Tens of thousands of years before the invention of Photoshop, ink, or even paper, humans with whom you or I would have seemingly little in common cautiously entered what we now call Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche valley in Southern France. The picture above shows one of the hundreds of cave paintings from Chauvet—horses running with bison and rhinos. Radiocarbon dating estimates the origin of some of the oldest images around 30,000 B.C. with paintings developing over the next 5,000 years.
The Chauvet paintings demonstrate a remarkable understanding of compositional technique. Line, spacing, relationship, color, etc. I imagine the artist observing the ritual of animal migration and finding something fascinating, something important about the events. He or she took some “interest” in the animals. Enough, in fact, to create the painting.
The artist could not recreate the occurrence exactly as it happened. Even if he had the modern convenience of an iPhone camera, he still had to choose which part of the event to frame, how much to film, where to zoom, etc. He could only share the massive event by oral, aural, or visual “imaging.”
He had to recreate reality. Or not. Let’s discuss…
Michelangelo’s David and Steve Jobs’s iPhone have many things in common. Both are quintessential examples of the things they represent—”man” and “smart phone,” respectively. Both come from the minds of geniuses. Both have curves in all the right places.
Both are beautiful.
Yet there is a major difference between the two—one that demands stating, one that should inform the evaluation of digital infotecture. David is art. The iPhone is not.
Michelangelo’s masterpiece is meant to be looked at, studied, contemplated. Its purpose is to show viewers an ideal man.
And while I admit to occasionally staring at my iPhone in awe of Jony Ive’s design, satisfying my contemplative nature is not its purpose. Its purpose is to make calls and, well, “there’s an app for that.”
David’s purpose is its meaning. The iPhone’s is its utility.
Art is an end in itself. Design is not.
When evaluating information design, it’s important to understand the aesthetics behind the design—insomuch as aesthetics concerns itself with what is beautiful (though not exclusively). People like beautiful things, beautiful experiences.
But it’s equally important to understand the intended function of the information. Is it meant for comparison? For quick reference? For deep study?
Beauty and utility. Both are necessary for good design, for eloquent information. Without the former, people won’t care. Without the latter, it won’t matter how much they care because they won’t be able to access the data.
A design, like a building or a man, should have integrity. That integrity comes from understanding the differences between art and design.