More Lessons in the Art of Empathetic Design and Spontaneity from Degas

By Traci Lepore

Published: February 20, 2012

“I assure you no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament … I know nothing.”—Edgar Degas

“I continue to be fascinated by Degas, his process, and the beauty of his work.”

Degas may have said that he knew nothing of inspiration or spontaneity, but in reality, he knew their meaning better than most artists. More important, he understood the work that is necessary to make either happen. So, I continue to be fascinated by Degas, his process, and the beauty of his work. Therefore, I am choosing to get a little off topic to explore some important lessons from Degas and what I like to call his performance art.

Last year, after a trip to Barcelona that included a visit to the Picasso Museum, I felt inspired to write my column “Why Great Designers Steal—and Are Proud of It.” In that column, I explored lessons from Picasso about innovative play and what empathy means to the creative process. I shared an eye-opening experience, in which I had learned about how Picasso and his cohorts used role-playing games, imitating Degas, and how Picasso made his own representations of Degas’s work to get into the mind of a master and drive his own innovative style. Now, I’d like to delve into the work of Degas himself, why he was a master of innovation and empathetic design in his own right, and why Picasso did well to steal from him.

Degas and the Nude

“Degas … sketched poses and shapes hundreds of times, until they became components that captured a particular feeling or emotion or movement that he could then insert or transcribe into many pieces of work.”

The nude form is a prominent part of Degas’s work. Much of his body of work depicts women bathing—and don’t forget the ballerinas. Degas, like many masters, copied the work of other masters as part of his learning process. As I’ve already stated, all great artists steal. In a recent exhibit at the MFA in Boston, I got to see a comprehensive exploration of his nudes and came to realize just how much effort really went into all of his work.

The exhibit was immense—I could have spent all day exploring it in depth if I had let myself. Why was the exhibit so immense—almost overwhelming in its entirety? Because Degas was meticulous and prolific in his study of the human form. He didn’t just copy great masters; he copied his own work, again and again. He sketched poses and shapes hundreds of times, until they became components that captured a particular feeling or emotion or movement that he could then insert or transcribe into many pieces of work. Degas didn’t believe in leaving anything to chance, especially not the interpretation of his art.

“It is essential to do the same subject over again, ten times, a hundred times. Nothing in art must seem to be chance, not even movement.”—Edgar Degas

What resulted from his meticulous attention to each individual form is truly mesmerizing art that has captured audiences for years. For instance, at the exhibit, there were multiple sketches and four sculptures of “Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot” alone—one of which is shown in Figure 1. Each work is spectacular in its own right. But what you get from seeing all of the work together is an understanding of how Degas was able to create art that captured the feeling of motion and physical expression in a way that is unrivaled. Through his effort in creating iteration after iteration, Degas made innovation happen.

Figure 1—Degas’s “Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot”

Degas’s Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot

What moves me so much about Degas’s work is how he manages to make me feel like I’m watching performance art, not just looking at two- or three-dimensional artwork. When I look at a piece like “Nude Woman Drying Herself,” shown in Figure 2, I can see the activity happening, just as if I were there watching it. No other artist I know of can create that phenomenon. And we all know that we can’t resist observing human nature. Why else would reality TV be so popular? It’s not just the spectacle; it’s something we can all feel and relate to.

Figure 2—“Nude Woman Drying Herself,” by Degas

Nude Woman Drying Herself by Degas

Repetition That Leads to Innovation

“You need to constantly bombard yourself with stimuli to ensure you have a wealth inspiration to draw from when you want to be innovative.”

What Degas understood—better than most artists—is that spontaneity and innovation don’t come out of thin air. And you can’t call them up on demand either. Which is, I believe, why he said he knew nothing of them. They don’t exist in a vacuum. I’ve said this before, and I’ll continue saying it: you need to constantly bombard yourself with stimuli to ensure you have a wealth inspiration to draw from when you want to be innovative. Plus, it takes multiple iterations to get to a final piece of art, whether it is a painting or a user experience design.

“It is very good to copy what one sees; it is much better to draw what you can’t see any more but is in your memory. It is a transformation in which imagination and memory work together. You only reproduce what struck you, that is to say the necessary.”—Edgar Degas

What Degas calls “the necessary” is, in reality, the innovation. It is the new interpretation that your mind crafts from your memory of something and all of the other impressions you have stored away in your memory. This is why iteration works so well: it allows your mind to go through exercises to find “the necessary” and the analogous inputs you’ve captured in your mind. Each individual iteration provides a new way of combining the material. You keep working until you find what works.

If we look at “Scene of War in the Middle Ages,” in Figure 3, and analyze the different figures in various forms of torment, they seem to be relevant solely to this context. And if you looked only at this final piece of work, you could believe that to be true. But, the exhibit shows us that Degas studied women in each of these individual poses in other contexts numerous times, before they finally came together in this particular piece. And variations show up again in other pieces of his work. While they tell a particular story here, it is far from being the only one they’ve told.

Figure 3—“Scene of War in the Middle Ages”

Scene of War in the Middle Ages

What this exhibition of Degas’s work teaches us is how to be a master of the recombination of various pieces in analogous situations to create new innovations and works of art. Anyone who has read my previous columns will find that a familiar theme.

Could Components and Patterns Be Building Blocks of Innovation in UX Design?

“Degas was a master of creating poses as components that he then reused and iterated upon.”

I’ve mentioned that Degas was a master of creating poses as components that he then reused and iterated upon. And I mentioned in my column “The UX Designer’s Place in the Ensemble” that the building blocks of innovation are representation, repetition, and assistance.

But Degas focuses on this concept in a more detailed way. What he shows us is how to effectively create a component, or representation, that stands alone and has its own use and meaning. When bringing such a component or representation into a larger context, or repetition, reuse enables its meaning to grow, expand, and morph into something new. Degas even manages to overlap and integrate his representations together.

For someone like me, who is a big fan and supporter of design patterns, this makes me think on a whole new level about how to truly modularize content and interactions in reusable, yet consistent components. A component needs its own purpose and function and interaction. I’ve always known this to be true. But the new thing I’m beginning to consider is the idea of the fluidity of the definition of a component based on its context and interaction with other components. How is one component affected by closely overlapping or integrating with another? Even if the component’s functionality does not change, does our perception of it change because of these new relationships? And how do we account for this?

“Create a component, or representation, that stands alone and has its own use and meaning. When bringing such a component or representation into a larger context, or repetition, reuse enables its meaning to grow, expand, and morph into something new.”

I think the answers to at least some of these questions comes from the kind of work Degas did—as he said, by iterating numerous times and leaving nothing to chance. It may sound like a lot of work, but I believe the up-front effort pays off later. I’m thinking of my new UX team at work, where we are at the beginning stages of developing templates and UX standards that have been lacking.

We are working from a component level to a page level, and I can foresee the payoff in development down the line. I’ve iterated navigation ideas many times already, but know that there is still much more of this that must occur before we can come to a final conclusion. Our product pages are going through the same rigorous exercise for every content type. Doing this now will free us up later to work on big-picture issues, ensuring that we can deliver compelling, amazing user experiences. It is also forcing us to think very carefully about the relationships between all the elements and addressing those in coherent ways.

All of this thought has brought up another question for me: What does this means for storytelling in design? Does each component become a piece of the spine, or backbone, of a story? Or is it a mini-story that becomes part of a larger story? Or is it both? How can we use these components to create performance art in our UX designs? Because, ultimately, this is what makes a story compelling. This is why something like “Nude Woman Drying Herself” is such a fascinating piece of art, and why Degas’s many studies of women in uncomfortable, but natural, poses are so gripping. It’s because of their relation to ourselves and our own experiences—things that we know and are familiar with. This recognition weaves us into Degas’s reality, compelling us to feel connected with his work. Our designs would be lucky to achieve the same.

Lessons from the Master

“we should never stop learning from the masters, stealing, iterating, and recombining components on our way to innovation….”

I walked out of the “Degas and the Nude” exhibit a little overwhelmed by the mass of Degas’s work, but also satisfied with my experience of it. At the same time, my mind was racing. I had learned from Degas that we should never stop learning from the masters, stealing, iterating, and recombining components on our way to innovation—whatever our form of art is. And that when we do follow Degas’s approach, we can create magic.

This continuing conversation about components, iteration of designs, and building a story is top of mind for me in my team’s redesign efforts, and I hope to bring the results of our efforts and further lessons back to you all in the coming year.

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