What makes a primitive a primitive?

There are two ways that undertanding and working with things becomes more challenging: it’s too fundamental or it’s too complex. This idea is captured in Jeff’s 3 paradigms of art creation in multimedia tools: from scratch, primitives, and components. From scratch is so fundamental it’s hard. From components is so complex it’s hard. But primitives are just right. They make it not too hard, but not too easy, for people to construct artifacts that are valued by the designer and others.

Good primitives are related to Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow. One of the preconditions for flow is the correct balance of skills to challenges. To really get into an activity and enjoy it, it needs to be not too hard but not too easy. The design of good primitives seems to about the design of a tool that balances usability and flexibility and transparency and opaqueness.

Relative to primitives, working from scratch and with components is more difficult. Here, usability is sacrificed for extreme flexibility. Opaqueness (restricting the view of the internal workings) is sacrificed for extreme transpancy (you can see everything and it’s confusing). Designing good primitives means designing a tool that is simultaneously usable and flexible over time. It needs to have low barriers to entry yet be rich enoughto allow for growth.

But I’m not so sure…

Another interesting aspect of primitives in AMM is that they are defined relative to more advanced tools which often lie within the same interface. This seems to bring up some issues with elitism. In some ways the amateur/professional distinction is similar to the professional/academic distinction, in that designers might be said to use primitives while academics also work from scratch and from components, relatively speaking. Designers often talk about “borrowing” data, methods, and theory from academia. We tend to think of the hierarchy of most elite to least elite as going from academic to professional to amatateur. However, many professional designers simply enjoy the unique constraints, challenges, and opportunities to create change in the professional world more than academic world, even though they may be perfectly capable of working in an academic setting. This is similar to Neil Cicieraga’s statement that “I can do relatively good animation, it’s just that bad animation is better.”
AMM seems to almost flaunt it’s amateurnes (perhaps in the same way that professionals flaunt their professionalism to academics). As interaction designers, we might think that the goal of good authoring tools to help amateurs transition to professionalism and designing from scratch and from primitives. This is similar to the way we give students dumbed down professional tools and problems in hopes that they will gradually build up their expertise. Unfortunately, it often has the effect of emasculating learning and discovery. Jeff’s presentation suggests that this is not the case with AMM. Dumbed down tools aren’t emasculating the creation of amateur art but are instead allowing something new. Yet, this massively collaborating “amateur” culture doesn’t necessarily want simplified professional tools or to migrate up to professional tools. Rather it wants different tools… The question of how adobe might redesign it’s software for AMM still pretty open to me.

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One Response to What makes a primitive a primitive?

  1. thismarty says:

    I’m curious, Jimmy, as to what you meant when you say

    ” …perhaps in the same way that professionals flaunt their professionalism to academics … “

    Could you provide an example?

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