March 15, 2009

Andrew Wyeth, John Updike and Designing the User Experience

Two giants, one from the world of painting and one from the world of prose, passed away in January. In many ways, Wyeth and Updike shared similar qualities. In addition to excelling in their respective crafts, they have been described as champions of the middle: class, region and roots. And they both were fastidious in their attention to details.

Wyeth was identified with realism. His views of rural America are rich with his technique in portraying light, space and texture. Perhaps Updike saw himself depicted in the fine detail of Wyeth’s paintings, a topic in the writer’s essays on art. Like Wyeth, Updike was exceptional in delivering descriptive language. Discovering and honing in on the details are skills that incite appreciation for all those who strive for results that are lyrical and, in a lot of ways, precise.

Details make the design process an immersive one, digging into subject matter and wrestling with it to determine a result. Wyeth said of his paintings, “I think the great weakness in most of my work is subject matter. There’s too much of it.” Admirers would disagree about Wyeth’s art being inflated with the people and places he pursued. Something that is greatly marked as a “weakness” can mean the opposite. Wyeth strengthened his subject matter with details like Updike’s literary lens on “the material culture of American life.” Updike’s persistent attention to detail contributed to the richness of his literary imagination and presentation of it. According to one admirer: “His writing caught completely the joy, the pain and the energy of being an ordinary person. What set him apart from almost every other modern writer I had encountered, however, was his style which, magically, given the realism for which he strived, introduced him as a third party, allowing to view his characters through his own eyes.”

Like their counterparts, Wyeth’s and Updike’s embrace of their subject matter and high appreciation of details relate to design: the who, how and what. As interactive designer Stacy Westbrook put it, “User experience is all details.”