Designers need their tools, their techniques, processes, devices and applications to act on their creativity. Without these tools they would not be able to be creative. They could have ideas and think about possible solutions but they would not be able to materialize those ideas or even present them in any other way than to give a description.

A designer needs his tools. Most designers cherish their tools of expression. They are the tools of their craft, of their mastery. With the use of computers it is no different. Nicholas Carr describes this relation well in his 2013 book ‘The Glass Cage Automation and Us.

“The controversy over the use of computers in design professions will go on, and each side will offer compelling evidence and persuasive arguments. Design software, too, will continue to advance, in ways that may address some of the limitations of existing digital tools. But whatever the future brings, the experience of architects and other designers makes clear that the computer is never a neutral tool. It influences, for better or worse, the way a person works and thinks. A software program follows a particular routine, which makes certain ways of working easier and others harder, and the user of the program adapts to the routine. The character and the goals of the work, as well as the standards by which it is judged, are shaped by the machine’s capabilities. Whenever a designer or artisan (or anyone else, for that matter) becomes dependent on a program, she also assumes the preconceptions of the program’s maker. In time, she comes to value what the software can do and dismiss as unimportant or irrelevant or simply unimaginable what it cannot. If she doesn’t adapt, she risks being marginalized in her profession.” (Carr, 2013)

In 1991 Paul Heckel, a software developer at Apple Inc, devised a set of 30 rules to guide software designers in their creativity. In short, the software designer had to learn to think like a communicator and to practise an artistic craft as well as an engineering one.

Basically he saw software design as a new discipline in what he calls communication crafts. ‘Communication crafts’  is an overarching term to describe most of the creative disciplines such as writing, painting, film, drama, photography, architecture, music and computers. A table in his book shows these categories of communication crafts on a timeline. He claims that most communication crafts started as inventions and then slowly evolved into an art form (Heckel, 1991).

In my research I was trying to correct or extend Heckel’s table because some crafts were missing. Why is there no mention of any form of design for example or why does the timeline of the table stop at 1979? Clearly a lot of these crafts have seen an enormous evolution with the arrival of the Internet. Photography for example became a mass activity – far from what Heckel calls an art form. Computer interface design never became a real art form, as it transformed quickly into a highly monitored system devoid of any form of emotion or personal expression.

Technology thinker, Albert Borgmann, argues in his book, ‘Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life’ that technology is taking away a very important part of our lives. Automation and technology are aimed almost exclusively at production and consumption with little regard to custom, craft and tradition (Borgmann, 1984). 

People embrace new techniques or innovative tools as an art medium and become artists in a new field. They surpass the initial intention of the tool, by becoming extreme experts with a high level of craftsmanship in using the tool. At the same time, in a parallel flow, a mass movement of people use of the tool on a daily basis. There is a difference in the ‘creative magnitude’ between these two groups of people when they use their creativity support tools.

Ben Shneiderman claims that creativity support tools vary in terms of the computing and programming skills required to use them. Some early creative tools, for example to visualize web based graphics, required some level of programming from the user.

This means that an investment must be made in learning, which is somewhat like the requirement to master other tools used by artists, but also different, because of factors such as the range of features and capabilities available from software and the relatively rapid change in technology. There is a great distance between the paintbrush or piano to programming in C++. (Mitchell, 2003)

Shneiderman tries to bring programmers that design creative software and creative users closer together, in a similar quest as Maeda’s Design by Numbers initiative. He points out that there are many ways for computer science (CS) to support new tools and applications for the arts and design disciplines.

Many significant advances in research on human creativity have occurred, yet today’ s tools often contain interface elements that stymie creative efforts. A discontinuity exists between technology tools and our ability to interact with them in natural, beneficial, and most importantly, for this discussion, creative ways. (Burleson, 2002)

Creative tools are becoming more automated, but they are also becoming more democratic. Automation has made design accessible for almost every person with a computer and an internet connection. That democratization, the easy access and the participatory, collaborative powers of the Internet have boosted everything in another more social/public direction (Jenkins, 2015).

Thanks to the increased level of technological automation or the invention of a new disruptive tool or piece of technology, design (or any other form of creative work) changes from a specialized, highly skilled, individual activity into an easy to achieve commodity. The transformation usually comes with a decrease of value and quality of the product.

A remaining niche, from necessity to luxury

Another behavioral pattern or phenomenon can be seen when certain old skills, tools, media or even technology are not cast aside when a new technological innovation appears, but rather, are preferred and embraced by a small group of people. By using old, previous ways of working they often keep their priority on customization, the need for uniqueness and originality, craftsmanship and quality over quantity. (The myth of the disappearing old medium). Borgmann says that by our dependence on new inventions and devices, we lose the social context in which things belong and we isolate ourselves from older traditions and customs (Borgmann, 1984).

The human added factor

That special extra ingredient or pattern designers use as a code like a language to make their solution unique – an ‘ordering principle’ through the conjecture of original thought. (Levin, 1966; Cross N. 2007)

We could also say that the notion of imperfection makes its entry here. It is very difficult to understand for anyone outside the world of art or creative work. Especially for machines it is difficult. How can a machine for example decide what is a perfect line or an imperfect line, based on artistic preference? Another way to talk about imperfection in creative work would be to call it ‘the hand of the artist’. The author believes that the need for authenticity and originality, characteristics or values that disappear when there is more automation at play than necessary, is becoming more and more in demand these days.

When does automation precisely happen, why does it happen and where does it happen?


The arrival of technology as disruptive element in society only really started a couple of hundred years ago. During the previous 10.000 years change only happened sporadically.

Some claim that before the industrial revolution there was another revolution called the industrious revolution. There was an increasing need for production and consumption of goods because of a change in the spending behaviors of families. People wanted more goods which resulted in a high demand for mass production.

— end of fragment.

This article is part of The Automated Designer, a research topic studied for the author’s MBA thesis paper at The Berlin School of Creative Leadership.

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