I recently read an article that I thought would satisfy my hunger for an intelligent critique on popular UI design, but it was mostly about scumorphic design failing in certain situations; an interesting article, I recommend it, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. So, here, dear readers, I present you with a good old fashioned critique on that kind of design so many web weirdos love. Complete with drop shadows, 3D buttons, glass shines, gradients, and outer glows. It’s the latest thing, if you didn’t know. If you’ve used a computer within the last 10 years, you’ve seen some variation of it. Whether it’s Apple’s “Aqua” UI that has been in place since the late 90s, or the latest social media site, this era is upon us.
It seems obvious to me that these trends are unnecessary, but so much in life is unnecessary. Although it’s important, it’s hard to justify necessity as a meaningful critique of design. It’s just so confusing as to why it is the industry standard, why it looks so nice in some cases, and why it is widely accepted as part of an overall positive user experience.
This sort of design came to be partly because of the tools that were put in front of designers. Photoshop offered these fun effects to play with, and designers couldn’t resist. The web was our playground. The internet is the most advanced space a designer can work in so I guess it’s only natural to want to make the interface cooler.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that humanity was begging for these sort of interfaces—they weren’t, trust me. It’s to a certain degree the design program’s influence on designers that makes this sort of thing rear its mostly ugly head. It’s really the designers who wield these tools in a way that feels so “real” that confuses me. Hyper realistic icons and interfaces confuse me. Apple, while not stylistically in line with my ideas of design, does a good many things very well. So when I see an icon, something that should convey meaning in a very compact space, that is essentially a shiny photo-realistic beautifully-rendered object, I become confused. When I see an application made to take notes that looks like a yellow notepad complete with ripped out pages, and stitching around the edge to simulate a leather binding, I am confused. These things are so cool, and I could never make them, therefore they are good, right? It has become an industry standard when making an application to make the icon shine shinier and feel slicker than all of its neighbors, but this does little for users but make the application look slicker and shinier, which is good because—well, I don’t really think it does any good at all.
WWVD? (What would Vignelli do?)
In this article from Michael Beirut, I learned a lot about the way Massimo Vignelli looks at design. Not that I didn’t know a lot about him already, but it was an insight into working for him that piqued my interest. So what would he do? He’s a minimalist. “Why would you use Franklin Gothic when you can use Helvetica” he’d say. If you’re not on the Vignelli Bandwagon, consider our friendly famed designer Paul Rand. WWRD? These are our design heroes. Yes, things were different “back in their day,” but it’s not like their work is irrelevant by any means today. It absolutely stands the test of time, that’s why it’s so valuable. That’s why we idolize it, and teach students to idolize it. So in this world of slick and shine, let us think of our design heroes. Perhaps we should think not in drop shadows and glass effects, but in simplicity. Perhaps we make only what we need, and not bog down design with useless tidbits.
Why I’m Still Confused
Enter Flow. Have you see this application? It’s designed with the Apple junkie in mind, but done very well. In fact, everything MetaLab produces is thick with Apple goo. Their interfaces are slick, rounded, and filled to the top with gradients. And they’re nice. They’re well thought out and executed perfectly. This is where I get confused again. This is where I find it hard to decide whether any of this matters, whether I’m right in thinking all of this kind of design is pollution or not. Take a look at iPhone and iPad apps Apple has developed. Take a look at the Apple website. It truly is all around us and it’s thriving.
I’ll admit that I don’t get it. I’ll assume that the general populace benefits from this hyper realistic design and finds interfaces easier to use when they can relate them to the real world. The real world has shadows, subtle textures, shininess, smooth shifts from color to color. But as a designer who thinks about the web all day, every day, I really don’t want to stand for it. I could never see myself coming to the conclusion that adding an inordinate amount of fake realism to my designs would make them more relatable. I’d assume those sorts of things distract and confuse people. They ubiquitize design, they don’t solve individual problems. There’s no way that a single, particular aesthetic can be successfully applied to all design problems and work, right? Metalab seems to think so. So does Apple. Take it as you might, people seem to love the guff.