A very popular topic in the tech world in the last two years has been gameification–the notion of making things look more like games in order to increase their appeal. This idea has been applied from everything from websites to public facilities, with goals that stretch from increasing site traffic to building better societies. A huge amount of money has been invested in gamefiying our everyday lives. Weirdly, though, a parallel trend, which is, if anything, even more important and potentially lucrative, seems to have been mostly ignored. As far as I know, it hasn’t even had a name (until now).
The trend I’m talking about is artification, the idea of making ordinary activities feel like artistic achievements, and allowing people to share that creativity with others. Consider Instagram–what does it do? It enables people with a smartphone to feel like they’ve made a piece of photographic art with very little effort. The pictures of their dog that they take are still just pictures of their dog, but now they feel special.
If this sounds cynical, I don’t mean it to. Enabling people to put individual flair into simple acts has incredibly powerful consequences. Those dog pictures are almost certainly better because of Instagram. And not just because of the filter. The fact that the user of the phone camera is thinking like an artist means that they put more care into the picture that they take. And this effect isn’t limited to taking photos. It’s fundamental to the human condition.
Consider the classic complaint of the professional designer. The designer goes to a client and receives a brief. The designer then comes up with a half-dozen ideas and goes back to the client. However, the client, as it turns out, wants them to use the idea that he came up with. What he really hired the designer for is to make his idea look cool. Finding jokes about this experience on the internet is not hard to do.
In this scenario, everyone wants to be the creative person. The designer is usually someone who has chosen a less lucrative career path in order to be able to have room for art in their job. The executive client feels strongly that one of the perks of the hard work he’s put in is that now he gets to make some of the ‘fun’ decisions.
What’s crazy about this is that creativity used to come for free in a lot of jobs. Whether you were a monk illuminating manuscripts, a carpenter making chairs, or a grocer running a market stall, there was usually an opportunity to express yourself in some limited way. Industrialization and its commensurate drive for ‘efficiency’ temporarily convinced us to dispense with playful design. However, removing creativity from the workplace generally makes people significantly less efficient. This is because it removes one of the key channels through which people can engage with what they do. Consequently, people check out and the quality of their work degrades. And why? Because of the nebulous, but commonly held sense that things that resemble the result of a homogeneous industrial process are somehow more professional looking. It’s easy to see an office filled with identical gray cubicles as ‘smart and tidy’ so long as you don’t have to work there.
The trend toward cookie-cutter blandness is now thankfully starting to reverse itself. In part this is down to a better understanding of psychology. (You don’t see many gray cubicle farms in companies like Facebook that are striving to gather and maintain talent.) It’s also driven by the fact that new processes in manufacturing suddenly make it just as cheap for a person to receive a personalized product as it is for them to receive one that fell off a production line. The net effect is that the market for software that enables artification has suddenly become huge.
To my mind, tools like Instagram have only scratched the surface of artification. My suspicion is that in the next three years, people will catch on. The wave that follows will change our lives massively for the better, whether it involves tools to improve workplace engagement, programs to stimulate the integration of communities, or simply more exciting product design.
After all, not everyone is a gamer, but pretty much everyone wants to exercise creative control.