There is nothing harder than faking visual chaos. No. There is nothing harder than randomness in general.
As humans, we have this built-in need to organize the world around us; ideas, objects, even people. Life becomes less confusing when everything is recognized, differentiated, and understood. Classification is something I try to embrace wholeheartedly, to the extent that I have almost no issues with stereotypes, “-isms” (I classify myself as a feminist, for example), and other methods of uncomfortable classification. Consciously classifying myself clearly for others makes it easier for people to understand me, attracting and deflecting them accordingly to my benefit. It’s some sort of branding, I guess.
Last night, I was assisting some friends in setting up a booth at event. The set-up included pegging small packages on a clothesline.
They had started pegging the packages systematically.
The red packages were hung neatly behind each other, as were the blue packages and the green packages. The distance between each of the packages was exactly the same. Each clothesline had seven packages. Actually, the display looked like an exercise in mathematical precision.
The designer in me went crazy trying to hijack the display of packages to look much more random. But my friend looked at me with shock; I was, after all, ruining his perfect visual system.
Then I started thinking about randomness.
It goes against our nature to create randomness. Away from the field of visual arts, as humans, we can’t come up with truly random numbers without help. There have always been methods for generating random numbers — dice, coin flipping, roulette wheels. In IT, you can use computational algorithms that produce long sequences of apparently random results, which are in fact completely determined by an algorithm, and are thus inherently predictable. There are also quantum-to-classical randomness extractors, which are much better at generating randomness. We are incapable of randomness, in a way.
It’s very confusing. Here we are, anxious to make sense of the complicated world around us; we hate randomness. We systematize, classify, correlate, measure, notice, realize. Yet this instinctual hatred of randomness screws everything up, as our cognitively hard-wired brains are constantly finding meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model (this is called priming, and it is thought to play a large part in the systems of stereotyping), so we often systematize incorrectly, leading to disasters.
Confused enough? Let me confuse you further. Back to visual randomness.
Whether you brain is hard-wired to hate it or not, randomness is good, at least visually, and to an extent. Your eye does not like excessive orderliness. Take the rule of thirds, for example. It’s a “rule of thumb” or guideline which applies to composing visual images such as designs, films, paintings, and photographs. Basically, what the rule of thirds does is fake lack of balance using mathematics. It says: an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.
Here’s a picture cropped with and without the rule of thirds:
When the stone in the middle, it looks bad, even bordering on offensive. It looks like the picture is yelling at you. That’s why the rule of thirds is good; it helps set balance in a visual composition.
Take a look at these displays:
Pretty right? Look at how random the bottles look. How the balls hang at random heights. How the cages are random sizes. Imagine how they would look if they were perfectly aligned, if they were the same size, or if there was a distinguishable pattern. Not good. They wouldn’t look natural.
Of course, there isn’t anything random in how these displays were set. Someone painstakingly created the layouts to fake the perfect randomness. When I first started practicing design, I found it immensely difficult to fake randomness. Ten years later, I still have to work really hard on a random layout. A visually-untrained person will never be able to set the packages randomly, or understand why I had to set them randomly.
The non-randomness of randomness is beautiful.
If you were a person who isn’t aware of how randomness is awesome, impossible, necessary, and never random, I hope you start seeing how beautiful randomness is. It is never just there. It’s a conscious act in a world that inherently hates it.