Some think that wallpapers are strictly the stuff of fluff. Just a quickie drop of something that does little more than cover the display and must meet the standard rubbish checklist of mythical is_usable, is_dark_in_xxx_region, is_not_contrasty, is_not_distracting, etc.
I won't link to the blog posts from our esteemed art and design leaders that highlight such rubbish, as I am willing to wager that the readers of this blog have long since stomped over such vacuous terms.
Is a wallpaper only decoration? Is it purely skin deep? Is it something more?
What is a Wallpaper?
It is a very good question.
Some can argue and bicker about the above points ad infinitum. I won't. I will make a strong case that a wallpaper isn't just frill. It isn't just skin deep. And it isn't something to get obsessive about ridiculous usability studies over.
The following speculation is based entirely on the notion that the default set of wallpapers should work toward promoting the identity of a project. They should act as a team and support each other. They should bring the goals and emotional desire of a project to the forefront and engage the audience.
To borrow a phrase from someone that I have a great deal of respect for, Chris Bangle suggests a car is an avatar. I found his phrasing to be resoundingly telling of his deep insight into art and design philosophy.
I'd echo his point and suggest that in fact the design of the default wallpaper is similar. A wallpaper is an avatar. It is a representation. It is a culmination. It is an emotional handle to grab on to.
I have made myself clear on this front. I think all forms of contests and other art and design abuses have no place in our culture and should not be supported. I believe it is fundamentally symptomatic of a culture with little to no value of art and design language and thinking.
It dismisses the worth of artists and designers as equivalent to the ability to pull randomness from a hat.
Ubuntu Lucid's Wallpaper Contest
If you missed it, there is a yearly contest at Flickr that started last year. Against my better judgement, I participated in the form of a 'judge' last year. This year, the selection available in the official Ubuntu Lucid package is as follows:
What Does the Selection Say?
There were three facets to the wallpapers I tried to consider when participating last year. The first is the overall impression, or rather the mise-en-scene. The second was diversity of content. The third was the emotional payload in relation to the project and audience. Tricky as hell to try and evaluate those items (especially with no declared audience), but I believed in their core value enough to try.
My first initial impression is that, as with last year's selection, the variation in colour and motifs create a much better sense of diversity than in previous incarnations of brown, brown, brown, and some brown. It also much more greatly increases the chance that an audience member might be able to find something that speaks to them and, as a result, doesn't create an immediate sense of exclusion.
On Colour Selection
The overall colour tones of the selection are a little weighted toward the darker and blue tones. Not criminal, but it certainly pulls the quick first impression toward a slightly awkward sense of compositional balance. It may have been more positive to retain a greater variation of colour, perhaps with a few select images to help gravitate toward the new colour palette.
On Diversity of Content
While the Ubuntu of yore seemed to echo some sense of organic (albeit traditionally malformed and horribly executed in practise), the images included seemed to make sense with the inclusion of organic things. This isn't a bad motif to carry over, but one could argue that the older motifs are gone now with the newer identity campaign. In fact, some sort of motif around light might have been worth at least exploring. It would have been an interesting creative venture to work with a series of artists, designers, and photographers around that possibility.
This time around, we have a clump of flowers.
Images and What They (May) Say
It would be impossible for me to be fair to the folks that want my honest opinion to not criticize the work. For some, it might seem like a personal attack. It is not intended as such. It is purely an attack on the work. Apologies in advance if I utterly offend and disparage someone.
- A - 1: A truly wonderful shot. Compositionally strong with the value favoring an off axis left. The sense of looking up in awe likely isn't lost. Pass.
- B-1: Awful. Emotionally a blur of nothingness. If you want to find this sort of tripe, how difficult is it to wander over to Gnome-Look or spend three minutes making one in Inkscape? Horrible center punched composition. Only positive is the non-monochromatic tone. Fail.
- C-1: More tripe. Centre punched rubbish. Creates a sense of "Look Mom! I can take a photo with your camera!" emotion. Perhaps someone was grasping at the slight aubergine tone? Fail.
- D-1: If C-1 were IMG_D0023, this is IMG_D0024 off the roll. Utterly worthless in composition. Utterly worthless in depth. Or is that someone again grasping at the violet? Fail.
- E-1: When we need a flower, this is how to shoot one. Notice the non-centre punched composition. Notice the use of depth of field and use the third dimension. Lovely yellow pops against the blue. Pass.
- A-2: The droplets on leaves motif is almost cliched at this point. I too have pursued the kitsch. Again though, the centre punching madness drags this photo down from what it could be. It also is monochromatic. The monochromatic tone in this one however, brings something to the whole selection in terms of tone, even if weak unto itself. A hint of the third dimension as well. Pass.
- B-2: Well composed, but do we need more flower related items? Almost monochromatic, but leagues better than C-1 and D-1. Pass.
- C-2: Another well executed shot. Solid composition with the division between the rocks and the ice. A nice subtle mixed bag of analogous hues sprinkled in the frame. Also a plus one within the context of flowers. As always, an exception to the third dimension tenet is exemplified with this one. Pass.
- D-2: Well composed but lacking a certain depth. Perhaps a nice variation on the tones with a sombre bleakness? A little more depth in the image wouldn't hurt to push a little more craftsmanship feeling. Once again, a flower. Fail.
- E-2: A heavily image manipulated pier. The composition is centre punched on two axis. In terms of content, likely a plus one simply because it isn't a flower. Regardless of the manipulation, still shows more care and craftsmanship than some of the other failures. Pass.
- A-3: This is B-1's sibling. Nothing like creating a sense of value by offering up a careful selection of blurry mess for your audience. Degrading and insulting to the other people that diligently crafted images for the contest. Abstract miasma easily generated or obtained with less than a click from some other tripe peddler. Doesn't speak anything. Fail.
- B-3: And if you want creamed asparagus, here it is. Uninteresting. Creates a sense of lacking effort of creation. Fail.
- C-3: A well composed and crafted shot. A moment. Precious? Certainly could be read as such. While monochromatic, works against the overall set's tone and, in this instance, is well crafted in its application of value. Lovely work worthy of a frame on a wall in an architectural magazine. Pass.
- D-3: Let's hear it for iz_usable, doesn't_distract, and that other tripe. Insulting and reeks of a design and art sentiment that could care less. Fail.
- E-3: And rounding out the pack is another centre punched flower. Blah. Pocket camera sensibility. Fail.
If we take the argument that the wallpaper selection is based on a totality and overall presence, we might make a case that the content and subject is weighted in the wrong direction. What do the images of flowers work to further push the brand identity of the new Lucid campaign? What does selecting poorly photographed flowers of little resonance or worth say about the quality of the larger project?
Of the countless number of photographs in the Flickr group, I can't help but think the people that chose the ridiculous photos in question should not be in a position to be making any sort of selection. It is shameful to the participants and greatly drags down the overall presence of the project.
A quick sum would give this series 7/15. Sadly, the quality difference between five of the fifteen elements is so obviously large that even a grade school individual interested in art and design should be able to spot the differences.
In closing, the tenets of precision, reliability, collaboration, and freedom are likely not presented as much as they could be with the wallpaper selection. One could likely warp the contest into a misconception of collaboration, but that would be foolish. I also sincerely doubt that Pentagram would put their design ethic on a contest or in the hands of someone that doesn't even have a fifteen year old's sense of art and design thinking when it comes to the evaluation of the work.
It speaks enough that it is a contest. It speaks more in the quality of the work selected.
Some are resoundingly good. Others are shamefully inappropriate, misguided, poorly executed, and perhaps most disturbingly - accepted for inclusion.
To all of the wonderful commenters and emailers, thank you all tremendously. I greatly value your comments and opinions. May this blog be blessed with further readers like you...