Great software is measured by how little it constrains human imagination

As most of you are well aware, there are fanatics on both sides of the feature fence. Microsoft is known for spooky bloatware, while 37 Signals holds minimalism sacred*. While I acknowledge the benefits of rich features or dedicated lean apps, I don’t believe either of these philosophies are focused enough on my dearest design priority, minimizing constraints on creativity.

Who’s Creativity?

Myself, other developers and users can all stake a claim on constrained creativity. Much like modern publishing, the distinction between content creators (developers) and end users is becoming a matter of degree in lieu of distinct roles. So the question becomes are we maximizing our creativity as designers or are we limiting how much we constrain the imagination of end users. The answer is clearly dependent on the intended consumer – our self or others.

37 signals hit upon an interesting union of these requirements. They built Rails for themselves, but decided to share their creation with anyone else who was interested. And it took off with a life of its own, marketing Ruby as a potent scripting language and even inspiring alternative frameworks. For my personal work, I’m happy if I can free up my own ideas with well designed code, or if I put something on github that others can use.


* =  Exceptions: was a lean project within Microsoft (referenced in Getting Real by 37 signals), and 37 signals’ Rails framework is a bit portly compared to Merb, Ramaze, Sinatra or Camping for focused web development

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  • Emeri Gent [Em]

    The way we maximize our creativity or constrain the imagination depends on both external factors such as our environment and the internal factor which is our own given relationship between heart and mind. There is a relationship of equanimity between the two which is a starting point, but the end point is intention and intensity. These are the factors which determine our unique ways of looking at life.

    It is dangerous to simplify this as cause and effect because it is easier to address uniqueness in the biological scripts of conformity. Why would scripts written as language be any more different than the scripts that determine human habit and our ability to codify life into the simplest level of explanation. Of course we are not machines, but even our biology recognizes that we require a default that operates in the background called our consciousness.

    It is also dangerous to view life in parts unless we realize that we break things up because very few people can swallow the whole, which is something that those who advocate “a holistic view” seem to miss. It is the parts we choose which determine the quality of our own given perspective. The parts in this case would be ideally split into two questions :

    1. What maximizes our creativity?
    2. What constrains the imagination?

    Note that I don't want to enforce a distinction between designer and end-user here. A great designer acts like an actor on any given project of creativity, whether that be to craft code or craft a message. The role we play must fit our given ability and more importantly, our proclivity. What is it that we want to do with our creative intent?

    When we become self-aware of how we use language, not just language we use to create programs but the language our particular environment has educated us to see our world, then we begin to see how our very language can become a self-imposed an unconscious limitation. Some of this safety is smart because understanding protection equates with a duty of care, which depending on the nature of our hearts and minds defines how our imaginations lead to creating real safety, or in the search for safety, create the opposite reaction.

    The first question “What maximizes our creativity?” is a question which matures with a lifetime of experience. This question however is not about the designer's creativity but the imaginative power, which most people would refer to as vision, is our given capability (our ripple of imagination) to recognize how life changes for the end-user because of our imagination, the end-user in the shoes of the designer and the designer playing the role of end-user consequence.

    The second question, what constrains the imagination can be studied by looking both at the outliers of society and the artists who grasped consequence in their imaginations and tried to articulate it with their art. Andy Kaufman is considered by people to be a comedian but in Kaufman's world he was really a scientist of the human condition. Kaufman saw the absurdity that is a consequence of habit-forming. What makes us laugh in retrospect regarding what Andy Kaufman did is knowing that rather than simply having our number as a society, he tried to show how we stop thinking.

    Here it is helpful to understand what Marshall McLuhan thought about the word narcissism. He did not see it as selfishness but a derivation of the word narcosis, or in other words he looked at media's narcotic effects on the human condition, and in writing “Understanding Media” he was doing the very same thing Andy Kaufman was experimenting with, to see if we are really awake.

    When the end-user constrains their imagination, more often than not that is a deliberate choice. Ingesting media is no different to taking a magic puff that calms our central nervous system and Kaufman was clued into that nervous system and how it operated, while McLuhan saw technology as an extension of that nervous system. For a designer, IMHO it is not their role to play G-d with people's desires, but it is mindful for them to recognize whether they want to strike a Faustian bargain with consumers and in particular on either their conspicuous consumption or their desire for entertaining any form of narcosis.

    There is a principle in lawyer called caveat emptor which means “let the buyer beware”. Our responsibility as guardians for the next generation should not be undermined and indeed as mentors and guides, we should encourage the spark of imagination at the earliest possible point of human education, where consciousness begins to take a foothold. When it comes to the world of adults and their free will, the second question is an education they have a choice in making. We do now live in a society where we see more and here others can make the determination whether they will settle for less or see that question 2 is a fundamental loop that makes question 1 above that much more potent and worthy.

    Ultimately the way I look at life is no different to the way a surfer dewd would see it. I have my own trip but I am not putting my trip on others, or at least my crude marketing tag line is subconsciously “leave me the f#%k alone”, which does not sit right with those who lead with either question above. At the end of the day the relationship I most consider is between my heart and my mind. From there I roll the dice whether this may be making me smarter or consequentially more stupid than those who will never undertake this consideration.


  • Mark Essel

    Then my goal is made clear. To draw attention to the act of sleeping, I'll strive to show that technology is no more or less than a dream.

  • Viktor Ovurmind

    If I am truly awake then my will is to find those outside Plato's Cave. I do like what Hugh McLeod said in his book “Ignore Everybody”, which is not to worry about technology but to worry about who trusts us. A life sleeping in narcosis is merely extended by technology.


  • Emeri Gent [Em]

    One of the reasons “Viktor Ovurmind” works for me is imagination and exploration. Today I added “Rupy Yuan” into that future mix of my personal explorations, because it is good to try things and see where they fall, but this would be anarchy if it was simply a random event. So our imagination has to find the poetic and whatever that poetic is how we learn to escape structure and yet at the same time find new structure in the escape.

    Many major innovations occur when people have gone outside their field of expertise and therefore appreciated a different way of doing things. An example of that would be Toyota creating a part of its core philosophy from watching how supermarket is run. Then there is simply stuff which is just off left field such as Einstein imagining himself following a beam of light.

    Where I come often unstuck is premature conclusion and in arriving at a conclusion, I have killed off any possibility for imagination and exploration to work on me. Sometimes “that working on me” can be a painful process and sometimes blind chance of serendipity. However it works is not for me to conclude but the moment I have arrived at a conclusion, I am working from that point onwards with dead ideas, or even ideas that might have found their way into my life simply through recency or exposure.

    I look at music as a great example of a form of imagination that is based on a core of basic notes but which can proliferate into so many forms and different ways. That is why some people liken the move into the information space as the new punk rock or rock'n'roll of our time. It is then whatever way we put it together.

    I think a reason why premature conclusion is more common rather than the birth of something new, is perhaps attributable to the way we preconceive what innovation should be. Indeed our society is obsessed with innovation to the point we probably kill the goose that lays the innovative golden egg. In my own pursuits I am apt to utilize different exposures to music as means of surrendering the logical and structures of reason, without expectation of a pay-off or a discovery. By not wanting something to happen, the opposite seems to occur.

    Linkin Park is a good example of musical form which can stir my mind to take me away from the literate forms or any professional habit I have acquired that subjects me to a more fixed way of looking at things:

    In Between

    What I've Done

    Somewhere I Belong

    When I lay out this music in this way, I am simply appealing to the poetic within me. If there is nothing poetic within to resonate beyond regular behaviour, then I am wasting time and I should really apply to Walmart and live the rest of my days stocking shelves, but if there is an even a hint of the poetic to fuel exploration, then the output is pure imagination. When we try to forcefit someone else's formula or ideology or theory into something that we have not found within ourselves, then we are clones and imitators and there is no difference to this way of being than applying for a dead-end job.

    Ultimately, the way we organize work, whether it applies due process such as agile or feature creep as described above, a new way of working is often just on the other side of the fence. One way of looking at work is how film is made. I am often left in wonder how a Hollywood film project costing millions of dollars can assemble a wide diversity of talent, find a common moment on their schedule, deliver a self-contained project and at the end of it, go off in their different merry ways.

    Whether it is the infinite possibilities in music or the creative chaos of making a blockbuster movie, everything begins with imagination and exploration that is not simply a bus load of blog comments all tripping off a linear reaction of awareness. That is why my most stark suggestion is to ignore what it is I say but decide yourself what the fruits of your imagination will be.

    That our thinking becomes relative is simply a courtesy, an etiquette and a respect which is an important dynamic of how we co-exist together, yet our imaginations are only limited to the extent we are able to handle the liquor of our own imagination and how we turn that fuel into a life worth living. If we cannot make that form of life for own given selves, we cannot do it for another – we can only give as much as we gain, and in imagination, it is how we approach this because it is central to our own DNA, rather than simply what it means or what its worth as an investment in drawing a premature conclusion.

    One of the things I love about coming to Victus Spiritus is it provides a lot of white space that seeds my own imagination. I much prefer to observe my “Emeri Gent” emergent form of writing as akin to a Mission Impossible tape. Having thought this, hopefully these ideas will self-destruct, but the residue of that is an intelligence called my own learning and personal discovery. Imagination therefore isn't something one can program, it is merely something one can develop by learning how to be generous in its movement and application.


  • Mark Essel

    Bless you Em, you made my month with this comment.

    I'd like to frame it with a funky font and place it on the wall of my computer room. You've truly outdone yourself with this flow.

  • Rupy Yuan

    Expressed as “comment” or “content” this serves to block my own mojo but a funky font, now that is the freeflow of discovery.


  • Mark Essel

    Fair enough. I've found a way to highlight recent disqus comments on the side bar. It's the least I could do for now.

  • Emeri Gent [Em]

    Apologies for the context of the Rupy Yuan response. I am in the process of setting up this in the way I utilize online for discovery purpose.

    Rupy Yuan Set Up

    The whole idea is relating response to various forms or levels i.e. freeflow, paragraph, line and like.

    Freeflow response like this is “Emeri Gent”
    A paragraph response is “Viktor Ovurmind”
    A single line response is “Rupy Yuan”
    No response but a “like” is “Mark Zorro”

    The summary of this outlined on my “Mark Zorro” blog:

    Mark Zorro

    I created Mark Zorro over a decade ago as a reactive push back to the hard push on personal branding, the adage of which was “imagination is limited by brand, personal brand is limited by prostitution”. When I say “Mark Twain wasn't Mark Twain”, it means that we generally only care for the brand and so personal brand can lead us to think superficially.

    I am not against branding, great branding is great branding, but the proliferation of brand simply for the sake of mass personal brand is in my book a complete load of marketing-attention deficit disorder.

    Today, I now can navigate across my four twitter accounts, all set up for my own learning purposes. What I do is not meant to be a showcase but a personal journey. That is why I name the whole thing my FREEDOM OASIS.

    Until my own path is voided by the thought police or the desire to market us into something other than the exploration of our own individual freedom, I will enjoy this FREEDOM OASIS of mine, but in the course of enjoying it, come across some really neat people like yourself.

    Must yet again go on my merry explorative way, plus I have a commitment to an upcoming project. Even this FREEDOM OASIS does not prevent mortal souls like me from the responsibility of making a living :-)