Art and Engineering

Monday October 25, 2021

I think many more engineersThis applies to far more people than engineers — it applies to anyone who has some form of control over the product of their labour. That unfortunately seems to be a shrinking percentage of people, but it’s still far from being completely stamped out. are producing art as a product of their work than realize it.

“Art” is a infamously tricky thing to define, but I think it is reasonable to say that when you’re making aesthetic choices with the intent of shaping someone’s feelings or experience, you’re making art. At first glance, it might not seem like engineering tends to be art, since most engineers claim to be making engineering tradeoffs, rather than aesthetic choices. That, I think, is mostly people lying to themselves. Engineering is a incredibly complicated system, and the vast majority of working engineers do not work in a system with well defined goals, which means that engineering decisions have to be aesthetic — they involve subjective choices about both what goals to prioritize and how to accomplish those goals, and subjective choices are often inherently about beauty.

I thought about this a lot while building thoughts.page, which is mostly a art project that also happens to look like a website or a business.This did not seem to be well understood when it was posted to Hacker News. Aside from clearly aesthetic choices (all lowercase text everywhere, simple mostly black-and-white design with thick sharp lines), there were also many technical choices that were parimarally artistic. For instance, choosing to implement the main posting page as a html <form> rather than a more modern javascripty thing was driven somewhat by the aesthetic desire for thoughts.page to resemble the early web, in both form and function. The decision to use SQLite was partly a aesthetic decision to make the statement that it would never become a project that would be big enough to be on a more scalable database.

I think it’s important to talk about this, because I want more people to make good art, and discovering that you’re making artistic and aesthetic choices is a first step in consciously deciding what sort of art you want to make.