Tolstoy on Application Creation: The Art of Application | by Geoff Cook | March 2023

Tolstoy on Application Creation: The Art of Application |  by Geoff Cook |  March 2023


An app is unnecessary work unless it creates a great human feeling. Applications translate consciousness into feeling. A great application unites different people into one feeling, and that feeling will be aligned with their life’s purpose.

Or so Leo Tolstoy would say.

The great author wrote a thin treatise – addressed to Tolstoy – with the title What is Art? this also applies to app creation.

What is app development if not the art of breaking through clutter like Picasso in a crowded art scene?

According to Tolstoy, a work of art exists for one reason: to convey a great human feeling to the largest possible audience, and that feeling must be the honest and unique feeling of the artist. The consumers of the artefact experience this feeling themselves, and thereby enter into a community with all the other experiencers.

“This liberation of man from isolation from others, from loneliness, the union of the person with others constitutes the main attractive force and quality of art.” — Tolstoy


So it is with great apps. This contagion must spread far and wide—through the contagion lies liberation.

We app developers speak the language of infection. We measure virality and retention as tools of the trade, but behind all of that lies something simpler. Every application must answer this question: does it convey the unique feeling the app creator wants to convey?

Tolstoy tells the story of a great master who “corrects a student’s sketch. The master groped a little here and there, and the poor, dead sketch suddenly came to life. “Why you just touched me a little bit and everything changed,” said one student. The master said: “Art begins where the small begins.”

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So it is with all great apps.

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Check out Bumble. Could there be a more meaningful mission for any social app than to unleash world-weary, love-starved cavemen…and then reward them for it? Bumble is a work of art, but what makes it so can be mistaken for the tiniest bit of editing: the woman has to chat first, but there’s a whole world behind the pinch. So it is with TikTok – a masterpiece of algorithm-friendly design. So it is with Gas – a viral masterstroke.

The task of the app maker is to “find the infinitesimal moments that make up the work of art.”

A great app expresses a worldview. It expresses the essence of the app creator. He comes to life in a fever lasting for years. It represents desire. It’s an all-encompassing, world-affirming vision that cares about one thing it needs to do: infect the world with a great human feeling.

There are no books to read, no masters to copy. To be great is to be exceptional, unique, the simplest expression of a unique feeling. Neither pixels nor text can be out of place. A great app is an organic, indivisible, uneditable whole that is “as different from the rest as a diamond is from glass.”

Tolstoy’s art exists continuously. The magnitude of its “infectiousness” is the measure of its size, and 3 conditions determine the infectiousness:

  1. The peculiarity of the conveyed feeling
  2. The greater or lesser clarity of conveying the feeling
  3. The sincerity of the artist – the greater or lesser power with which the artist himself experiences the feelings he conveys

These are the same conditions for great apps. A great app is special, focused, and that specialness and purity is chiseled by the sincerity of the feelings of the app creator. The app exists only to convey that feeling, and it does so in the simplest, most focused way possible.

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“In the absence of one of these conditions,” says Tolstoy, “the work will not belong to art, but to its forgeries.” If the work does not convey the individuality of the artist’s feeling … if it is incomprehensible … if it is not a [app maker’s] internal need, then it is not a work of art. But if all three conditions exist, even to the smallest degree, then the work, even if weak, is a work of art.”

BeReal is a work of art. His great human feeling, his authentic moment in an overly cared-for world, is enchanted by the completeness of his vision. The app uniquely solves a modern problem by allowing the infected to participate in cursed moments of authenticity, however brief. The uniqueness and clarity of the BeReal solution proves the sincerity of the application creator’s feelings.


Spotify is another great app, that rarest of masterpieces that grows enormously in feature set over 17 years while giving up none of its grandeur. Check out your navigation, just 3 tabs, a middle finger for the feature that pushes down smaller apps, 5 or gaspeven 6 tabs publish only 1% of Spotify’s reach.

For an app to be truly important, it must not only convey the feelings of the app creator, but that feeling must flow with society’s rushing, ever-changing flood of life’s purpose.

Apps evolve in a way that paintings don’t. A great Vermeer is a great Vermeer 100 years from now. A great application starts out as Vermeer, but countless corrections in different hands resemble not art, but its opposite, an abomination.

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All apps are disgusting. This is the natural state, because evolution, competition and the passage of time lead to countless compromises of the original idea. Apps rarely reappear because once they’ve been cracked, they can’t be unlocked. Imagine—and shudder—a Vermeer defaced by a dozen hands, then trying to restore it. Open Facebook now.


But every true app maker has hope, however often disappointed. Real app makers believe in purity, beauty, simplicity and economy. There’s always an exception, Duolingo, that one app out of a thousand that reinvigorates growth by radically understanding your own purpose.

App development is not fun or entertainment. This is a great and serious thing.

App development, like art, evolves. If art is the history of feelings experienced by peoples of the past, and thereby the chronicling and coercion of lower emotions into higher ones, then app creation evolves in response to past and present apps, masterpieces and abominations alike. Great application forces the lower feelings of abominations with higher feelings.

A great app almost never hits you in the face. He meets us where we are. This is not a big departure from past patterns. This is the next step.

After all, we are human. Give us what we have, but make it new!

This is the responsibility of the app developer and the artist.

A great app is born in its time, but it anticipates the next one. It speaks to our divisions, but points the way to reconciliation.

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