A few weeks ago, I mentioned Jason Kottke’s recent post about tidying up. Sometimes, and it is a rare occasion, an idea stick in the craw of one’s brain and doesn’t let go. In Jason’s post, he noted that cleaning up is an activity that is also well represented by numerous other, more metaphorical, activities such as modern sports.
But as I’ve been doing a lot of interface design the past week, I’ve been thinking about how designing is itself a physical process that echoes if not mimics cleaning up. When working on a website interface, I’ll typically add, piece by piece, more and more elements until everything is starting to look like chaos hit the fan. I’ll place photographs, pop-in a few gradients, push a few lines here and there, import some Illustrator elements, pull in a few color swatches and add more text than is really needed.
Then I pare down, little by little, pixel by pixel until there’s only what I feel is needed. I’ll try to kill everything that is superfluous. There’s even a little tool I love in Photoshop called “Delete Hidden Layers” which, in one fell swoop, takes out all of those little layers of photos, gradients, lines, swatches and text that are not being used. It’s a very physical process of cleaning and the end result is that (after a few hours of cleaning) I gain (or my client does) a successful design. I know this is not news, and many others have better stated it.
What interests me about the subject now is that cleaning appears to be an inherently radical phenomenon. Cleaning is about saving what you want and destroying the rest. Its relationship to racist heterodoxy and to environmental degradation and to all things morally repugnant are clear. We know that, en masse, by cleaning our hands too often with anti-bacterial soap, we are giving the germs out there a fighting chance to replicate and fight against us with better offenses. We know that the worst crimes in the past 100 years have been carried out in the name of keeping continents, countries, and cities free from a specified group of individuals. And we know that providing a monocrop in the growing fields can have large effects on food security, health, and local environments. Cleaning is a conservative value that adheres to no political ideology – yet it does lend itself to experimentation and, occasionally, criminality.
What I’m wondering about is whether design, if it is a form of cleaning and tidying up, which I think it is, is also a very real mechanism to take the nasty, organic, grotesque and fluid of the world and concretize it – to make it digestible and fine and even final.