I love beauty and beautifully designed things. The adage that “form follows function” is true, and when both are in perfect harmony, the results are a delight for the senses. Can a software program embody that level of beautiful design? I think so. I’ve written previously about what a well designed program Aperture is, and here I want to emphasize both the elegance and nuance of that design, as well as what goes into making it that way.
Often when you open a program you’re presented with the full Monty. That is to say, the programmers want you to see the most useful full set of tools and layout to begin your experience. Fortunately the brilliant designers of Aperture made it one of, if not the most customizable programs in the photo editing space I have ever used. That you can make Aperture look and feel and function just as you want is part of the elegance that went into it.
This aspect of designing a program has allowed me to fall in love with Aperture all over again. Truth be told, I was never a big fan of some of the choices for icons or features in what I felt was a “Pro” program, but the designers had to bridge the gap between the consumer iPhoto, and the more robust Aperture. I’m just glad they gave us the options to hide all that stuff!
All that said, as an old-school analog film photographer, I really loved the little useful touches the Aperture team included to make the experience of a digital workflow somewhat analogous to our analog workflow, like including a really useful Loupe tool for many of us who carried loupes around our necks on set to check camera focus, and loupe our film on the studio light table. Did I mention Aperture also comes with a really cool Light Table tool? It does. The Aperture team of program designers consulted with numerous pro photographers across a multitude of genres to come up with the tools pros find most useful. And tools like the Loupe are so customizable, it makes me giggle!
Functionally, that you can have an image in the browser and if you have the Loupe tool set to follow your cursor, you can look at any image in your filmstrip to compare focus, expression (in the case of faces) or anything you want a magnified view of. This is brilliant design! And the Loupe as a floating HUD you can place anywhere on screen and size to your liking, this is elegance personified.
And editing in the full screen *Dark Mode is such a beautiful experience, thanks to great design.
Now, I didn’t come here to talk so much about the function of Aperture as a brilliant photo editing program, rather I want to focus on the form of the program. The beauty and subtlety of its design. When you look closely at the design of a program, the shapes, colors, placements of elements, layout, font choices, you begin to see if there is an elegance to the whole, a simplicity or complexity that influences your experience of working in that environment. Do those choices by the programmers follow good design principles? Do they have a Zen-like quality to them, like being in a Japanese garden, or is the form of the program more chaotic and less fun to spend time working with? I’ve found most programs in the photo editing sphere to be the latter. When I look at Aperture closely, I see such beautiful and elegant choices in the shape of icons, the choices of easy to read fonts (and font size), and when and where *dark mode panels are used.
The subtle but useful behavior of the slider bars to “light up” with the indicated color is such a nice feature (it shows up even more pronounced in the Inspector HUD and in full screen *Dark Mode.
The slider bars light up in a subtle but noticeable way even when not associated with a color to let you know that’s the control you’re engaging. All of this, from the versatile function of the tools, to the beautiful choices in the forms chosen for slider handles and channels, the circular Tint Wheels and their corresponding trim colors, the shapes of HUD menus and icons, all are simply (or not so simply) code.
Now, I’m no coder, nor do I play one on the interwebs, but I do design work among other things. Years ago I was involved with a company charged with re-designing and updating their photo department and streamlining their workflow. As part of that I worked closely with their programming department to design in-house proprietary software to expedite their capture and editing process. While I explained to the very brilliant coder the things I needed the software to do functionally, I was busy designing buttons and controls very much with an Apple aqua aesthetic. I designed buttons with On and Off states, as well as mouse-over behavior to indicate that control was selected. All these cool behaviors that Aperture uses (and lots of software does), as I wanted a cool looking program to work in. Unfortunately when I presented my designs to the programmer, he said he didn’t know how to code for curved edges on buttons or any of the other cool Applesque features. We were building the program based on Excel macros and while it’s amazing what can be done in that tool, it is extremely limited. So we ended up with a functional software tool that looked visually like it was designed in the ‘80s! “Boxy but good” and aesthetically ugly.
So, with the understanding that everything you see and experience in your software of choice, from all the functionality, to the subtlest of behaviors (fade-in and fade-out animations), the choices of colors throughout (icons, buttons, slider channels), beveled shapes, dialog boxes, separator lines between elements, everything is written in code. That amazes me! That makes the design of Aperture so much more impressive. Oh to have been a fly on the wall at Apple when Aperture was being designed. To me it definitely has a Sir Jony Ive aesthetic feel to it, and after all, Steve Jobs himself is said to have loved the program. I do too.
*Just as a postscript, I found this interesting piece from 2012 on Aperture and the coding/design team.
And it’s all about the beauty of the code…