The Value of Randomness in Art and Design

Ask a designer or artist if any aspect of their process is random. The answer will likely reveal a complex relationship between human cognition, digital media, authorship, and even conceptions of reality and the divine.

Random occurrences can be easily found in nature. For this reason, random number generating functions in computer languages are said to yield "pseudo-random" rather than "true-random" results. Pseudo-random values are generated, by a mathematical series of operations performed to produce a sequence of numbers that repeat with a long enough period to be effectively random, that is, free of pattern or bias. The applications of randomness in statistics, computer science, finance, and mathematics are well established, but less so in art and design.

Randomness can serve as weak rationale for the arbitrary

Randomness is fair and good because it's completely unbiased and free from influence by any contextual factors. "It's green because it's random". In a radio interview conducted in 1950, Jackson Pollock made a clear distinction between lack of "classical" order and randomness in his work. The interviewer may have been implying that his work lacked any order by positing that it must me impossible to control the paint when using a stick instead of a brush. Pollock replied:

No, I don’t think so...With experience, it seems possible to control the flow of paint to a great extent—and I don’t use the accident—‘cause I deny the accident

Although Pollock resisted this kind of intellectual laziness, it does not mean that there is no place for randomly generated values in art and design.

Randomness can satisfy the need for surprise

Surprise is often a necessity in an art or design process. Designers and artists have been constructing situations in which we can surprise ourselves since we have been sketching and drawing. The conceptual distance between intention and result coupled with the mechanical distance between impulse and mark promote discovery. New relationships, orders, and conditions emerge in part because good designers are trained to see productively, but also because an accidental blip in an otherwise straight line might look like something important that the author had not previously considered. When the role of digital media relative to material drawing was still contentious, random values where often inserted into the coordinates of points along drafted lines in an effort to make the content appear–perhaps even subconsciously–warmer, looser, and more human. Ironically, using random in this context involves deploying an inherently inhuman method to achieve more personable result.

This is an extract from Carl Lostritto´s post published in Co.Design. Read the full article here.