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Obstruction by Design

This is a continuation of some thoughts from last month about inefficiency by design.

I have an information retention problem. I absorb a lot of it, all of which is presumably stored somewhere, but not nearly as much of it remains available for unassisted recall as I would like. Not surprisingly, the stuff that is best remembered has been reinforced, usually through some kind of repeated application or extensive immersion. In other words, if something is retained in my long-term memory, I probably had to work for it. Fair enough. Accordingly, my long-term memory is full of stuff that has been experienced with regularity, has spoken directly to my natural curiosity, and/or has given me a meaningful challenge that I’ve managed to meet.

Many of those meaningful challenges have come from various forms of art, and a recent visit to a Quay Brothers exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art offered a good reminder of why that is. One of my favorite films from the Quays is a short documentary called Anamorphosis (or De Artificiali Perspective). It explores the artistic application of anamorphosis, a technique for producing distorted imagery that can only be comprehended by viewing it from a particular angle. While this technique could easily be dismissed as a gimmick, the Quay Brothers make a point of discussing its value:

Anamorphosis is a most powerful device for controlling understanding. It may be used whimsically to amuse, or else it can provoke and instruct. An image grasped too quickly might not leave a lasting impression. To lead the eye slowly through incomprehension and then to offer a resolution – that is insight.

My interest in design grew out of my interest in art, and I’ve spent my share of time pondering the distinctions between the two. Most would agree that an artistic technique like anamorphosis, which intends to (at least initially) obfuscate information, has no place in any form of communication design, which intends to make information as clear and easily accessible as possible. And that seems like a reasonable boundary: the amount of work required of the audience for comprehension is determined by the content creator, and the designer’s job is to find the best way to present that content appropriately for the audience. Indeed, the mantra designers project on the audience is, “Don’t make me think.

But should design always be an invisible liaison between content creator and audience? Can its focus on ease of use do a disservice to an audience who would benefit from a challenge? If we retain information better when we work for it, are there occasions when design should obstruct rather than elucidate?

This piece originally appeared on The Pastry Box Project.
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