King Ludd #10: The Tedious Tyranny of Flatland

And why the future keeps looking like the past

King Ludd's Cabin King Ludd's Cabin

I hated user interface skeuomorphism as much as anyone, though I may have lacked the word for it at the time. As with all things when a style is named it is dead, and once that word became known it was clear that those interfaces dripping in inappropriate excessive metaphor were not long for this world. It’s just I’m not entirely convinced that what we have now is any better, and not merely just different.

Skeuomorphism in UIs generally relates to the representation of physical objects, such as switches, dials, or textures, as part of the interface. These are always most hilarious when the object being represented was either very niche, or long since made irrelevant, but is clung to by those typically of a hipster bent as symbols of an aspirational upper middle class pseudo bohemian late baby boomer era lifestyle. While in general audio software seems to suffer greatly from this, in an eternal quest to provide the illusion of a room sized analogue synthesizer being in your laptop, Apple under Steve Jobs epitomised this trend, and produced some of the greatest crimes against interface design ever made:

Beautiful wood textures indicate your audio will be processed with all the warmth of a classic valve amplifier, or some similar bollocks.

Beautiful wood textures indicate your audio will be processed with all the warmth of a classic valve amplifier, or some similar bollocks.

The mercifully short lived anachronistic podcast playback application on the iPad.

The mercifully short lived anachronistic podcast playback application on the iPad.

My personal "favourite", enough to put me off using Mac OS X for several years, the fake leather stitching of iCal. Because we all still think 80s era filofaxes are awesome, obviously.

My personal “favourite”, enough to put me off using Mac OS X for several years, the fake leather stitching of iCal. Because we all still think 80s era filofaxes are awesome, obviously.

That reel-to-reel one became especially famous, and is possibly the proverbial straw for the camel’s back. As a consequence of this we’ve experienced a massive swing to the opposite extreme, which has adopted the label “flat” design. This trend started with Microsoft’s ill fated Zune, which had the prototype of the interface now known as The Interface Formerly Known as Metro as it turned out someone else owned the name Metro, but no other name has ever really stuck. Influences of this are clear in Android from Ice Cream Sandwich onwards, but most visibly in iOS 7, which is really the turn of the century hard house compilation of user interfaces.

Metro Design used for Windows 8 start screen

Metro Design used for Windows 8 start screen

Microsoft, for all their flaws, made a lot of the right noises when it came to Metro, such as referring to it as “authentically digital”. Unfortunately the flat design trend is anything but: it’s print design on your screen. This is the result of ultra conservative classically trained print graphic designers fetishising the Swiss school of design and tasked with the job of designing computer interfaces. They rely almost purely on parallax effects to show which parts are interactive and which are not, and you half expect them to proudly and loudly rediscover button bevels, which if you weren’t around during the transition before were a Really Big Deal the first time.

1990's Amiga Workbench 2.0. Amazing bevels!

1990’s Amiga Workbench 2.0. Amazing bevels!

While you’d be hard pressed to wax lyrical on the positive aesthetic qualities of the Amiga Workbench of 1990, it does show a time when the design possibilities of computers were exciting, and not merely slightly overdesigned interfaces with all the personality of a tax return, and although in the case of iOS that’s a tax return seen by a mind in a distinctly altered state it’s still a charmless but polished turd. The problem is my idea of a desirable design personality for my computers is not the same as yours, and it will change for both of us anyway. Microsoft’s killer mistake with Metro was a failure to recognise this fact, and since Metro does not offer enough scope for customisation and they have such a huge market it was inevitably going to annoy absolutely huge numbers of people. Steve Jobs had the luxury of a relative niche market that he could play like a violin, and the problems occurred as his products expanded beyond that niche in the market, having to cater to a more diverse range of tastes.

Government website or Windows 9 concept?

Government website or Windows 9 concept?

No new design fad is going to get us out of this funk, instead we need to be talking about separating data from the interfaces we use to view and interact with them. For example, why should my using of Gmail mean I’m stuck with whatever aesthetic choices Google allow me to make? I should be free to pick and choose from all manner interfaces and relegate Gmail to being a data provider. This is going to be an even more pressing problem with the Internet of Things, since every company is going to be pushing their own look and feel, invariably unlike the others, so everyone except the Apple-products-only cohort are going to be condemned to a life of incoherent inconsistency from the products around them.

That will be a truly horrific user experience, but sadly companies are so attached to pushing their branding into inappropriate places I’m not convinced we can break free from it. Additionally the currently powerful designers at those companies would object, purely on aesthetic grounds of course, to people being able to mess up their designs. As it stands the way our interfaces are so needlessly attached to the brands pushing the data has created a level of conservatism in current design trends that is basically without precedent, since they must attempt to be inoffensive, and as Metro showed even the most superficially inoffensive thing given a wide enough audience will find significant numbers of detractors.

TLDR: detach data providers from interface providers, allowing users to choose how to represent the data they want, or we will be destined for a hellishly boring lowest common denominator computerised future.

1 Comment on King Ludd #10: The Tedious Tyranny of Flatland

  1. anonymous1 // April 8, 2014 at 12:51 pm //

    funny: “These are always most hilarious when the object being represented was either very niche, or long since made irrelevant, but is clung to by those typically of a hipster bent as symbols of an aspirational upper middle class pseudo bohemian late baby boomer era lifestyle. “

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