Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Music of Wireframes

Every year I accompany a local choir on the piano for its spring musical. It's a way for me to keep my chops, even though it's usually difficult to find the time. While practicing today, I had a thought: Wireframes are like a musical score.

Think about it. A score isn't music, just as a wireframe isn't a Web page. A score tells the musician what notes to play, when to play them, how to play them. A wireframe tells the project team what content to include, its placement and how it behaves. A score combines the intricacies of rhythmic meter, audio dynamics, phrasing and pitch into a single document that guides the production of the composition. As I've said before, a wireframe integrates visual design, information structure, interaction design and more into a document that guides the production of the Web page.

And catch this: A musical score is not meant to be played in lockstep or slavish devotion to the notation. Doing so may be a technical accomplishment (and may even "work") but it will lack art and humanity. A score must be interpreted by the talent and soul of the musician to reach into the hearts of listeners. I submit that this must be true for wireframes as well. You can build a site that looks and acts just like wireframes, and it even might "do the job"—but the lack of meaning, of human expression, of art will rightfully ensure its obscurity.

There's more. When I accompany the choir or friends who are soloists, the interpretation and production of the music are my sole responsibility. But Web design is more like an orchestra. An orchestra has strings, percussion, brass and reeds; all have differing qualities and demand different skills. So does a Web team. There are visual designers, engineers, producers, information architects, strategists and more—and, as we all know, our crafts are very different in character and performance.

Here's where things get very interesting. Someone has to bring all of it together. The brass section can't play the symphony alone, nor can it dictate that strings play like brass. Programmers—as Alan Cooper so vividly depicts in The Inmates Are Running the Asylum—can't and shouldn't dictate how a site is designed and built (any more than IAs, producers or any other member of the project team).

No, to play a symphony, an orchestra requires a conductor, an integrator, an extraordinary individual who understands not only the abilities and intricacies of its sections but who also carries the vision, the fire to wrestle a group of disparate individuals and instruments into the unified body required to turn sounds into art.

We don't have conductors in Web design. Not yet. Maybe that's the direction UX is taking.

One more contrast and I'm done. The system of musical notation used today was hammered out over the centuries into an exacting standard that is capable of communicating the finest nuances of expression—all at a glance. And it is fully accepted as the standard by all musicians, who can be a temperamental lot.

Do we need similar a similar standard of notation in Web design? Great question, isn't it?

UPDATE, April 7: Dan Brown adds wonderful insights on this topic—including the differences between music notation and wireframes (something I was too sleepy to explore above!). Many thanks.


Anonymous Geof Harries said...

An utterly beautiful post. Brought a small tear to my eye...


9:00 AM  

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