A Discussion on Aesthetics & Engineering

Next week I get to be a panelist at the International Conference on Web Engineering at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The panel discussion is entitled: “Web Page Design- Aesthetics Meets Web Engineering.”

I think that historically (can I say “historically” in web context? I suppose it’s been around long enough by now…) there has always been some kind of a barrier between the “designers” and the “programmers.” The individuals that can bridge that gap, plus get the related disciplines of marketing and library science that are involved with your garden-variety web project, are the individuals that you just can’t pay enough. And yet, no collegiate program seems to effectively take this holistic approach to what is truly the reality of the web business. What is a poor aspiring web developer to do? Read, attend conferences, blog, and participate in the current trends and discussions of web development seem to get most of us there, but the traditional path towards learning a discipline has always been to go to a college or trade school.

Unfortunately, most educational programs I’ve evaluated for the persons that ask me come up short. Either they focus too much on art and multimedia and they miss the technical side, or else they focus too much on the more lofty aspects of computer science, such as artificial intelligence, while completely missing the touchy-feely stuff. And god forbid they should actually discuss things like W3C recommendations, information architecture, or usability. The average college program usually misses the interdisciplinary nature of what most web professionals deal with on a day-to-day basis, and in my opinion tends to steer them in the wrong directions. I can’t tell you how many time’s I’ve been asked to “design” a website, which included a complete visual style and logo, a content management system, shopping cart functionality with secure logins and identity management, and don’t forget the Flash product demo and the initial Apache server setup. Or some combination of those things – it seems no matter how specialized we try to become, at some point one of those things needs doing and someone needs to be able to pick up the ball.

Interestingly, most of the really good web developers I know don’t have computer science degrees or art degrees. Often they come from wherever – an anthropology major here, a marketing major there. They learned what they learned and excelled at what they excelled at out of need and intuition, by absorbing the resources available around them. I know several of my former music colleagues and music school classmates that have transitioned into web careers gracefully. The parallels between music and the sciences are almost too numerous to mention, and have been explored since the days when Pythagoras first wrote about the “music of the spheres.” Indeed music is a perfect bridge between aesthetics and engineering, because certainly the disciplines of music theory, counterpoint, harmony, acoustics, etc., all have direct correlations with mathematics, physics, and computer programming languages. And yet at the same time, music is art in it’s highest form, a thing of pure aesthetic that strikes at the very foundation of the human soul. I am convinced that there is something in the daily routine of practicing music that makes one adept at the sciences. It’s as if the same neurons are getting massaged when you’re doing calculus as when you’re practicing a concerto.

And so, we have this panel discussion. I’m looking forward to this one, because these have always been keen issues of mine.