In praise of industrial art

By , csmonitor.com

Art can be found in the most unexpected places, and while 'industrial art' might seem at first to be an oxymoron, it serves us well to remember that essentially everything we use, own, or are saving pennies for (even the simplest three-legged stool) probably got its start as a rough sketch on some long-forgotten sheet of paper. (And in some cases, some of those pieces of paper can end up having a considerable value of their own.)

So in recognition of the art behind the things we never think about, we have two sites for your perusal this week - one taking a direct look at the design process, and the other displaying a very specific category of output.

The first of these is the Smithsonian Institution's Doodles, Drafts & Designs. An online companion to a travelling exhibition, Doodles introduces visitors to the seldom-seen world of industrial drawings, and provides a general concept of the steps from rough idea to finished product. A fairly basic site (in Smithsonian terms at least), the presentation is divided into four exhibits - Working It Out, Convincing, Controlling, and Recording.

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As the name implies, Working it Out explores early stages of putting an idea onto paper through sketches related to diverse products - from the "Brannock device" (that calibrated, overdeveloped, 'gas pedal' that measures your foot size in the local shoe store), to an excessively sophisticated (and presumably never produced) electro-mechanical fly catcher. (The portrayal of the dead flies is a nice, artistic, touch though.)

Displaying 'early development' of another sort, Working also offers some original Crayola test sheets, created while a new crayon formula was being developed. (No word on whether the recipe was eventually adopted.)

Convincing takes the process from personal or internal communication to selling the idea to outside world, with images from ads and catalogs, architect's proposals, and a few schematics. (Oddest among these is the "Red eye signal device" - a World War II design which appears to combine a retinal illuminator with a reflecting telescope.)

The contents of Controlling contain more ads and catalogs, but also include such aids to managing the manufacturing process as drawings and specifications for the standard railroad track spike, a completely unfathomable cross-section of a pocket watch, workplace 'incentive' posters, and seamstresses' instructions for the construction of the original Maidenform bras.

Finally, Recording holds an 1899 rendition of a "1500-KW Steam Turbine Alternator" that is a legitimate work of art in its own right, and patent drawings for Tupperware bowls and the aforementioned Maidenform. (The latter being a much more complex illustration than the former.)

The exhibit (at least the virtual version, which is all I can speak for) occasionally seems a bit random in its categorization. (Why some catalogs are in Convincing and others in Controlling is a bit of a mystery.) More frustrating is the lack of high-resolution files, which would have been enormously helpful in the case of the illustration of the inner workings of a watch (the thumbnail was actually of a higher magnification that the "Closer View" option). Detailed information about some of the objects displayed would have also been a welcome addition. That said, this tip of the iceberg is still worth the visit - if only to stop us from ever again taking telescoping shopping carts for granted.

In a very different world, designers also struggle to bring their ideas to life - yet with no intention of ever giving them physical form. Like the three-legged stool, you may have never thought about the sweat and angst that went into that MSWord icon on your computer desktop, but you can be sure that someone lost sleep over it, and GUIdebook, the Graphical User Interface gallery, has gone to the trouble of documenting the interfaces of no less that 13 operating systems (yes, there are alternatives to Windows) and their various evolutions from 1981 to the present day.

(Computer interfaces as art? Well, the designers would think so. And while the GUIdebook may seem to be a destination best suited to the kind of stereotypical pocket-protected über-geek that would make Bill Gates look cool, there is a certain interest in seeing the ways that so many competing designers had to try to give their systems a distinct look and feel - while each was doing essentially the same thing as all the others.)

With ten tabbed categories and a good deal of cross-fertilization, the GUIdebook has a multitude of ways to navigate its hundreds of images. (A site map tab is available at the bottom of every page if you find yourself retracing your steps.) Systems can be browsed by individual Interface, Components ('how do I make my CD Player not look like it was ripped off from the other guy's CD Player, but still make it look like a CD Player?'), Icons (Documents, Hard Drives, Mouse Pointers, etc.), and even a cross-platform interface Timeline. Evolutions in the splash screens of some popular software (Photoshop, Explorer, Word, etc.) are also included, as well as a limited collection of system sounds.

GUI-related Articles are available for the seriously absorbed, while back at the Home Page, GUIdebook offers site update information, trivia, and a Spotlight - currently featuring one of the earliest commercial GUIs and predecessor to Macintosh, 1983's Apple Lisa.

Again, while primarily of a nostalgic value to most visitors, the collection of Lisa-related ephemera is impressive nevertheless. In addition to the collections of interface captures, the Spotlight includes period articles about the system ("'I get my jollies building good computers,' says Steven P. Jobs, 27...'), ads, manuals, posters, videos, related links, and even one of the earliest television ads for a computer.

(The spot -the first computer ad that I have any vague personal recollection of seeing- featured a yet-to-be-discovered Kevin Costner, and the implication that owning an Apple Computer would mean finishing your work day before you'd even had breakfast. Well, I have an Apple computer, and it's after 8 o'clock on a Monday night. 'Nuff said.)

Overly optimistic advertising notwithstanding, the GUIdebook -and the Smithsonian site- both help to remind us that outside of nature, nothing just pops into existence of its own volition. So the next time you get a glass of water, appreciate the graceful curve of the faucet and the efficient contours of the taps. Take a few seconds to become one with the next dialog box you encounter before clicking "OK" or "Cancel." They're somebody's masterpiece.

Doodles, Drafts & Designs can be found at http://www.sil.si.edu/exhibitions/doodles/, and the GUIdebook at http://www.aci.com.pl/mwichary/guidebook/.

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