Thursday, December 8, 2011

Art vs Functionality

I'm not going to pretend that I'm superbly qualified to give writing advice; I'm not. I'm still learning. I fully admit that. But there is one issue I've come across recently that I thought may be worth sharing. It may be a bit unique to my engineering point of view.

Engineers design things. (Derp, I know). In my case, I work in the automotive industry for a day job. I'm not a designer, per see, but rather a tester.  My job is to design tests that break the design. (It sounds more impressive than it really is.  Or maybe doesn't sound impressive at all, I don't know). The point here is simply that it's my job to look critically at designs.

There exists a fundamental disconnect between designs and users. We try really hard to bridge that gap, but it's always there.  The problem is that designers inherently have a deep understanding of whatever they're creating, and the user doesn't.  What may seem simple and elegant to a designer can be completely frustrating to an end user. Were the designer sitting in the passenger seat, he'd be all like: "No, you dolt. Simply push the secret button... here, let me do it. See how that blends in there and looks sharp?" And the user would blink and say: "Well, that was harder than it needed to be."

If you've ever wondered about the pull out drink trays that put a GIANT DRIVE-THRU SODA right smack in front of the temperature control dials... you've seen this phenomenon in action.  That one got through because the designer said: "Awesome, I can make this slide in just so, and save tons of space (thereby saving $$, which got the okay of the higher-ups) and sliding things are cool.  Everyone loves secret compartments.  It looks so slick when closed, and functional when open. What a winner!"

I've come across a similar thing in my writing.  I'll construct this perfect, descriptive sentence. It flows. It works. It's showing and not just telling. It makes me feel like I'm not FailAuthor. And then the betas get a hold of it.

"What is this monstrosity?" they cry. "I'm totally lost here."

Fie! How did this happen? B-but, the sentence is so... beautiful. How can you not marvel at the sheer elegance of it?

"It doesn't work."

Those are the words I dread to hear as a storyteller. As an artist, I could give two flying figs. It's my art. I get it, that's what matters. But as a storyteller, words are your cup holders. They're what you're designing, first and foremost, to perform a function. And when they don't work, even if they're pretty, you're guilty of letting the art get in the way of the function.  Sometimes, we forget that we need to be designers first and artists second. We get so lost in the art of what we're doing, that we fail the functionality check.

As a daytime test engineer, I'm especially sensitive to the testing of my beta readers. That's exactly how I look at it, too. I've painstakingly designed a product over the course of a year or so, and now I'm asking someone else to try and break it. I want them to go through and rip open the plot holes, sending me the story back on blue screen.  In the end, that's what's best for the story and the end user (the reader).  And sadly, sometimes art has to suffer for the sake of functionality.

Perhaps, as I learn and improve my ability, I'll be able to merge art and functionality more fluidly. I would say that's the hallmark of a master. In the meantime, I think it's best to err on the side of functionality. Because every time I slap my medium million ounce beverage (my stars, can you image what a large must look like?) in that annoying cup holder, and THEN try to reach for the temp controls... I want to punch a designer in the face. As an author, I really don't want to be punched by a reader. Honestly, if it ever comes to that, I should probably hang up the pen.


Anonymous said...

I like your analogy, Matt. :)

I'm patiently awaiting word from my toughest beta reader right now. I'm really worried about this novella, since it's due to be released soon. We all dread those words from beta readers, don't we? "It doesn't work." Ouch!

Matt said...

ME: But! You don't see, dear Tough Beta Reader, that this falling waterfall is a metaphor for the MC's feelings for his/her/its place of origin. It's subtle, but look at the word choices!

TBR: First of all, you just called it a falling waterfall again. What else would a waterfall do? I mean, I know this is fantasy, but that's awful. Furthermore, this description makes me fall asleep. Give me some action already! Show how nostalgic your MC feels when a wall gets blown to hell! Yeah! More 'splosions!

You like explosions, don't you?

ME: *sigh* Yes. I do.

TBR: Me too! And so does every other reader! And no one knows what a gynotikolobomassophile is.

ME: Someone who nibbles on earlobes.

TBR: Just say that then.

ME: Boo.

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