Sunday, January 3, 2010

Taste for Makers

Still life by Paul Graham (1999)

I spend way too much time surfing the web, sometimes randomly discovering sites that interest me. One such site is As his online bio states, “Paul Graham is an essayist, programmer, and programming language designer. In 1995 he developed with Robert Morris the first web-based application, Viaweb, which was acquired by Yahoo in 1998. In 2002 he described a simple statistical spam filter that inspired a new generation of filters. He's currently working on a new programming language called Arc, a new book on startups, and is one of the partners in Y Combinator."(1)

According to Inc. Magazine, Graham’s exploits have made him “a folk hero to a generation of ambitious techies, who debate his essays, read his books, and pitch him start-ups by the hundreds.” It is the compilation of essays on his website that most interest me.

Taste for Makers is Graham’s treatise on what constitutes good design. It’s noteworthy that in addition to his background in computer science, Graham boasts credentials in the visual arts (he studied painting at RISD and the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence). Computer programming, like the design of the built environment, is an art based (in part) upon determining the needs of the user of a structure and then designing to meet those needs as effectively as possible. It’s not coincidental that the use of the word “architecture” is prevalent in both the computer science and environmental design universes. The most highly regarded achievements in each field are those that adhere to the same principles of good design as enumerated by Graham:
  • Good design is simple
  • Good design is timeless
  • Good design solves the right problem
  • Good design is suggestive
  • Good design is often slightly funny
  • Good design is hard
  • Good design looks easy
  • Good design uses symmetry
  • Good design resembles nature
  • Good design is redesign
  • Good design can copy
  • Good design is often strange
  • Good design happens in chunks
  • Good design is often daring

Graham conveys his hypothesis with remarkable fluency and economy of means. That’s why I felt compelled to link his essay for the benefit of this blog’s readers. Taste for Makers presents a common-sense prescription for the design of all things, including architecture.

I do take exception to Graham’s use of the word “taste.” I understand taste, as an aesthetic concept, to be a matter of culturally-based choice and preference. As such, it is dependent upon social phenomenon and consensus, and is not necessarily a dependable standard for measuring as multifaceted and fundamental a concern as good design. Definitions of good design typically transcend taste because taste is considered by many to be personal and beyond reasoning. However, I don’t think it is Graham’s intent to suggest that the filter of cultural relativism enmeshes good design. He goes to some length in his essay to argue that taste is not a slave to personal preference and that you know this intrinsically when you start to design things.

I’m sure I will continue to find many more online sites that capture my interest and feature content of relevance to architecture and urban design. I’ll share the best of these with you by providing links to them from this blog.

(1) Y Combinator is new kind of venture firm specializing in funding startups. A “y combinator” is also a mathematical function that makes other functions.

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