Rune Madsen

Rune Madsen is a Danish designer, programmer, and artist living in New York City. He designs and builds web applications, interactive installations, algorithmic graphic design systems, and many other things involving artistic uses of computation. Rune is Director of Software Development at O'Reilly Media and adjunct professor at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU.

Meta-design: The intersection of art, design, and computation

Modern design products should be dynamic, adaptable systems built in code.


Editor’s note: this post originally appeared on Rune Madsen’s blog. It is reprinted here with permission.

This post is about something I see as a continuing trend in the design world: the rise of the meta-designer and algorithmic design systems.

“Meta-design is much more difficult than design; it’s easier to draw something than to explain how to draw it.” — Donald Knuth, The Metafont Book

Until recently, the term graphic designer was used to describe artists firmly rooted in the fine arts. Aspiring design students graduated with MFA degrees, and their curriculums were based on traditions taught by painting, sculpture, and architecture. Paul Rand once famously said: “It’s important to use your hands. This is what distinguishes you from a cow or a computer operator.” At best, this teaches the designer not to be dictated by their given tool. At worst, the designer is institutionalized to think of themselves as “ideators”: the direct opposite of a technical person.

This has obviously changed with the advent of computers (and the field of web design in particular), but not to the degree that one would expect. Despite recent efforts in defining digital-first design vocabularies, like Google’s Material Design, the legacy of the printed page is still omnipresent. Even the most adept companies are organized around principles inherited from desktop publishing, and, when the lines are drawn, we still have separate design and engineering departments. Products start as static layouts in the former and become dynamic implementations in the latter. Designers use tools modeled after manual processes that came way before the computer, while engineers work in purely text-based environments. I believe this approach to design will change in a fundamental way and, like Donald Knuth, I’ll call this the transition from design to meta-design. Read more…