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Taste and Aesthetics
A Conversation with Ken Arnold, Part II
by Bill Venners
September 16, 2002

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Ken Arnold, the original lead architect of JavaSpaces, talks with Bill Venners about the role of taste in design and the importance of designing with the user in mind.

Ken Arnold has done a lot of design in his day. While at Sun Microsystems, Arnold was one of the original architects of Jini technology and was the original lead architect of JavaSpaces. Prior to joining Sun, Arnold participated in the original Hewlett-Packard architectural team that designed CORBA. While at UC Berkeley, he created the Curses library for terminal-independent screen-oriented programs. In Part I of this interview, which is being published in six weekly installments, Arnold explains why there's no such thing as a perfect design, suggests questions you should ask yourself when you design, and proposes the radical notion that programmers are people. In this second installment, Arnold discusses the role of taste and arrogance in design, the value of other people's problems, and the virtue of simplicity.

Bill Venners: In an interview with chief Jini architect Jim Waldo, Frank Sommers asked Waldo how he assembled such a talented team of people in the Jini group, Waldo responded, "Much of [building a good team] is just finding people who have the right sense of aesthetic -- a lot has to do with taste, and a desire to keep things simple and elegant." What does taste have to do with design?

Ken Arnold: When you are faced with a design problem, it is important to ask the question, "What does the user want?" The answer to that question has a lot to do with taste.

It's funny. To some extent you can answer that question empirically. You can ask users what they want. But sometimes people say they want something when they really want something else.

You cannot apply your understanding of human beings in a purely rational way, because human beings aren't purely rational. In the end, you have to use some sense of judgment. You may say, "People think they want to do this, but frankly they're wrong." Or, "People don't realize this is a good way to approach it, but if I present it to them they would get it." And those are intrinsically arrogant statements. You are essentially telling users that in this area, you know more than they know about what they should want. But that kind of arrogance is a form of aesthetic.

Say you have a guy who paints your house. He'll paint it any color you want, but he doesn't want to paint something that looks ugly. If you suggest one color, he may push you the other way. Eventually, since you're the boss, he'll do it if you insist. But his sense of aesthetics leads him to tell you, "You think you know what you're doing, but I actually have more experience in this area. I know better how to implement what you say you want."

That is the sense of aesthetics required to design things. Your sense of aesthetics could be right or wrong in a given case, but you must have confidence in it. You must trust your interpretation of how irrational human beings will actually do something and what they will actually need.

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