25 February 2014

Not fooling anyone

While today "skeuomorphism" is used almost exclusively to describe user interfaces,  it's a 19th century word for an ancient concept: when a new object makes decorative use of elements from a previous version of the object. While this could refer to any mimicry of real and illusory materials, in its current use skeuomorphism carries the negative connotation of new media imitating the old—for example, a laminate table surface given a marbled appearance—in a way that's unnecessary, affected, or just tacky. When it comes to user interfaces, skeuomorphism most often refers to visual analogies to physical world counterparts: in iOS 6, the Notes application looked like a yellow legal pad, the Calendar looked like a leather-backed desk blotter, and so on.

In recent years it's become fashionable for designers and critics to view such interfaces with scorn; making fun of a wood-textured background or faux track machine sliders as pointless—or worse, kitsch. Blogs like Skeu it! cataloged the worst offenders. When Scott Forstall was deposed of his role as SVP of iOS at Apple back in 2012, critics of the iPhone's interface were delighted to declare skeuomorphism dead. The new iOS chief was to be none other than Jonathan Ive, previously in charge of Apple's industrial design—most famously for the iMac, iPod, and iPhone. Surely the man who developed the minimalist, sleek, plastic design of Apple's fantastically successful consumer hardware would produce software that was similarly elegant and functional.

iOS 7, introduced in September of last year, did dispense with the legal pads and desk blotters, along with volumetric icons and other textural elements, in favor of flat colors and transparency effects. The critical response has been, thus far, mixed. In the absence of mimicry, the new interface leaned heavily on the fine lines and crisp shapes made possible by the retina display. But the resultant look is generic; one critic compared its typography to a makeup counter display. Without any clear attitude or theming, the graphical elements are design for design's sake, as with the candy-colored abstractions of the new icons, whose meanings would be completely opaque without the applications' titles.

What interests me about the debate around visual metaphor as it pertains to user interfaces is how it mirrors a much earlier mid-20th century debate about abstraction and depiction in the visual arts. Modernist artists and designers—abstract expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock, international style  architects like Le Corbusier, minimalist sculptors like David Smith—advocated a radical stripping of decoration in favor of  "honest expression." In other words, paintings should look like they're made of oil and canvas, buildings should look like they're made of concrete and glass. The critic Clement Greenberg—who was the first to use the term kitsch in its (Marxist) sense of uncritical, industrial art for the masses—advocated "medium specificity." This trend reached its apotheosis in the Brutalist style of architecture: modular gray structures of flat concrete with no decoration, no attempt to mingle historically with their surroundings.

While the practitioners of Modernity saw themselves as utopians who would usher in a new world of functionality and formalism, their productions are some of the most dated (and in some cases, hated) works of the last century. Postmodernist artists of the 70's, 80's, and 90's questioned the idea of pure art for art's sake even as they re-introduced idioms and history, albeit with an ironic or playful spin.  The idea of kitsch has been criticized for classist assumptions. The Modernist ideal of an heroic, pure form that was free from artifice and false sentiment was—and continues to be—looked at with suspicion.  For a movement that tried to elevate design from the constraints of tradition and history, it produced a lot of paintings and buildings that looked awfully similar.

Personally, I think that there has been a basic misreading as to the point of skeuomorphism. A typical argument is that its intent is instructional. The desktop metaphor, which arrived in consumer form on computers in the 80s and 90s, sought to ease novice users into the operating system by way of analogy: instead of a file path, there were folders with dog-eared pages which could be placed on your desktop or put into tiny virtual trash cans. These early graphical interfaces were explicitly teaching their users, but these days, the argument goes, who needs to be taught? Even those "new" to computers have had decades of experience; they were born after 1985, a manilla folder is probably more exotic to them than a .doc file.

The problem with this argument is that designers don't use skeuomorphism as a learning tool any more than Disneyworld uses theming on its rides to tell you where to queue.

iOS 6's Game Center was much maligned for its felted look, drawn from card tables. But this stylistic choice was not trying to instruct anyone on how to use the Game Center's features: it was a playful way of delineating this virtual space from other, more business-like, spaces. Perhaps if you didn't have any personal associations with the trappings of casinos or basement rec rooms, you might find the theming inappropriate. But in that case, why not provide other theming options, such as graphics reminiscent of coin-op arcades or of athletic fields? Why is the correct attitude no attitude—if no attitude is even possible?

A well-designed interface is not primarily made for learning; it's made for ongoing use, which means not only being functional, but also being compelling, enjoyable, fun. An interface tells us what attitude we should have towards the task at hand. In other words, it's a game we play. That game may be mimetic or it may be abstract, but either way it will affect us. Ives's brittle world of thin type and flat white windows is just another room we find ourselves in, not a door to freedom.