Genius of our time  

Bret Victor’s latest presentations Stop Drawing Dead Fish and Drawing Dynamic Visualizations are breathtaking to say the least.

At a macro level, a prototyping tool like the one Bret Victor demoes is a game changer for 2 reasons:

When building software, you usually spend (waste) a lot of time iterating. Designing and coding the very same screen again and again until you reach a point where it is satisfying.

When you get there, you usually realize that all this cascading views you created need some additional work for your application to be consistent as a whole.

It’s a painful process because it doesn’t matter how good you are, it remains sequential: design / code / test / iterate.

That’s why companies like Facebook extensively use Quartz Composer. Getting as close as possible to the first version of an application in the design phase lets you minimize engineering time, iterations and balance the workload between engineers and designers.

However, be it Quartz Composer, After Effect, web technologies, the hundreds of web-based prototyping tools available or even Keynote, they’re all inappropriate.

They only partially solve the problem because they only allow partial prototyping. You can flesh out a few transitions and animations but you can’t see the whole picture and reach the point where you realize there is an obvious simpler solution.
The obvious simpler solution can only occur to you when you reached what I would call the overview stage.

That’s when the first fully working iteration of your software is in your hands. It is usually the moment where the magic happens in software, when you have a chance to go from good to great. Iterate one more time or leave it as it is because it is good enough.

By reaching the overview stage before any line of code is typed, the dynamic drawing app not only shortens development time thus engineering resources but also provides designers with an early global vision on their work and how all the piece fit together. It gives them a chance to iterate without code and keep control on the design.

From experience, my real work at Sparrow mainly consisted in optimizing engineering resources by making the good calls design-wise. Unfortunately, it means design always comes second and is highly dependent on the development’s pipeline. Not much room for experiments.

The true value of Victor’s tool is to be found at the micro level.

The real waste when building software, apart from inevitable lost coding days, is aborted design ideas.

As toolmakers, we have to do everything we can to get pictures out of people’s head and into the world […]. If people are thinking in picture, we can’t force them to take a detour through symbols to get to their picture

Today, a designer in charge of making a software engaging, understandable, easy to use and pleasurable has no direct control over the implementation details and no precise knowledge of what’s really possible.

Here, I am just talking the usual designer day-to-day routine of refining interactions and interface.

Innovating when you have no control or deep understanding of how things work behind the scene is almost impossible. Imagine coming up with the pull-to-refresh idea with no programming background.

The only way for a designer to control the implementation details is to stand over the programmer’s shoulder and fine-tune what he’s building. This requires patience on both sides and time, a resource many small companies don’t have. Design remains mediated.

The other way out is to be Loren Brichter and master both design and code. Unfortunately, this is pretty rare. This explains why most software usually end up being good enough or ok but not great despite considerable efforts.

The dynamic drawing tool transfers power (and responsibility) from the engineer (back) to the designer who is finally able to control all parameters and deliver a fully alive drawing of what he wants.
He is not in a position where he’s stuck approximating anymore. He can flesh it out from the beginning to the end.

This makes a huge difference.

From blindly manipulating symbols = programming, we’re on the verge of being able to draw the living picture in our heads.

Bret Victor is this close from offering designers the tool they’ve long stopped dreaming of. It is his revolution.

FYI: there is one last presentation to be released on May 28 Media for Thinking the Unthinkable, be sure to watch it and get your mind blown.


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