October 1997

The Effect of Technology on Aesthetics

by Steven G. Cameron

Have computers given today's students a better education in the creative arts fields in our Universities? Are they better prepared, because of the computer applications at their disposal, to design buildings, draw pictures, produce advertising, and enhance cinematography? Is the work they are doing more polished, more professional, and are they able to achieve those higher-quality results much more quickly? Are they more capable when they leave our universities to win and keep new jobs?

For the past few years, we have been educating our students as though the answers to the questions above were definitively affirmative. We have argued for radically increased budgets to bring new technology into our school systems, on the primary, secondary, and university levels. We have rushed headlong into the purchase of systems and software. And now we are seeing the results.

The disciplines I teach, multimedia, 3-D animation, and video, have always depended on a merging of creativity and technology. My students at Fairleigh Dickinson University need to learn the tools as well as bring their own aesthetic sense to their projects. Their success in the classroom, and ultimately in the job market, depends on their ability to synthesize their artistic and technical expertise. My experience indicates, however, that they are making great inroads into technology often at the considerable sacrifice of art.

Technology seems to be replacing pure graphical skills in students' minds. While there is no doubt that the computer affords the user the ability to draw straight lines and perfect circles, it doesn't provide the understanding one needs to show the movement of muscles beneath the skin. You can't depend upon a computer to draw a perfect human being, complete with correct proportions, and show that human being looking natural as he stands, sits, or runs. Even the best computer programs available today can't yet duplicate facial expressions well. We can still discern the difference between a video or a photograph of a person versus a computer-generated animated version.

From what I, along with others in the field, have observed, we need to spend more time on the basics. Students still need to learn rudimentary drawing techniques, the human form, and design. As Michael Sullivan wrote in a 1996 article for Electronic Tools and Trends, called, "The Sorry State of Design Education," the "new type of design graduates emerging from our colleges and universities," "simply aren't able to master the vast array of tools needed to perform today's design jobs." Why? Because our students, in imitating the computerized, animated commercials on TV, or the fantastical image-enhancements in the movies - imagery that is distinctly stimulating and that should absolutely attract them - have depended on their computer applications to bridge what they lack in true artistic skills. It's as if someone were so excited by the Mars Pathfinder mission that he or she decided to build a rocket to Saturn without having learned basic mathematics or even elementary physics. The outside of the spaceship may look good, but it isn't going to fly.

I teach three art-based courses at Fairleigh Dickinson - multimedia, 3-D design, and 3-D animation, the latter two using Kinetix's 3-D Studio MAX. Although all of my students must have some basic grounding in computer techniques before taking any of these courses, strangely, they are not required to take any basic art courses first.

The majority of the students can readily manipulate squares and boxes and photographs from their experiences with software applications such as Photoshop. Because these computer packages give them the ability to make the elements of their designs "perfect," they can approach something that looks right to the untrained eye very quickly. That in and of itself creates a large problem for these students - because everything comes together so fast, they have never learned to struggle with a design. They feel it is complete long before it really is.

When these students create a beautiful spaceship or a wonderful robot - and it's interesting as a side comment to note how many of them are drawn to these futuristic subjects - the objects they create don't fit well into their natural environment. Many of the nuances and details are missing. The animated objects - robots, spaceships, humans - don't run smoothly. Relying on the software, the students recycle the three or four seconds' worth of frames that they have the patience to create, and expect it to carry the design. Obviously, the repetition is immediately discernable and is viscerally labeled artificial.

As the exception that proves the rule, one of my students created a wonderful rendering of the interior of a subway station. What differentiated this one student's work from the others who had attempted similar interior settings, is that he did not repeat the patterns for the tiles that made up his floor or walls. He had an innate understanding that no tile is ever set perfectly - the light catches each one and is uniquely reflected. This student painstakingly manipulated virtually every tile in his rendering, adding splotches of dirt, grime, and graffiti. And this care gave his interior a photo-realistic appearance.

Why and how was this student different? He had only had a computer at home for a short time. He cared about art in the traditional sense. He understood, with watercolors or acrylics or oils, that one must paint each section of canvas step by step and build it into a completed work. And instinctively, he brought the same skills to his computer artwork.

The creation of a work of art, whether animated or not, must be true to its own internal rules. Yet, because computer students today have access to so many "bells and whistles," they tend to apply them for the sake of the "effect" rather than judging whether or not the enhancements are in fact a constructive part of an integrated design. It's as though a beginning poet were to write ten wonderful sentences and then assemble them, without thought, into a single poem. Although the sentences may each and every one be a gem, when brought together in this manner, they certainly will not create a successful poem.

Like this fictional poet, our art students need to understand the appropriateness of design to the finished project. One of my multimedia students worked very hard, creating a presentation about birds, their colors, their sounds, and some basic background information. In theory, it was a commendable idea. However, each slide contained a minute or two of the bird's chirping. After five or six slides, this ceased to be charming and became overtly annoying. And there were about 100 slides. When our students today cease to think about the affect a computer-generated element will have on their audience, and think instead about what a "cool effect" it is, they are turning themselves not into designers but technicians.

Having spent some time teaching primary and secondary school, I have an understanding of one reason why our university students approach their artistic work in this way. The introduction of computers into our classrooms, often to the exclusion of other, more "traditional" courses, such as music or art, are defrauding our youngest students of the opportunities to learn to apply their talents in these fields. Todd Oppenheimer, in a recent Atlantic Monthly article, included some sobering statistics:

"The Kittridge Street Elementary School, in Los Angeles, killed its music program last year to hire a technology coordinator; in Mansfield, Massachusetts, administrators dropped proposed teaching positions in art, music, and physical education, and then spent $333,000 on computers; in one Virginia school the art room was turned into a computer laboratory. Ironically, a half dozen preliminary studies recently suggested that music and art classes may build the physical size of a child's brain, and its powers for subjects such as language, math, science, and engineering - in one case far more than computer work did."

This same article speaks of how research papers are cobbled together without thought, how students who attempt 3-D computer generated modeling are creating "a two-D replica of a three-D world. If you took a kid who grew up on Nintendo, he's not going to have the necessary skills. He needs to have done it first with Tinkertoys or clay, or carved it out of balsa wood."

So for the most part, the questions posed in the first paragraph of this article need to be answered in the negative. What our students do not realize, in their impatience to sit down at the computer and "just work," is how they are doing themselves a grave injustice that will hurt them when they want to land that "dream" job. Today's recruiters in the film, multimedia, advertising, and related industries are looking for students who also have traditional design skills. They have seen a lot of the "stiffness or flatness, a lack of richness and depth" that comes from potential employees who are merely computer-based designers. It's not what these prospective employers are looking for.

Our students need to take elementary art courses, classes in the theater department that will teach them movement, and courses in communication that teach them the importance of the audience. If they want to focus on animation, it is critical that they take zoology courses, which will give them insight into animal and human movement. Why did Leonardo De Vinci draw animate forms so wonderfully? Because he invested time - a lot of time - in dissection and in learning anatomy.

This coming semester, I have an opportunity to help address these current shortcomings in my students. In a course titled, "The Philosophy of 3-D Animation," I will be turning back to the basics. The stated objectives of the course are to understand the motivational aspects of three-dimensional designs and to further their understanding using inverse kinematics. In this course, my students will have exposure to the disciplines mentioned above. There will be no work done on computer. Instead, they will be using pencils and sketchpads, clay, and, most importantly, their eyes. They will study movement from a scientific viewpoint, and from videotapes of dancers. They will create clay figures of animals and people. The students will create 30-frame single cel flipbooks for their final project.

Participation in such a course at this stage in my students' lives is an afterthought, an attempt to remedy a genuine lack in their training. How much simpler would it be if we had been more judicious in our rush to embrace technology at all costs. And how much simpler will it be for the current generation of school children were we to learn the lesson these students are teaching us today.


  • Gibbs, W. Wayt. "Taking Computers to Task," Scientific American, July 1997.

  • Kaletsky, Anatole. Snakeoil, software and Gates, The London Times, September 10, 1997

  • Miller, Sarah Bryan. "Lost in the 'Ring'? Click on Wontan, The New York Times, Sunday, March 23, 1997.

  • Murray, Eileen Duane. Creative Director, Logical Design Solutions. Interview Regarding Prospective Graphic Designers, September 5, 1997.

  • Oppenheimer, Todd. "The Computer Delusion," The Atlantic Monthly, July 15, 1997.

  • Ross, John Minor and Price, Garnet. "Dante's Divine Comedy: Multimedia in an Art Gallery," Multimedia at Work, IEEE MultiMedia, Vol. 4, No. 2, April-June 1997.

  • Sullivan, Michael. "The Sorry State of Design Education," Electronic Tools & Trends, 1996.

Steven G. Cameron ( is a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson's Department of Visual and Performing Arts, teaching courses in video, multimedia, and 3-D animation. He has over two decades of professional experience in the film and video industries as a gaffer and lighting director. He also has worked as a computer consultant, and was previously Technology Coordinator for a private school, creating computer infrastructure and curricula for K-12.

Copyright © 1997 by Steven G. Cameron. All Rights Reserved.

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