Friday, February 22, 2008

Whole Pornography

Whole Foods has opened two new stores in the Bay Area recently that I have been to. The new store in Oakland, on Lake Merritt, and the replacement store in Cupertino.

Like a porn star's endowment, everything about these stores is so pretty, so lush, so big, so overdone, yet irrationally attractive.

The sad reality is that instead of being a Green improvement over standard grocery stores, they are the opposite.

The Cupertino store employs no less than 30 of those incredibly wasteful overhead infrared headlamp devices (the kind usefully seen on the patios of popular restaurants). However, this is balmy Cupertino, where it rarely gets below 50. On the day of my visit, it was a dreary and cool-ish February. All the heatlamps were pumping out thousands of BTUs of heat into the atmosphere, to keep exactly zero patrons warm. So much for Global Warming, they're doing it directly (why bother going through the tiresome intermediary of Carbon Dioxide when you can heat the planet directly, for no other purpose).

Both stores have signage beautifully made with exotic (probably tropical) plywoods, where you can see the pretty laminations in alternating light (pine?) and dark (mahogany?) woods. I'm sure these are sustainably harvested woods, from fair wage laborers, etc etc. But each little sign (every shelf in the store has a few of these) represents probably $100 of actual added value (in US dollars) for what point? To encourage shoppers to feel better about themselves, feel cozier and more luxuriated, and thus buy more stuff they don't really need?

The Brand Message of Whole Foods is all about 'natural', 'green', and 'wholesome'. But that is not the reality of their impact on society and the earth.

What these Whole Foods Mega Stores (and their ilk throughout the US Retail economy) really represent are:
  • Materialism
  • Consumerism
  • Excess
  • Marketing, Branding, and Shop-fitting as Manipulators of Emotion and Behavior
  • Self-Indulgence, of the Gastronomic Kind (i.e.: Foodies)
  • Disproportionate Utilization of Resources, especially Energy
  • Exploitation of Arbitrary Labor and Natural Resource Market Inequalities
  • Waste (of Consumer Dollars)
Like a porn star, a business CAN be too big, too pretty, too attractive. Keep your eyes and minds open and see the pornography.

tools lead to technique

I'm convinced that much of the visual design we see out there are inspired not by the imagination of designers, but by what their tools can do. Thus we see lots of floating and animated text (made possible by Flash techniques). But is it necessarily interesting and original art?

Never confuse craft for art. This important principle was taught to me by my sister, while we were touring the studios at Cranbrook Academy of Art where she was studying.

do designers' skills make good designers?

It has been oft-stated, by myself and others, that one reason that Engineers make poor designers of software (from a usability perspective) is that they are too high-functioning. That is, by definition Engineers are far more intelligent than the average human, and have studied, learned, and taken into their mental practices highly abstract and complex concepts such as 'symbolic substitution', 'hierarchies', 'object orientation' and 'inheritance', the 'in-memory-vs-on-disk' disparity, etc.
Consider 'symbolic substitution'. This is the use of a 'variable', or letter or word, say 'a', or 'mySalary' to stand in for, or substitute for, an actual value during a calculation. This is the basis of Algebra, but how many adult humans are comfortable with Algebra? How many fear and loathe the subject?

One definition of a UI Designer, if one is to judge by job postings for them, is their proficiency in hard-to-use techniques and tools, notably in the use of Photoshop and Illustrator and Flash, and in the ability to draw. A good designer has taken into his/her mental practices many arcane and bizzare constructs such a layers, outlines, timelines, perspective, anti-aliasing, etc.

Wouldn't you think people who use and are proficient in easy things would do a better job of designing things to be easy? Just as Engineers' use of complex tools such as Object Oriented Programming Languages contaminates their brains and makes them think at too high a level, wouldn't Designers' use of complex tools such as Photoshop contaminate their ability to design simple interactions?