Learning from the Masters

There is nothing so absorbing as watching others work.

When learning anything practical, particularly if it demands unusual manual skills, DVDs of experts are in many ways superior to their physical presence. In learning to paint in oils, I have an (inevitably) eclectic collection of tutorial DVDs, featuring Richard Schmid, David Curtis, Jane Corsellis, Fred Cuming, and Ken Howard.

The most striking observation from watching those and others is great variation in their technique, from the assembly of enigmatic gestural brushstrokes, to progressive molding of washes. No two artists seem to work in the same way, and tools such as brushes and palette knives are employed quite differently: technique is intensely personal, imprinted into the distinctiveness of resulting paintings.

By comparison, software tools and our use of them appear far more uniform.

Few employees have any choice of which tools we use, and given the dominant positions of ‘industry standards’ like Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop, it may prove hard to find alternatives for the staples of our daily work. I cannot ever remember being asked which word processor, spreadsheet, or email application I would like to use – I have just been provided the standard install, including a usually ancient release of Microsoft Office.

Given the fairly rudimentary skills that I see in people using those staples, it is unsurprising that most documents converge to a mediocre monotone: diagrams are tricky, unknown territory, so most make do with bewildering paragraphs that could be better shown in a simple figure; graphs invariably appear using default settings, even though they may be quite inappropriate.

Given the richness of the software tools that are available, and the wide choice of products, I find this deeply disappointing. No-one tells me that I must use a particular brand of ball-point pen and never a rollerball or pencil, I can jot notes in a sleek Moleskine, a cheap reporter’s pad, or on the back of envelopes. Yet when it comes to the tools that I use most, for my most critical work, I have no choice or say.

Originally the pretext given for requiring everyone in an organisation to standardise on particular software products was for compatibility, and the need to access one anothers’ documents. As we have – allegedly – now moved out of the dark days of trade protectionism enforced by proprietary file formats, this is no longer a valid excuse. With open standards, and universal access to formats like PDF, there has never been a better time to let users choose their tools.

The sad fact is that even when you have shot down all the other arguments produced to justify conformity – cost, support, upgrades, ease of administration, and others – the underlying truth is that it enforces corporate conformity.

Just like the rooms full of slaving clerks in Dickens’ day, we now have open plan offices (the modern incarnation of gridded writing desks) full of identically-configured workstations. It is hard to know when the PC, in its liberating sense of personal computing, died and was supplanted by the CC (centralised control) of corporate computing, but it seems to have occurred during the inexorable rise of Windows and Microsoft’s network operating systems.

Had some higher power decreed that all those who paint with oils must have the same colour palette, uniform tools, and identical techniques, they would surely have stifled the work of great masters.

Why not buck the system today? Try out a new application, spread your wings, and become the master of your tools instead of being a slave to them.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 25 issue 14, 2009.