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I Can Do Anything: Just Give Me the Right Software
By Andrew Graham   Printer Friendly Version

According to the software catalogue in front of me, I can design a home, do my business's books, manage my schedule and become a graphic design genius - instantly. All I need is the right software.

Am I the only one who thinks that's ridiculous? As the owner of a service bureau that caters to presentation graphics software users, I've watched over the years as customers have gotten their hands on this kind of expensive software and then are frustrated when their results don't look like that of a professional designer. They don't realize - nor does the software manufacturer tell them - that good graphic design is based on a clear understanding and application of concepts and skills that can be learned, but never faked. And certainly not replaced by programming.

For example, here's a software package that encourages us to design our own homes. If we were to spend some quality time with this software, would we really hand the results to a contractor and tell him to go at it? Wouldn't we need some background in structural engineering before we decided where to put our walls? Wouldn't some sense of proportion and scale be helpful? Would we really be happy putting his-and-her hot tubs in the living room? (I'm not even sure this would be legal in some states.) Yet the marketing copy merrily skips over these dull, petty concerns, and we are left with the idea that architects, interior decorators and engineers are professional dinosaurs when it comes to home building.

Let's turn to another catalogue page: Here's an accounting software package that tells us we don't need to understand accounting "jargon" like debits and credits in order to successfully manage our business finances. Should accountants be looking for new careers? We might think so from the ad copy. Yet many of us ­ and we know who we are ­ realize from painful experience that using accounting software without understanding the importance of boring, jargony words like debit and credit can lead to total confusion and the strong possibility of an IRS visit.

Here's another one: a project scheduling package that keeps jobs on schedule and up-to-date. Now, we all know that's a joke. The only way software could possibly manage someone's schedule is through out-and-out mind control.

Now there's even software that promises to replace creativity. These days, everyone has access to incredibly sophisticated graphic design and animation software ­ desktop publishing applications, web development software, video editing packages ­ that just a few years ago was used only by professional graphic designers and other creative professionals. Here's one in my catalogue for a website package. It says that we can create "compelling, professional" websites if we just buy their software. Doesn't "compelling" require good design? To have it be "professional," wouldn't our sites need to be well-crafted? And more importantly, who's going to tell us to take it easy on the clip art?

In our rush for more and more time-saving technology, we have somehow come to the very wrong conclusion that computer software also saves us from using our brains. Within this misconception is the underlying belief that the software tool has become more important than the craft - a belief that is flagrantly promoted by the creators of every "you-can-do-it" software package on the shelf.

Here's the truth: Anyone who has ever used a software package knows these products don't replace thinking. And they don't replace skills, creative or otherwise. After all, a skill by definition is something that must be learned. Yet, if we are to believe certain software manufacturers, the only thing we need to know in order to master graphic design, home building or bookkeeping is how to point and click. Yes, we can lull ourselves into believing all those "no brains required" software claims. But when our big screen TVs short out because our hot tubs have sprung a leak, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.

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