Thoughtful Skeuomorphism

dan ashwood

dan ashwood

by Dan Ashwood

Here in the Culture Crush studio, while preparing our latest issue for the presses, we continually discussed the difference between the best design practices for print and for screens and a few important ideas kept bubbling to the surface. It takes a real deep dive into the print process to be reminded of the origins of some thoughtless regurgitation of design tropes, where editors and designers mercilessly parrot web and print trends without a lot of consideration of their context or meaning.

These days, there is a notion pervading interaction design circles that skeuomorphism--the idea that design elements should inherit characteristics of their real-world antecedents--is simply no good anymore. To a degree, the logic behind this may seem reasonable. After all, now that we've been collectively establishing patterns of interaction and are generally acquainted with the design tropes of mobile computing, all the vestigial graphics, textures, drop shadows, and other design cues that helped users get their bearings with what was once a disruptively novel technology are no longer as necessary as they had previously been. Sure, they were useful frames of reference at one point--Apple's leather calendar planner, the reel-to-reel tape recorder aesthetic of their podcast app, the emulation of the sound of a shutter, the glossy surface of an app icon--but now, they're perceived as relics of a bygone era, a time before gestural interaction became second nature to anybody with a mobile device.

A lot of this seems to have developed in the immediate aftermath of the death of Steve Jobs and the subsequent ouster of Scott Forstall, Apple's former lead interaction designer. Both championed the maintenance of the human element in Apple's interfaces. Jobs' well-documented obsession with calligraphy and typography was crucial in personalizing the personal computer; similarly, Forstall's pioneering work developing the look and feel of both OSX and iOS has had an enormous influence in the progression of our digital world's current appearance and behavior. Both could also be incredibly divisive figures, so perhaps much of the move away from skeuomorphism had less to do with sincere convictions about good design practices and more to do with the internal politics of a company in the midst of what was surely an existential crisis, but with the lack of any press releases, we can only speculate.

So hey, let's speculate! What, exactly, were we left with? The ascension of Jony Ive and the stange presumption that industrial designers are inherently good interaction designers as well? Are all architects qualified to design interiors now too? Why this abrupt move away from physical cues? Why the mass flattening? Why this rush to decouple our digital present from the analog past? Perhaps most importantly, is such a thing desirable or even possible?

I don't think that it is. In fact, I think it's pretty counterproductive to think so. After all, meaningful technological advances don't happen in some kind of hermetically sealed vacuum chamber, but they develop from complex ecosystems of problems and their previous solutions. The utility of certain symbols and iconography only increases as they are more broadly adopted. Consider, for instance, the video "play/pause" button's trajectory from the front of your VCR, to it's placement on your remote control, to its ubiquity on YouTube as your phone became both the remote and the VCR. 

dan ashwood

dan ashwood

Meanwhile, it seems we're also in the midst of a strange renaissance of screen-based annoyances. The worst offense being online magazines usage of enormous pull-quotes that sit adjacent to their sources in cozily thoughtless redundancy; an inane digital cooption of a print media trope that implies that after we've made that decision to click through to an article, we only then need to be pulled into it. Are we really so distracted? The whole point of pull quotes in print media was to pull casual page-flippers into stories by spotlighting key thoughts. Are we just compulsively scrolling through everything now? Its as if designers have mistaken the meaning of the word pull. It was meant to pull you in, not pull key text out!

The contention that there are these distinct schisms between smartphones, personal computers, old mainframes, Babbage's difference engine, the abacus, and the elaborate pedigree of technologies that these things have supplanted is absurd. Maybe it's a useful thing to say to hype up shareholders, but anybody with the capacity to step away from our present historical context to see the broad continuum of technological development can see that it's a progression. So what does the future hold for the flattened aesthetics of the anti-skeuomorph crowd? Will we be stuck in a garish world of weak two-dimensional abstraction, or will we pine for the bygone days of push-buttons, spinning plates, and emulate the analog machines of the past?

dan ashwood

dan ashwood

I'm sure it will be some hybrid of these two things. Take for instance one of the outstanding highlights of CES 2016, Kodak's incredible resuscitation of the Super 8 format with a brilliant camera that's complemented by a digital viewfinder and on-board SD card readers. Or, in the virtual realm, consider the ingenious analog interfaces of video games like Fallout 4's Pip-Boy, the incredibly sophisticated materiality of Minecraft, or the internet cafés and smartphone interfaces of the Grand Theft Auto series. These are all influenced by not just a nostalgia for the past, but also very much by the possibilities of the future. In any event, regardless of whatever form this future takes, I just hope the pop-up ads don't give me any concussions.