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A few thoughts on creativity and imitation

22 aprile 2005

5 commenti

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Like many others, I got fooled by Keith’s and Garrett’s staged quarrel. Unlike many others though, I can plead less guilty since due to my living in Italy I was about to get into bed when I read Keith’s post, and did not have the time or clarity required to spot the prank.

On his followup post to the staged quarrel, Keith makes a few well thought out observations on originality, and the difficulty of dealing with imitation when designing. Having an architectural background, and one where a lot of emphasis was placed on the theory and history of architecture, I tend to have a different approach than Keith’s to the whole issue.

In classical architecture, especially from the Renaissance onwards, what we now refer to as “imitation” was indeed the basis from which most of an artist’s creativity stemmed: originality was possible only within the boundaries of a common, shared language, by clarifying the meaning and the relationships between its syntactical elements, or giving them new ones.

What counted was not the “cloning” of a single element or a set of them, since they were pretty much defined by the classical canon, but how they were assembled in a unique composition, and how their placement and mutual relationships managed to convey the meaning the architect intended. Much like a book, which is not defined (or not only) by the single words used by its writer, but by how those words are placed next to each other, and by the meaning the complete paragraphs and chapters manage to convey.

A typical example of creativity in the Renaissance was the dilemma of the Ionic corner’s column, of which
you see a couple of examples (both from Bramante) in the picture on the left. If you follow this approach to creativity, you soon discover that classical buildings (and their masters’ minds) can be read like open
books. You will then be able to experience the grotesque and revolutionary values of Bernini’s baroque, the irony of Michelangelo’s mannerism, or countless other meanings embedded in ancient stones. If you are interested in this approach to architecture, grab a copy of Summerson’s The Classical Language of Architecture: it’s cheap, fits in your pocket, reads like a novel, and it will give you the essential elements to understand old buildings.

If you apply this same frame of mind to blog design, you discover that most of the best designs, the ones we love and try to imitate, are those whose components have a well-defined identity, and whose mutual relationship and composition clearly convey the meaning their author wanted to express. Let’s have a look at a few examples to try to clarify what I’m saying, starting with Garrett’s site which, mimicking Keith’s stance in the mock quarrel, I incorrectly labeled as a copy of Signal vs Noise.

The inspiration is there, and you can certainly see it from more than a few elements, and from the overall look of Garrett’s blog. But what makes Garrett’s inspiration creative and not imitative is his coherently taking SvN’s minimalism to the extreme, to then emphasize a few components, which take on a new meaning and draw the reader’s attention. What I would call baroque minimalism.

Garrett leaves out most of the elements that traditionally “make” a blog: his design has no header, no sidebar, and the front page displays only his latest post. Navigation is accomplished with a single “about” link in the blog’s “title”, a “home” link in the same title only on internal pages, and three links at the bottom of the post to comments, archives, and RSS.

Garrett’s design seems to say to the reader that content is the really important thing on the page, be it the post’s text in the home page, or the conversation in the details page. And in the conversation, the readers’ identity is as important as their words (if you don’t understand what I’m saying, go have a look at how comment authors’ names are rendered, then step a few feet away from your monitor and look at the flow of comments on the page).

The white space and the limited number of clearly identified links augment this statement by not overwhelming the reader, by letting him feel he has all the time in the word to read, and that whenever he feels like leaving the page he won’t have trouble finding an exit (to the archives, or the feed, or the author’s “about” page).

The search for minimalism does not prevent Garrett from adding a few usability touches here and there (like the comment form which gets placed on the top of the page if you forget to fill in a field), or to combine all the elements in an aesthetically pleasing design.

So much for imitation, I guess I should have taken the time to give a proper look to the site last night, before getting caught in the mock quarrel trap. If there is any interest, I will add to this post with the reviews of the blooks blogs (nice Freudian slip) I look to for inspiration these days.

Update. Garrett has written a piece on his blog detailing the thought process that went into designing his blog. If you managed this far, go read I Like Big Buttons and I Cannot Lie. And since I’m enjoing myself analyzing other people’s excellent design, my next post will be on Kevin Wen’s blog, with which I had a brief exchange of emails today on what I call contextual design.

5 commenti

  • Garrett
    22 aprile 2005 #

    I appreciate the insightful take on the site. Actually, it’s kind of creepy. Were you somehow reading my mind on almost every decision I made?

    Seriously though, your reference to architecture brings up a very good point. Naturally, I’m not going to compare any websites to the Sistine Chapel, but I can see the conceptual similarities. Good stuff.

  • ludo
    22 aprile 2005 #

    Garrett, thanks for the kind comment. Hope the “reading your mind” bit is not another joke :)

  • Garrett
    23 aprile 2005 #

    Wow, rereading my comment, I typed way too fast and didn’t proofread. “Naturally, I’m NOT going to compare…”

    Oh well, nobody’s perfect. Least of all me.

  • ludo
    23 aprile 2005 #

    I spent some time today wondering what you meant with that :)

  • enrica
    23 aprile 2005 #

    I don’t want to intrude this high-stuff talk between the 2 of you:), but in Asia studies there is a long (= millenary) discussion and reflextion on creativity and/or originality of arts.
    I have also written something (unpublished yet, just like a lot of my stuff) long ago…

    It’s amazing that now is the “new frontier” of the Western thought!:)