A (Tangent-Filled) Ode to Digital Design
By Cynthia Liang
Graphic design is my passion. [Insert frog clipart here.]
… I’m only half-kidding. I’ve always been pretty invested in art; I’ve done a fair amount of pieces in traditional materials like acrylics and penwork, and my very old and very embarrassing DeviantArt (though you’d be hard-pressed to get my username out of me) showcases some of my earlier forays into digital media. I’ve been drawing since before I could walk; I remember taking my first art class more than a decade and a half ago, if just for the sheer excitement bubbling inside me as I waited to show my new art teacher my prowess with a pencil.
You can imagine my confusion when he frowned as I tried to draw a person starting from the eye.
“You need to consider the big picture first,” he told me sternly.
As I grew up, I ended up finding many other interests, including psychology and computer science. But art was something I never let leave my side, in no small part because it’s left me with many lessons. I love doodling in sketchbooks and visiting art museums and simply stopping to appreciate the many little gorgeous surprises that nature leaves my way, whether it be a rainbow sliver of sunlight peeking past my curtains or raindrops coalescing on the window of a moving bus.
In the present day, I can say with great certainty that I am by far not the best artist, nor am I the best programmer. But I take great joy in finding things that light up the intersection between human-computer interactions. Because when things click, they’re clicking with more than just you. They’re clicking with people who click, or tap, or look, or interact with what you make in any way, shape, or form.
Luckily, I’ve been able to explore these options as I work through the Human-Computer Interaction concentration here at Stanford. Through classes like CS 147 and CS 194H, I’ve been able to see and create a product in the form of a React Native app, all the way from needfinding and ideation to a hi-fidelity prototype. Outside of the classroom, I’m involved in the beginning stages of a research project at the Human-Computer Interaction Group, which I’m very stoked for, because it means I have so many avenues to explore and that I’m helping shape this project to fruition. From audio interfaces to my beloved visual art outlets, the possibilities of designing for human interactions with digital interfaces are endless.
The hard part is knowing where to start. You see, I’ve always loved the small details. Whether it be the whitespace of organized glimmer left out of an otherwise crudely-sketched eye or the neatly-folded creases on a steamed dumpling or the difference the style of a UI button’s edge can make on the atmosphere of a web interface, I relish in exploring the depth of thought that the human mind has given to the small things. But you can’t exactly focus all your energy on fleshing out a specific hexadecimal decision when your prototype is due in a couple hours and you’re internally panicking up a storm.
Sometimes, literal “big-picture thinking” saves the day — or the deadline. If you’ve ever seen me sketch, you’ve seen me sweep my pencil across the page to roughly framework my compositions. Art has taught me to think abstractly, to look at the “big picture” first. Contours of form instead of lines. Masses of light and dark instead of shape. Pseudocode and writing many helper functions instead of trying to lump each function of Heap Allocator inside a single block of code. (Good luck, Winter 2019 CS 107’ers. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.) This reflects in the structure of the design thinking process we’ve been taught again and again in classes like CS 147. Divergent thinking — throwing around a variety of options and refusing to laser in — is crucial to combat my internal desire to sink into details.
But sometimes, I find it too easy to get stuck in the planning stages of things. I can get caught up in throwing ideas around for hours with no definitively measurable progress. The key, I’ve found (and am still in the process of uncovering), the gateway for how I can wholeheartedly invest the flighty bird I call my concentration, is the spark of a start, any start at all. It’s, after spending a reasonable time on the concrete, delving face-first into what you hope isn’t a dried-up pool. It’s the Monte-Carlo-algorithm equivalent to…well, usually, me trying to figure out algorithms. And it’s hard to take that leap of faith into the unknown world of screaming red compiler errors.
At these points is when it’s most crucial for me to remind myself of the unbridled joy I get when drawing a single eye. My first large-scale pen drawing was a portrait started with a loose frame of pencil sweeps, as always. But then, I, against the advice of my teacher, focused my attention with compact pen scritches on the subject’s iris, then the pupil, then the glimmering reflection and the eyelashes and the Epicanthic fold. I felt myself getting sucked in, found my wrists moving at a natural rhythm as they flicked strokes across the paper in hatching patterns. I expanded to the other eye. Then the wrinkles of the brows, and the creases of the forehead…before the end of our three hour session of art class, I was done.
The final work wasn’t perfect. The subject’s eyes were lopsided. He sported some accidentally uneven patches of skin. His features belied my usual regard of human proportion. But something about my piece made my teacher smile.
And it made me smile too.