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Analog <> Digital

An easy guess would be to assume there will be an outcry over the big change when iOS 7 hits Apple devices in a few months. But anyone paying attention to the challenging states of designing for digital canvases should know that this was inevitable. Skeumorphism (digital assets that draw likeness to real-world counterparts) was a decided method in the early days of iOS to guide people into using a device that was so digitally malleable it could manifest into nearly any kind of object or operation -- many of which had physical equivalents (like a calculator or notebook). Sure, we've had digital representaions of calculators and notebooks before, but we've never been able to interact with them through a sophisticated touch interface.

While digital skeumorphism is top of mind right now, Smashing Magazine takes a look back at the history of design ornamentations across mediums in their essay, Authentic Design. I remember when I first bought my way into the iOS ecosystem with an iPod touch in the fall of 2007. I'd grown accostomed to Apple's flourishes with photorealistic icon design in Mac OS X (which still holds up functionally and appropriately today), so the Braun-inspired calculator definitely looked and felt good to use on the iPod touch's surface. We all have to remember that iOS (or iPhone OS back then) was a magical thing -- a multi-touch interface on a powerful, pocket computer was way ahead of its time. And maybe, as an unexpected side effect, no one cared that the applications we were using on it ludicrously mimicked physical world objects. I mean, the Notes app is a damn tacky looking thing (and was even worse when it used the Marker Felt typeface by default).1

If you TLDR-the-article, let me take you through the motions, starting with the beginning: the history of mass-produced ornamentation can be blamed on over-zealous capitalists using steam-powered manufacturing to their impulsive fantasies.

Historically, handcrafted decoration has been expensive to produce, serving as a symbol of wealth and luxury. With the advent of mechanization, imitations of those same sought-after ornaments could be stamped out cheaply and quickly. Rather than stop and think about what sort of design would be best suited for mass production, manufacturers jumped at the opportunity to copy historicized styles at low cost. The result was the flood of garish, low-quality products that Adolf Loos, along with other pioneers of modern design, railed against.

Makes you think twice about that Braun-inspired iOS calculator app.

Instead of attacking ornament, other pioneers of modern design focused on elevating functional form on a pedestal. In 1934, an exhibition curated by modernist architect Philip Johnson was held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, titled Machine Art. On display were various pieces of mechanical equipment, such as airplane propellers and industrial insulators. The idea was to highlight beauty of form in objects that were purely functional. For the modern design movement, decoration was not necessary. Beauty and elegance were to emerge from the design of the content itself, not from a superficial coat of decoration.

The transition into digital canvases afforded designers to do whatever they wanted. Rendering ornamentation back in the early days of Windows and Mac OS was possible, and "real-world metaphors were used where they could be, such as for images of folders to denote file directories and buttons with bevels to let the user know they could click on them -- But the overall aesthetic was fairly flat and restrained." The strange transition into full-on skeumorphism in iOS was a curious choice, likely stemming from Jobs's wish to showcase the fun mechanics of operating a touch device.

So, the real kicker of the article: while skeumorphic designs "provide visual interest, they are also relics of another time, relics that tie an interface to static real-life objects that are incompatible with the fluidity and dynamism of digital interfaces". Drenching iOS in a new coat of paint and under-the-hood mechanics will enable designers to continue shedding ornamentation and focus on the content of their apps. This fall's release of iOS 7 is going to be grand.


  1. As John Gruber originally wrote": "The weakest app on the iPhone. Cosmetically, it’s a train wreck. The entire iPhone UI is set in one typeface — Helvetica — and it’s gorgeous. But Notes, in a lame attempt to be “friendly”, displays a UI that looks like a pad of yellow legal paper, and uses the handwriting-esque Marker Felt as the font for note text. This is not adjustable. Marker Felt is silly, ugly, and worst of all, hard to read."

https://defiantsloth.com/log/2013/7/17/analog-digital

Around the Internet (July 2013)

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