Skeuomorph Descending a Staircase, No 2

I’d like to thank Zolani Stewart for pointing me to this thoughtful article by Tom Hobbs. While I think that Tom Hobbs would rather Apple just simplify or abandon the analogue reel-to-reel design than explore the latent-yet-untapped possibilities possessed by the skeuomorphic design (as I suggest), he has some wise words for us all to consider. Perhaps the best summation of his advice is as follows:

[T]here’s an opportunity to delight by incorporating elements that are there purely to serve emotive purposes. This is why the philosophy “just enough is more” is rather more important than just simply “less is more.” It is about scrutinizing everything, so there is a clear, purposeful rationale for every element. This means that all the elements and their layout support the primary objectives of the device and/or application. To do this effectively, it is not possible to achieve success without thoughtfully considering the ways we interact and use products in the physical, analog world. Otherwise designs are just far too cognitively taxing. However, this doesn’t mean just digitally re-creating or simulating analog models for the sake of familiarity–we all need to be constantly checking our metaphors to make sure they’re making sense. We need to be cognizant of how much of the pre-internet world is now completely obsolete and unrecognizable to any one under 20.

I think I would reformulate this by saying that in any good design there needs to be a conversation between the old way of doing things and the new. As Marshall McLuhan writes in Understanding Media, “A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them” (174). In McLuhan’s formulation, this is a violent exchange; I, personally, would like to see a more respectful negotiation of the two media, but McLuhan probably more accurately reflects the reality. But nevertheless, there is an exchange going on here as the introduction of new media disrupts the ecology of the old media. Each medium shapes the other at this point of contact, leading to many different outcomes: we might see the new medium shaped temporarily by the conventions of old while users transition, or the new medium might bear the marks of the old medium for a long time to come; an old medium might vanish quickly, replaced a new medium that completely obviates the old, while other old media may find new vitality, with aspects heretofore overlooked or taken for granted suddenly jumping to our attention—as Derrida puts it: “[the rise of computers] has resacralized everything connected with the book (its time, its space, its rhythm, starting from the ways it is handled, the ways it is legitimated, even the body, the eyes and the hands bent around it)” (“The Book to Come”).

I think it is important that we be aware of the way media new and old make us rethink the way we engage with them. EBooks, for example, are fantastic things, and for most purposes they greatly exceed their print counterparts. But at the same time, there are a number of properties print books have that either have not yet been or simply cannot be reproduced in eBooks. I like, for example, being able to stick my fingers (or pencils, or cards, or, on those grimmest of days, other, smaller books) in the pages, allowing me to switch between parts of the book far faster than any eBook bookmarking interface yet allows me to. And indeed, those physical objects can sometimes offer their own benefit: I sometimes stick photocopies of related articles into the pages of a book to serve both as a bookmark as well as a way to keep related materials together. I have no doubt that this functionality can be transferred over to eBooks, but at the moment (so far as I know), it remains exclusively within the domain of print media. If we switch over to exclusively eBooks without considering the functionality we’ve lost, we will find ourselves poorer.

But neither should we feel obligated to maintain all the functionality of print media if we find that electronic media can do it better. Look at the bookshelf paradigm Hobbs highlights, for example: it’s rather restrictive, and while it can help some users transition, most users have grown used to the more malleable and adaptive interfaces and organisational structures offered by computers. Here it would make sense for us to abandon an artificially limited way of engaging with our eBooks, as it offers little and does much to limit us—ebooks, for example, always seem to appear faced, which means that we see only a fraction of the number of books we’d see on an actual bookshelf where the books are normally oriented with the spines facing out.

Ultimately, I think that this will involve a great deal of experimentation. Some things will prove useful, while others will not. I like the page curl simulation offered by iBooks, for example, as I often find myself lazily curling the top-right corner of the recto page down as I finish up the final sentence of the page, allowing me to peek a glance at the content to come before leaving the current content. But it’s not a deal-breaker. If the page curl were to vanish, I’d get by. And I can easily imagine a new way to interact with eBooks that would prove even more useful than this page curl, or that might offer far more interesting aesthetic possibilities. The point is that we should bring the new medium into conversation with the old, so as to see what each might offer the other. I see little reason to do otherwise, especially in a digital environment, where experimentation is often less costly and less wasteful than it is in a physical environment.

To return to Tom Hobbs, “This is why the philosophy ‘just enough is more’ is rather more important than just simply ‘less is more.’ It is about scrutinizing everything, so there is a clear, purposeful rationale for every element.” We should explore old UIs and see if they did anything better (or at the very least more interestingly) than what we’re doing right now. Likewise, we should never hesitate to see if a new take on an existing idea might not improve things greatly. We shouldn’t thumb our noses at Apple just for their (weirdly slavish) devotion to the design Braun TG 60, but rather tap them on the shoulder and say “Well, that’s lovely, but don’t you think that you could make a better use of some of these elements?” Because at the end of the day, most of the interface works well, and looks good while working. There’s really little reason to change 3/4 of the interface. But at the same time we wouldn’t be doing ourselves any favours if we were to blindly accept that final 1/4 of the UI as is. We should see if we can do more with it, and, if it ultimately winds up proving more trouble than it’s worth, we should leave it behind, replacing it with something different, but not before then..

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