In search of visual texture
Elegy for a medium of thought
A while ago now, way back at the beginning of the pandemic, I did a short twitter thread on visual texture.
My main example was the “looseleaf” demo by @rmozone.
I don’t remember when I first came across this demo, but it must have been sometime around the mid-2010s. It was something that had a huge impact on me. I clearly felt that this was the future, that better visual interfaces would create wholly new ways of interacting with complex information with a depth, density and subtle intuitiveness that this demo hinted at.
I weaved this feeling into a broader narrative variously titled “cognitive media”, “medium of thought” or “tools for thought” encompassing work by people like Bret Victor and Michael Nielsen. It all seemed connected in my mind with this same feeling of exploration, this sense of mystery.
I realise now that I no longer believe in this narrative. Not like I once did. The shift is subtle - I still love games and other curated experiences that play at the edges of supporting complex lines of thought, and I still think there’s beautiful work to be done in this space. But there’s the thing: I no longer think there is any coherent “this space” to talk about, just an assortment of barely-related problems in interaction design. This probably should have been obvious from the outset; thought and cognition are anything but uniform and coherent, so why should tools for thought have much in common?
None of this has reduced my fascination with the looseleaf demo. For me, its resonance has endured while much of the broader narrative has fallen away. The page feels timeless, the sense of possibility undiminished.
If the demo hasn’t changed, I have, a little. I’m now more inclined to attribute the demo’s power to its visual texture than to some cognitive media-style abstraction. And the visual texture owes more to the beauty (yes, beauty!) of the original pdfs from the Vasulka Archive. Perhaps the demo is best understood not as a prototype generic tool, but as a specific curated experience in its own right, with form and content claiming equal importance in its overall success.
Even so, I think there are some general lessons that can be drawn from this demo:
Content is not inert
Visual texture lets content breathe
Visual texture lets the eye wander without losing itself
A small end note, while I was writing this post I was scrolling through the demo page and in a display of synchronicity came across this in one of the pdfs -
Why not go and hunt it down ;-)