A while ago, I wrote a rather pessimistic comment [edited and expanded for this post]:
I often see utterances along the lines that we in the Perl community need to recognise how bad we are at design and that we should get in touch with willing real designers who can do real design for us. I think that this precise utterance points to the reason why Perl applications don’t have good design.
Why would real designers even feel motivated to participate in a community that has no specific appreciation for what they are doing, nor, therefore, any ability to provide useful feedback? Anyone with highly specialised skills has this experience, and we as programmers do too: it’s frustrating to develop software for people who cannot appreciate the coolness of particular interesting bits, have no idea what feedback would be useful, and don’t know what they want, or what they need, or how to communicate it. “Real designers” would feel alien in the Perl community.
Paul Graham once wrote about American car companies that because the executives had no taste themselves, the cars produced by their companies ended up ugly. It’s not that the executives designed the cars, but they didn’t know how to tell who to hire to make tastefully designed cars nor did they know to appreciate the work any designer might have done, or how to build the culture and structure to foster design and designers. Microsoft has the same problem.
Perl does not have a culture of appreciating design. This “we need real designers so they can put a good coat of painting on our crud” mentality is perfectly symptomatic of that.
I appear to be one of the few Perl programmers who have any direct appreciation of (if not particularly great skill at) design; it sure feels lonely out here sometimes. In contrast, both PHP and Rails are infested with these people. I have seen reams of postings about typography out of the Ruby people I follow, f.ex., and not a single thing about it from a Perl person, if memory serves. Even the Python community seems to have some awareness, even if less than the others.
That means whatever full-fledged web apps these people write, they’re going to look at least passable, out of the box; even if the developers themselves are not great designers, they’ll know to build their apps from things that give them good defaults, and they’ll be able to recognise better designs or truly good detail tweaks when they come along (and good design is all about the details).
In his essay about Why software sucks, Scott Berkun includes a translation table for what people mean when they say something sucks, and the entry of interest there is “It’s so ugly I want to vomit just so I have something prettier to look at”. I think a huge reason for the marketing problems that Perl is having is the simple fact that a lot of Perl stuff looks ugly.
The few widely-known Perl things that don’t, don’t advertise Perl as a primary ingredient of theirs. The only exception I can readily think of are the SixApart applications, but I bet that even then, only MovableType is widely associated with Perl – and MT’s sun has long set.
Perl is associated with ugliness. I seriously think that this sets an expectation that is part of why the ridiculous “executable line noise LOL” meme persists across the Reddits and the Twitters of the world. There is a huge number of people who write stuff like that even though they have never actually written any Perl code, or even seen any – except maybe for the various iconic JAPHs, quines, golfs and monstrous regular expressions. And their direct experience of Perl apps and sites is that they tend to look nauseatingly ugly. Is it any wonder that they’ll readily pick up and propagate the “random punctuation LOL” meme? Bad design is definitely an inherent aspect of Perl’s marketing problem.
Frankly, I feel pessimistic about the prospects of the Perl community in this respect. You can’t suddenly imbue a culture with a sense for design when it has never known the first thing about design nor had any appreciation for it.
Imagine, then, my delight at discovering Phillip Smith’s article about the typography of the TPF logo and his suggestions for consistent branding in the Perl community: this is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about. Is exactly the sort of thing we need.