24 January 2018

Why do work without a practical purpose?

The first website I ever made was a fansite for a local Phoenix band called 17FourEyes. I was obsessed and compiled everything I knew about them, including transcribing the lyrics to their songs from demos and an eventual EP (I found out later I got a lot wrong). Through the site’s forum I connected with another fan where we gushed together and we eventually started hanging out at their shows. It was just so cool and got me hooked on the magic of the web.

Fifteen years later you could argue that most of my projects are still glorified fansites. Digital love letters to CSS, airports, reality cooking competitions, and my home state of Arizona.

I joke that I pride myself on creating projects that compel people to post on the internet asking “Why do this?” I recognize my work isn’t for everyone. As recently as last week a friend of mine, who no doubt gets me, said about the popularity of my airportcod.es project, “I just don’t get it.”

A lot of people question the practicality of the work or search for a deeper purpose:

Just wondering, is there any legitimate reason for doing this?
Sure, it’s challenging, but why should anybody care?
Really nice but I really don't see the point.
Nice one, but WHY??

My CSS drawing project, a.singlediv.com, is usually on the receiving end of the “Why?”, but my recent portfolio redesign brought a fresh set of questioning.

My prepared goto answer is that these projects are just for fun and hey, it’s fun to do things that are weird. While technically true, there’s so much more I’m trying to do.

So… why then?

Why do we create art at all? Some artists create solely for themselves as a means of introspection and self expression. I truly love that. However, I’m not one of those artists.

I begin my process thinking about who will consume my work and how I hope they’ll respond to it. Art does not exist in isolation and it gains meaning from the people who experience it. It cannot be separate from the context in which it was created and the history of work that came before it. Those who view and participate in the work gain (or sometimes lose) something too.

Seeing

Have you ever had a friend send you an image and they say “This is incredible!”? You look at it. It has nice lighting I guess? What’s the big deal? “No, no. It’s not a photo. It’s a 12-foot oil painting.” In a small, special moment you aren’t sure if your eyes are playing tricks on you. “Whaaat?”

I love that feeling. Where someone’s work makes you question your reality. It begs you to dig deeper into how they did it. You want to, or in the best cases, must look closer. Imagine creating something that causes a tiny explosion in someone’s brain. When people view my work, I hope they might say “I didn’t know this was possible.”

Similarly, I love when someone’s work opens your eyes to something that was always there. A tool used in a new way, a pattern you never noticed, or the story behind a name. In an instant, this everyday thing is suddenly different and you can’t unsee it. The response I hope for in this case is, “Oh wow. Of course.”

Being surprised, stretching our imaginations, seeing things differently. Each an intention of the work and something I gain personally from creating it.

Experiences like this (as a viewer and a creator) are super valuable for me, especially long term. Every day we’re learning things that will be practical someday. You may not even realize you’re building this complex web of knowledge. We call it “intuition” but a big part of being an experienced designer/developer/whatever is how vast your web is and how effectively you can make connections between the disparate information and apply them to solve real problems.

Challenging

“Well, which is it? Art or design?!” a frustrated Redditor asks, trying to make sense of one of my projects. That question made me so happy. I want people who feel confused about what the work is to also question why they want to categorize it.

Designers do this a lot. I wish I had a piece of pizza for every “Design isn’t art” article I’ve seen. Art and design overlap in deep, meaningful ways and drawing a line between them does both a disservice. Also true for technology, where some want to draw the line even deeper. I want my work to blur the edges. I’m always amazed at the kind of magic we can create in the space where disciplines overlap.

Doing this work on the web specifically asks people to think about medium. I pay close attention when someone critiques art by saying the artist “must have a lot of time on their hands.” Almost always, it’s in response to work that’s made of unconventional material. Detailed portraits on Starbucks cardboard sleeves or styrofoam cups, landscapes constructed with thousands of matchsticks, drawings made with a single div and CSS. Very rarely does anyone say this about photography, oil painting, or stone sculpture.

What about a medium makes us value the time spent with it? I hope every person who views my CSS illustrations and says, “I can’t help but ask… why not just use SVG?” really does think about why. What would the work be if it was created in a format that’s obviously better suited? The medium we choose to work in is part of the work and contributes to its meaning.

Sharing

Lately the web can feel like an overwhelming sea of misery. (I won’t get into it. You know.) But it’s still such a joy to discover someone who shares in your weird, obsessive love for something. Maybe you stumble upon a website that feels like it was made just for you.

“Stumbling” upon something is such an important part of the web we take for granted. A huge contributor to a work of art’s meaning is how people access it. Does it exist in a physical space? Must you pay to enter that space and are the hours of access limited? Can people participate in it, contribute to it?

Connecting through art or shared passion is a gift and the web makes that possible at a scale unlike anything before. My little fansite turned a stranger into a friend, connecting on the web and at rock shows in the Nile basement. And that magic has only grown with every project since.

The joy we feel about the things we love is worth sharing and I encourage you to do it! You and the people viewing your work can benefit in a lot of ways, even if “the practicality of this is just non-existent.” 😉

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This was originally published on blog.andyet.com.


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