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Ex-Apple Designer Creates Teaching UI That “Kills Math” Using Data Viz

Designer Bret Victor hopes so: his prototype UI turns gnarly differential equations into something normal humans can understand.

Ex-Apple Designer Creates Teaching UI That “Kills Math” Using Data Viz

We hear a lot of design manifestos around here. But Bret Victor‘s stuck out: He wants to kill math. He’s no Luddite, though — he thinks mathematics is one of the most powerful, transcendent ways humans have for understanding and changing the world. What he wants to kill is math’s interface: opaque, abstract, unfamiliar, hard. “The power to understand and predict the quantities of the world should not be restricted to those with a freakish knack for manipulating abstract symbols,” he writes. Now he’s created a prototype iPad interface that turns differential equations into something that doesn’t feel math-ey at all: visual, intuitive, and touchable.

Equations and squiggly symbols aren’t math at all: They’re merely our interface.

Victor’s key insight is that what we think of as “math” — equations, numerals, operators, variables, those squiggly symbols filling up millions of blackboards and textbooks — isn’t math at all: it’s merely the interface. And it sucks. “I hate symbolic abstraction, [because] I think it’s a barrier to creativity,” he tells Co.Design. “So I don’t hate math per se; I hate its current representations. Have you ever tried multiplying roman numerals? It’s incredibly, ridiculously difficult. That’s why, before the 14th century, everyone thought that multiplication was an incredibly difficult concept, and only for the mathematical elite. Then arabic numerals came along, with their nice place values, and we discovered that even seven-year-olds can handle multiplication just fine. There was nothing difficult about the concept of multiplication — the problem was that numbers, at the time, had a bad user interface.”

It may not surprise you, after reading that, to hear that Victor used to be an interface designer at Apple — a company whose founding mission could be restated as “kill computers.” Of course Jobs and Co. didn’t hate computers — they just hated the technical, limiting abstractions involved in using them. But Victor left Apple because he has “zero interest in helping people look through photos and listen to music,” he says. As an interface designer, he wanted to hunt (and “kill”) bigger game — the kinds of problems that artists and scientists deal with. “I saw Ali Mazalek’s ‘Pathways’ project, which was an attempt to design a ‘tangible interface’ for visualizing and exploring biochemical pathways,” he says, “Their design was very problematic, and the biology researcher ‘clients’ were not very enthusiastic about it. But seeing the problem gave me some ideas, and I whipped up a little prototype basically as a way of teaching them how to think about this sort of UI design.”



That prototype eventually grew into the interface shown in the video clip at the top of this article. Although it can run on an iPad, Victor isn’t planning on releasing “anything resembling the design shown” as an app. “The prototype was intended to teach and inspire tool designers, so that’s the meta-audience.” It’s a variation on the old saw: give a man a fish, and he eats for a day, but teach him to fish, and he eats for a lifetime. If Victor is going to “kill math,” a single specific app won’t do it — but a set of inspiring examples just might, if they inspire others to think about how they can “kill math” themselves.

Victor left Apple because he has “zero interest in helping people listen to music.”

“The dirty little secret is that the greatest mathematicians don’t actually think in symbols,” Victor explains. Einstein himself said that he “did his thing” with “sensations of a kinesthetic or muscular type.” Sure, e=mc² is an equation — a gloriously elegant and simple one. But the point is that the equation isn’t the math; it’s not the insight, the creativity, that actually happened inside Einstein’s head. What if Einstein didn’t have to resort to symbol-manipulation to express and communicate the idea that “matter is equivalent to energy in this exact way”? What if the next Einstein doesn’t have to do that? If fact, what if “not having to do that” is how we get the next Einstein?

That’s the headshot Victor wants to take in his “kill math” project. “When a technology gains an interface that transforms it from a ‘technical’ subject to an artistic medium, that’s when creative magic happens,” he says. “The pocket calculator and the spreadsheet both made huge contributions in allowing people to do mathematical explorations without dealing with the crap. I’m hoping to take the next step.”

[Read more about Kill Math and Bret Victor’s design explorations]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.