When a Good Idea Works
The latest issue of Technology Review has a nice article by John Maeda about the early history of Processing. Fry and Reas were students of Maeda’s at the Media Lab, and Processing was heavily influenced by his Design by Numbers, but he makes a point of praising the way that they ignored a lot of his advice and made the thing they envisioned instead of the thing that he told them they should make.
You’ll encounter variations of this pattern a lot when you’re developing software. All of the books tell you that you should ask your users what they want. But if you do that, they’ll tell you that they want what they have with a few minor tweaks.The really big breakthroughs happen when a developer realizes that something different is possible. John Nack at Adobe referred to this as Innovation vs. Affirmation, and used a great quote by Henry Ford.
If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.
Of course there is a danger in this approach. Sometimes a good idea doesn’t work. Sometimes your vision is cloudy and you’re seeing something that isn’t possible or has a major flaw. An important part of building that thing you can see in your head is being good at realizing when to stop working on it.