Delusions of Grandeur July 2013

Nothing is new—a belief burned into the mind of every first year design student. There are trends, there are fads. But everything is a derivative of the ideas and principles that came before it. As design continues to evolve, there is rarely an apex where one ideal sits atop the rest.

Keep this in mind whenever you read sweeping articles on design trends, such as this from Smashing Magazine. Dimitry Fadeyev’s argument for the ill-named flat design trend is well-described and equally researched; a classic argument that recalls Walter Gropius’ “search for truth in design”. Gropius, along with others described in Fadeyev’s text, redefined modern architecture in the 1920s. Many of their ideas were eventually compiled into a 3 part treatise, aptly named The International Style by American architects Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson. However Fadeyev’s equivocation of flat design to authentic design slavishly focuses on a single tenet1the expulsion of applied ornament—from Hitchcock and Johnson’s text.

The International Style rejects ornamentation out of respect for the intrinsic beauty of the materials used to construct a space. The Salk Institute, designed by Philadelphia architect Louie Kahn, is a classic example of this tenet. Kahn used concrete throughout the construction, but instructed builders to leave the imperfections created by the molds. Common practice is to veneer concrete with an outer coating, leaving a smoother surface that is more pleasant. Instead, one visiting the Salk Institute can observe the embedded cleat marks that held plywood used to form the concrete. They remain as a monument to the methods used to build the structure.

The International (or Modern) style was pervasive in the 20th century, impacting architecture, graphic and industrial design. Jonathan Ive is a known student of this style, apparent in his industrial design for Apple. His use of natural, undecorated material gives Apple products an organic feel and classic style.

Truth in construction is a powerful ideal and has become a guiding principle for many acclaimed designers. It is, however, a flawed ideal for digital design.

Pixel matter.

Gropius believed the work of a designer is to discover the truth. It was an exploration revealed to the designer by the desired construction materials. Wood, engineered steel, concrete and glass all have physical properties. They can support and generate different loads. They differ in strength and resistance to applied forces. In digital design, the primary construction material is a pixel.

What can a pixel reveal to a designer? In short, nothing. A pixel is a vacuum. At rest, a pixel cannot be touched, heard, seen or smelled. It has no purpose, other than to do what it is told to do. It requires something—or someone—to describe what it should be before it is observed.

Technology has evolved such that pixels can be perceived as any one of millions of colors. In a contrived manner, they can also be touched. But a pixel does not care to be any particular color and does not respond to touch in any particular way. It is only limited by the imagination of the one telling it what to do.

Apple’s Digital World.

Much of the public has focused on the aesthetics of iOS 7, perhaps missing Apple’s broader design goal. Beyond a dalliance with unadorned controls, I believe Apple is looking to simulate a physical environment for pixels in iOS 7. There’s the dynamics system that assigns physical attributes to inanimate objects and parallax effects which create a sense of depth in response to motion. In iOS 7 pixels are no longer feature-less voids; They can be given mass, viscosity and friction. You can even apply forces and have them respond naturally.

Apple hasn’t created another UI trend with iOS 7, they’ve built a construct for a new digital environment. One that acts according to defined laws of physics, external motion and forces applied through touch. They’ve transformed pixels into materials.

But unlike the materials used by Gropius and Kahn, pixels are malleable. We get to define their characteristics. Define how they respond to motion and touch.

A pixel is still a pixel. They still do what we tell them to do; It’s their nature. However, starting with iOS 7 we can begin to look at pixels as something more.

Digital Ornament.

There is a rampant conflation between digital texture and ornament. A veneered brick masks it’s purpose, but a textured pixel describes its purpose through visual affordance. Under glass, everything feels the same. So feel must be simulated in the digital realm, just as physics and depth are simulated.

To my eye, it was not the felt or leather, but the caustics on buttons and navigation bars that felt most out of place prior to iOS 7. iOS devices reveal their pixels under reflective glass, causing the simulated caustic to compete with an actual caustic. This contradiction creates a discord that has been misattributed so often to material textures.

It is important to distinguish design trend from design principle when applying critique. When Apple stripped away texture from iOS 7, it did so as a matter of style and not as part of an idealistic crusade to strip ornamentation from digital design.

What’s Next.

Apple pushed forward the state-of-the-art with iOS 7, creating an environment rooted in physics, depth and motion to create mobile applications that feel alive. If anything, they brought our digital existence closer inline with our analog one. Sure, they’ve traded ruffles for sleeker lines, but they’ve proven once again all too eager to pull cues from the real world to inform their digital world.

Our challenge as digital designer remains constant: to create substance from transmitted light.

  1. The other two tenets are the expression of volume rather than mass and the emphasis on balance rather than preconceived symmetry.