertaining. This may seem like a
      contradiction - when one is trying to
      accomplish a task quickly and efficiently, the
      last thing needed is to be distracted by some
      annoyance masquerading as fun. But if the
      entertainment was an inherent part of the
      application, something that was inseparable
      from the application's fundamental purpose, we
      believe this could have a positive impact on
      how people relate to computers and their
      work. Some of us spend our entire day in front
      of the computer, we may as well get some
      enjoyment out of it.

      We'd also like to see more automation in
      design applications. It's more efficient to
      write a few lines of code that generates
      imagery and let the computer rip for a few
      minutes than to meticulously create an image
      or animation pixel by pixel, frame by
      frame. Obviously, it may never be possible to
      automate completely some styles of work, and
      most designers don't, and won't, know how to
      program, so the automation needs to be made
      accessible. The key to this is in the user
      interface, making it easy for people to
      automate repetitive tasks as well as
      operations that are currently not seen as
      being automate-able (is that a word?)

   And your future plans for n_Gen?

      n_Gen is currently a demo created with
      Macromedia Director. We are working on
      developing n_Gen as a 'real' application in a
      more robust language that will enable more
      features and capabilities. Some of these Gen
      as a 'real' application in a more robust
      language fonts, and other assets. We also
      intend to give users the ability to create
      their own Design Modules. The tricky part of
      this is not the technology but the underlying
      knowledge base and the user interface. In
      order to create a Design Module, there needs
      to be an easy way for the user to be cognizant
      of the difference between the assets and the
      layout, their content vs. their design. Design
      Modules are a bit like templates except that
      they are design aware, 'page aware', flexible
      and forgiving. A bit like an expert system, I
      suppose, that knows which things are fixed,
      unbreakable structures and which things are
      flexible and open ended.

   -------------------------------------------------------- 09/09/01

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