How do you know what is what? Whatever else design is supposed to do, clarifying this question is, to me, one of its most interesting tasks. In fact, you could probably say that its answers to this question are the only reason I pay any attention to it at all. While it’s true that being married to an interior designer causes me to pay some attention to what design adds in terms of aesthetic impact, the truth is I’m only really, ever confident of my judgments when I’m talking about function.
How do you know a handle is a handle? This is not a trivial question these days. How many times have we wandered into the bathroom of a trendy new restaurant and had to experiment to discover how to run water from a faucet? There are at least four possible courses of action in the face of the chrome cylinders that more and more often seem to stand between usand running water: twisting, tilting, pushing, and
randomly waving your hands, in case there’s a photosensor embedded somewhere in there. Who are we kidding? These days we probably try the last option first. In five years they’ll probably be putting in voice control and we’ll have to add talking to our inventory of bathroom experiments. “Water! Water on!”
This isn’t a problem with more traditional faucets. While a newly-teleported alien might not immediately see that the pivoting bar above the spout is meant to grasped and twisted, it’s not a lesson that has to be learned twice. Once demonstrated, the function becomes obvious. The bar is a handle. In the words of the perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson, a handle communicates an affordance: a course of possible action. The handle is a 3-dimensional cue. Its shape says: grasp and twist. In contrast, a cylinder says nothing at all.
The problem of communicating a course of possible action is compounded in the case of software interfaces. This is why Don Norman, the cognitive scientist and design critic whose book The Design of Everyday Things is the starting point in all discussions of intelligent design, has since focused his attention on computer interface design. The problem of designing computer interfaces is that the interface doesn’t have to followany physical laws: a flat patch of blue could increase volume, save a file, erase a file, zoom into the screen, zoom out of the screen, launch pornography, shoot animated torpedoes, or even shut the computer down. In a way, it’s just the problem of buttons writ large. A button can trigger anything. It can ring a bell, recline your seat, defrost a refrigerator, toast bread, or launch a missile. The reason why real-world buttons generally confuse us less is that they are given context by their location. A button in a car is not likely to launch a missile. A button on a computer screen however, generally has much less context.
Well, the most obvious way is to make a picture of something that is NOT a computer. Worse, a computer screen is not limited to hosting buttons. You can draw lines on it, drag things around on it, check and uncheck boxes, and so on. A computer screen hosts graphics. Pixels. How do you give meaning to a bunch of pixels?
I still remember the first time a friend of mine showed me a software synthesizer in the program called Reason. The interface was a lovingly recreated reproduction of a hardware synthesizer, the kind that involved patching modules to other modules with cables. The modules’ rear control panels had screws. Knobs had texture, shadows, and highlights. Indicator lights were set in beveled metal collars. Cables that draped and swayed in virtual gravity connected modules. I felt the amount of calculation used to create the swaying, shaded cables as a palpable force. I felt it as a kind of radiant waste of processing power that the designers were willing not to generate sound with. I remember feeling awe, but also resentment. Resentment, not only of the conspicuous waste of processing cycles, but also of the profusion of useless graphic artifacts. Why the brushed metal textures? Why make the cables sway under their own weight?
Skeuomorphs. A useful word I found, that describes features that imitate the form of something without possessing its function. Screws hold things together. Fake screws do not — they are skeuomorphs. Fake cables are skeuomorphs. The sampled sound of a mechanical shutter that digital cameras emit is a skeuomorph – digital cameras don’t possess mechanical shutters. Wood grain pattern on plastic is a skeuomorph.
Skeuomorphic software interfaces have the advantage of history behind them. If a virtual synthesizer looks like a hardware synthesizer, then anybody who knows how to use a hardware synthesizer can switch to the virtual one almost effortlessly. In fact, I’m told that Reason’s ultrarealistic interface was meant to mirror the company’s claim that the Reason’s software modules could literally replace the hardware originals that they modeled. Reason’s slavish super realism (that went as far as putting ventilator fans on the rear panels!) had one message: that the programs worked just like the real thing.
Of course, this means that skeuomorphic interfaces also have the disadvantages of history behind them. The magazines-on-a-wooden-shelf interface of Apple’s iBooks app already looks stodgy, and is only guaranteed to look increasingly dated as time passes. This approach also courts the danger of letting the limitations of old technology shackle the powers of the new: Reason’s designers imported the messiness of real-world cables, a mistake cheerfully avoided by the designers of MAX/MSP, whose virtual patch cords are weightless, follow a grid, and can become invisible on command. I have to say I like the MAX/MSP’s modernist graphics-as-flat-images approach better, though I might change my mind if true 3D displays ever arrive.
However, it does seem that skeuomorphs age well as icons. Take the phone handset icon. Most people under 30 have probably never seen such a handset, but everybody knows that it means “telephone.” The graphic communicated its meaning to people at a time when such receivers existed, establishing a tradition that remained even after such receivers became obsolete. With the passing of time, the graphic simply shifted from being a picture of something to a convention, like the stoplight’s colors. Red means stop. Green means go.
Tad studied Zoology in the University of Hiroshima, and graduated with a degree in Philosophy from the University of the Philippines. He was a founding member of the seminal sound art band The Children of Cathode Ray and is a leading media artist who uses sound, video, programming and electronics in the creation of his films and installations, which have been exhibited in numerous local and international festivals and galleries. Email Tad at firstname.lastname@example.org.