I’ve come across a couple of interesting drawing tools in the last month. I’ve tried them – guiltily – because Digital Architects aren’t supposed to “sketch” anymore. We draw – we make drawings – but “sketching” brings to mind old white men conceiving architectural masterpieces on napkins while awed clients play nervously with their martini stirrers. Process is king, and sketching pretends that process is a mere formality, performed after the master’s napkin is carefully faxed back to New York.
The first, Alchemy, I encountered in the context of software tools for animation concept art. What I find interesting about it is that it intentionally subverts usability – there is no “undo”, for example. It is intended as a “starting” tool, not a “finishing” tool. It has several tools, more modes of interaction really, from simple Rorschach-like mirroring to “negative” drawing and different distortions. This is not a gestural drawing tool, though; it doesn’t bother with the crude cartoonish splatters or “airbrush” of paint programs. It is designed to subvert the will of the creator just enough to allow novelty and invention to surface.
There is a rich history of the use of tools and games to subvert the conscious will of the artist – one might even say that Surrealism was created with this as one of its fundamental tenets. I would hazard to say that the history of using the computer as a tool of the unconscious is not as rich [though I recently finally finished Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, in which the protagonists use the computer Abulafia to randomly concoct conspiracy theories – Eco’s tragic editor Belbo, who has never been able to consummate his creative urges, finds that he can write only through Abulafia].
The second is a web-based tool, Harmony. Like Alchemy, Harmony favors an empty-canvas approach. The interaction is subtle at first – “so what – another drawing program” – until overlapping strokes start to grow mycelia and gum together to produce surprising depth. Its a bit like a mild version of the early Illustrator plug-in Scriptographer, except that it feels like it could actually be used to produce work. Drawing with Harmony feels suspiciously easy – almost like those invisible ink books from my childhood (mystic writing pads, anyone?) – like there’s a hidden drawing that you’re revealing by continued tracing.
Could this be the next phase of creative software development (“It just works” is so 2008) – like writers using only yellow legal pads and Underwoods? Will we reach a time when we crave difficult interactions? I’ve never been entirely convinced by the field of User Interaction – I believe that we can achieve virtuosity with any interface we have access to (exhibit #1: monkey-robot arm-banana). The argument of giving users “familiar” interfaces (the “recycling bin”) dissolves as we approach the cyborg singularity, where we spend every waking moment in the company of computing devices.
Could we design an architecture-creating software that actually works from sketching? We could program the canvas with all the sociological, political and structural constraints and then forget about them. Rather than a tool for designing a parametric monster stitched together from all of the site constraints, what if the computer was something that worked against us, offering only resistance and jamming (while working out structural implications in our wake)?
I leave you with one last reference, far in left field (or right at home, depending what you do for fun). Game designer Jane McGonigal has advocated building real-world problems into games and putting our crafty play-brains to work. The only new game I’ve had much time to play lately has been World of Goo , but I think she has a good point. Game interactions can offer us not only new models of focus and problem-solving, but creativity as well.