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Whatever job people do, they naturally want to do better. Football players like to win games. CEOs like to increase earnings. But if your job is to design things, and there is no such thing as beauty, then there is no way to get better at your job.
If the taste is just personal preference, then everyone's is already perfect: you like whatever you like, and that's it. Taste, it seems, can be a hallmark of good design.
In math, simplicity means that a shorter proof tends to be a better one. Where axioms are concerned, especially, less is more. It means much the same thing in programming. For architects and designers it means that beauty should depend on a few carefully chosen structural elements rather than a profusion of superficial ornament.
When you're forced to be simple, you're forced to face the real problem. When you can't deliver ornament, you have to deliver substance.
Aiming at timelessness is a way to make yourself find the best answer: if you can imagine someone surpassing you, you should do it yourself. Some of the greatest masters did this so well that they left little room for those who came after.
Strangely enough, if you want to make something that will appeal to future generations, one way to do it is to try to appeal to past generations. So if you can make something that appeals to people today and would also have appealed to people in 1500, there is a good chance it will appeal to people in 2500
A lot of bad design is industrious, but misguided.
Problems can be improved as well as solutions. In software, an intractable problem can usually be replaced by an equivalent one that's easy to solve. Physics progressed faster as the problem became predicting observable behaviour, instead of reconciling it with scripture.
A painting that suggests is usually more engaging than one that tells. Everyone makes up their own story about the Mona Lisa.
In architecture and design, this principle means that a building or object should let you use it how you want.
In software, it means you should give users a few basic elements that they can combine as they wish, like Lego. In math it means a proof that becomes the basis for a lot of new work is preferable to a proof that was difficult, but doesn't lead to future discoveries; in the sciences generally, the citation is considered a rough indicator of merit.
Humour is related to strength. To have a sense of humour is to be strong: to keep one's sense of humour is to shrug off misfortunes, and to lose one's sense of humour is to be wounded by them. And so the mark-- or at least the prerogative-- of strength is not to take oneself too seriously. The confident will often, like swallows, seem to be making fun of the whole process slightly, as Hitchcock does in his films or Bruegel in his paintings-- or Shakespeare, for that matter.
Hard problems call for great efforts. In math, difficult proofs require ingenious solutions, and those tend to be interesting. Ditto in engineering.
When you have to climb a mountain you toss everything unnecessary out of your pack. And so an architect who has to build on a difficult site, or a small budget, will find that he is forced to produce an elegant design. Fashions and flourishes get knocked aside by the difficult business of solving the problem at all.
In art, the highest place has traditionally been given to paintings of people. There is something to this tradition, and not just because pictures of faces get to press buttons in our brains that other pictures don't. We are so good at looking at faces that we force anyone who draws them to work hard to satisfy us. If you draw a tree and you change the angle of a branch five degrees, no one will know. When you change the angle of someone's eye five degrees, people notice.
Like great athletes, great designers make it look easy. Mostly this is an illusion. The easy, conversational tone of good writing comes only on the eighth rewrite.
Line drawings are in fact the most difficult visual medium, because they demand near perfection. In math terms, they are a closed-form solution; lesser artists literally solve the same problems by successive approximation. One of the reasons kids give up drawing at ten or so is that they decide to start drawing like grownups, and one of the first things they try is a line drawing of a face, which is the hardest.
There are two kinds of symmetry, repetition and recursion. Recursion means repetition in subelements, like the pattern of veins in a leaf.
Symmetry is unfashionable in some fields now, in reaction to excesses in the past.
Architects started consciously making buildings asymmetric in Victorian times and by the 1920s asymmetry was an explicit premise of modernist architecture. Even these buildings only tended to be asymmetric about major axes, though; there were hundreds of minor symmetries.
The danger of symmetry, and repetition especially, is that it can be used as a substitute for thought.
Few would deny that a story should be like life. Working from life is a valuable tool in painting too, though its role has often been misunderstood. The aim is not simply to make a record. The point of painting from life is that it gives your mind something to chew on: when your eyes are looking at something, your hand will do more interesting work.
Imitating nature also works in engineering. Boats have long had spines and ribs like an animal's ribcage, for example.
It takes confidence to throw work away. You have to be able to think, there's more where that came from. When people first start drawing, for example, they're often reluctant to redo parts that aren't right; they feel they've been lucky to get that far, and if they try to redo something, it will turn out worse. Instead they convince themselves that the drawing is not that bad, really-- in fact, maybe they meant it to look that way.
The ambitious are not content to imitate. This growth of taste is a conscious attempt at originality.
The greatest masters go on to achieve a kind of selflessness. They just want to get the right answer, and if part of the right answer has already been discovered by someone else, that's no reason not to use it. They're confident enough to take from anyone without feeling that their own vision will be lost in the process.
An original design is often personal and strange.
The only style worth having is the one you can't help. And this is especially true for strangeness. There is no shortcut to it. The Northwest Passage that the Mannerists, the Romantics, and two generations of American high school students have searched for does not seem to exist. The only way to get there is to go through good and come out the other side.
Michelangelo was not trying to paint like Michelangelo. He was just trying to paint well; he couldn't help painting like Michelangelo.
Nothing is more powerful than a community of talented people working on related problems.
Genes count for little by comparison: being a genetic Leonardo was not enough to compensate for having been born near Milan instead of Florence. Today we move around more, but great work still comes disproportionately from a few hotspots: the Bauhaus, the Manhattan Project, the New Yorker, Lockheed's Skunk Works, Xerox Parc.
At every period of history, people have believed things that were just ridiculous and believed them so strongly that you risked ostracism or even violence by saying otherwise.
Today's experimental error is tomorrow's new theory. If you want to discover great new things, then instead of turning a blind eye to the places where conventional wisdom and truth don't quite meet, you should pay particular attention to them.
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