Today I'm thinking about what's good, and what isn't. It came together just now when I watched the Avalanches' Frontier Psychiatrist, which made me go: "Oh, wow, it took 20 years, but someone finally made a music video worth watching. Hmm."
It takes a good video to confirm the badness of all that went before (and no, those Michael Jackson videos from the 80's weren't "good." They were just pervy-compelling because we could tell there was something really, really wrong brewing there).
Frontier Psychiatrist is a real artwork, because it's a whole thing that exists in visual and aural dimensions--not an illustration of a song. And because it uses sampling to talk about a more primal form of sampling--memory, dreams, the "psyche." It also uses kitschy Americana to sidle up to the sentimental grandeur of a raw, individualist culture that thrives on the romance of the "frontier," much in the manner of Aaron Copeland, or even William Burroughs.
Which brings me to a newer phenomenon than music videos: the web. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that no one has yet designed the first great website. No one has yet published the web's Don Quixote, let alone its Naked Lunch. Though the Million Dollar Homepage is pretty cool, it's still more of a prank--and I'd argue that it's not even all that well executied.
I agree with Andy Rutledge that most websites are bad and succeed in spite of their bad design, including Ebay and Amazon. I also agree with Andy that Craigslist isn't bad, because the design suits the site's purpose so very well. (I'm not sure I agree with him about Google, though--its homepage is pretty close to being a gesture of greatness.)
I think there's a philosophical divide preventing us from transcending our design rules, and that is that we persist in thinking of design and technology as completely separate métiers. Technical innovators tend to be proud of the ugliness of their product (Slashdot, Technorati). While web designers tend to let their tool kits drive design (tables, CSS), "applying" style as if icing a cupcake. There's precious little design-driven innovation out there. And even less purely carnal artistry taking place online (I'm thinking of Van Gogh eating his paints). I think our approach to new media has been way too cool to date. Not nearly enough madness and intuition to achieve great leaps of insight.
I have a hunch that it's about time for things to get more interesting, though. I'm looking forward to reading the forthcoming book from 37 signals, Getting Real (despite a truly cringe-worthy title that makes it sound like something by Anthony Robbins or Suze Orman). In the excerpts on the website, they say things like this:
Getting Real is all about starting from the user interface and customer experience and then building out. Visual design first, programming second. The more traditional process is starting from the abstract (documentation, diagrams, charts, etc.), coding a skeleton app, and then homing in on the real by finishing it up with an interface. We think that’s backwards.
I'm going to take their advice, and get out my watercolor sketchpad next time I want to noodle around with designs for Kerabu. Time to stop worrying about CSS; maybe the fact that I can still draw a fairly realistic horse will lead me closer to the anatomy of good site design.