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This is the (Post) Modern Mobile World

Liam Oscar Thurston
(Title image: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – Damien Hirst, 1991)

I opened up my iPhone last week and witnessed the psychedelia of iOS7.  Sure I’d seen the demos and played with the beta, but diving into the rainbow pools of performance in my pocket was a glossy trip that felt like a flashback before it was even over.  Levitating icons, frosted glass menus, endless tunnels of jolting zooms and illusions of endless depth left my spinning head questioning the state and taste of popular mobile aesthetics.

From the fake wood panelling on your uncle’s station wagon to the faux-leather header on your iCalendar, the visual metaphor is everywhere; especially on your smartphone. The term ‘skeumorphism’ has become a ubiquitous buzzword. Tossed about by everyone from the casual mobile user to the seasoned digital design professional, its use is intended to impress an appreciation of digital aesthetics, and a deep understanding of the dos and don’ts associated with its modernization.

Webster tells us that ‘a skeuomorph /ˈskjuːəmɔrf/ is an ornament or design on an object copied from a form of the object when made from another material or by other techniques.’ In mobile design terms: visual references to real-world textures, behaviors, and design finishing represented in a digital medium. However, if we’re to believe Microsoft’s Modern Design Language and Apple’s Senior VP of Design Jony Ive’s opinionated assertions, skeuomorphism is dying a sophisticated death.

Skeuomorphism: Still kickin’

The way I experience it, skeuomorphism is alive and well – it just got a swanky dye job. It’s being applied with a new twist in our digital interfaces; implying three dimensional depth rather than operating as a literal metaphor. At the risk of sounding stuffy, we can use art history as a lens for understanding the role of skeuomorphism in digital design by viewing it as an expression of Modernity.

The referential foundation for our popular mobile interfaces binds them to Modernity and its reductive approach to form and function. Everything is simplified, superfluous design elements and textures are removed, and content becomes king; form follows function. Your iPhone is flattened out, your icons are simplified, your Windows Surface Start screen is rigid with tiles and there are no brushed chrome sliders in sight. This is all terribly fashionable – these Modern interfaces by Microsoft and Apple say it all. But what’s next?

Windows 8: Tiles by the mile

I endured my first stiff interactions with digital Modernity about two years ago. Designing Windows Phone and Surface apps for Microsoft, I watched dynamic UI concepts and designs become regulated into a systematic look & feel by the artist formerly known as “Metro” (the name of Windows’ new look until rumoured threats of legal action from retail partner Metro AG inspired the transition to “Microsoft Design Language”). The rules were firm, the design reviews were strict. My extensive library of Windows design guidelines quickly became indispensable manifestos, commanding near-biblical reverence. The tattered and coffee-stained PDFs read:

  • Use only this one font.

  • Don’t use gradients.

  • Don’t use drop shadows.

  • Use only this set of icons.

  • Use tiles. Everywhere.

  • Most importantly, no skeuomorphism.

At first the process felt like a cold reduction of personality, a choke-hold on creativity, but my dedication rallied as I reflected on art history.  The visual parallels to Modernism were obvious; Piet Mondrian would have made a great director of creative innovation… Microsoft’s will.i.am.

Inspirations like Berlin’s Bauhaus movement and Swiss design provided further context to my process, and framed it within a lofty historical reference that made no gradients feel like more of a tenet of efficient design rather than a mandated judgment call.

“Form follows function”, a fundamental teaching of Modernism, rang clear in Microsoft’s design guidelines.  So much so that I discovered a direct one-to-one relationship between Microsoft’s five design principles and the five quotes that summarize Modernist design principles best:

Pride in craftsmanship =  ‘Firmness, commodity and delight’ (Vitruvius)

Be fast and fluid = ‘Design is a method of action’ (Charles Eames)

Authentically digital =  ‘Everything superfluous turns ugly with time’ (Alvar Aalto)

Do more with less  =  ‘Less is more’ (Mies Van Der Rohe )

Win as one   =  ‘Form follows function’ (Louis Sullivan)

For the first time in my experience, the UI design approach to a major design platform was heavily mandated and reviewed. So I stopped designing with drop shadows and gradients, and I definitely never used any faux leather stitching. It felt clean, it felt efficient … but eventually it felt boring. I wanted to break the grid, to explore the creative potential of mobile. Microsoft’s UX conventions of the “App Bar” and “Charms” began to sound more like dream vacations I wanted to escape to instead of tools I wanted to design with.

 

iOS 7: Rainbow zoomers

Before the arrival of iOS 7, it felt very much like this new Windows aesthetic was the Modernism to Apple’s Classicism.  Microsoft’s reductive digital streamlining versus Apple’s representational familiarity; the two company’s names even embody that comparison. It felt like Apple’s digital experiences still revolved around the metaphor of the desktop, while Microsoft’s ethos of “authentically digital” attempted to strip out those real-world references.

Then iOS7 cruised onto our devices to much multi-coloured fanfare and debate.  Gradients everywhere. Apple turned their product stamp, “Designed by Apple in California,” into a global marketing campaign, imbuing their new look with location-based personality which extends into the naming conventions of the new OS X updates (Mavericks is a popular surf spot in Northern California). This ethos returns Apple to its insider audience of thinkers, innovators, and insiders who can now enjoy every stoned tone of California sky gradient on one start screen whilst secretly wishing they were surfers.

While this interface looks and feels modern, it’s reliance on skeuomorphism is still very much intact. You can practically hear your iPhone’s gyroscope and accelerometer grinding away to make icons float above the background as you tilt your screen. All of the implied layers of zooming, overlays, and blurred transparencies are very much skeuomorphic references to depth and material that simply does not exist digitally.

This new interface is a vibrant departure in design sensitivity, though not transformative UI thinking by any means. The visual metaphors are still there, just applied more tastefully to reflect the modern mobile aesthetic. And while I’m still moderately thrilled by the stylish transitions and flat look of iOS7, I have the feeling it’ll evoke the same burnt-out charm as your yoga instructor’s tie-dye toga in no time.

Po Mo Mobile

So if Windows 8 is Modernism to its core, and iOS 7 is Classicism tricked-out with a modern twist, let’s follow this creative logic to imagine what’s next. In art history, Modernism inspired Postmodernism’s critical rejection of what came before; embracing a deconstructive mentality and skeptical analysis of the norm.  Formless and experiential, Postmodernism is characterized by juxtapositions of styles and flavours from all eras:

Sci-fi visionary Philip K. Dick paraphrased the potential of Postmodernism eloquently:

“No single thing abides; and all things are fucked up.”

 

Android: Play time

Android disrupts the predictable Modern mobile landscape with the twisted possibilities of the Postmodern, and my experience on the platform became a deeply inspiring breath of fresh digital air.

Cracking the book on designing for Android for the first time felt like opening a sketchbook, as opposed to a rule book.  The inconsistent design treatments and UI standards, not to mention the vast variety of devices and operating systems, encouraged designs rooted in personality rather than prescription. Android felt like the People’s Platform, an open and meritocratic environment where innovation was crowdsourced and creators truly drove the exploration of the platform’s potential.

You know when they touch their phones together in those Samsung Galaxy ads? That little gimmick has some crazy potential. Designing proof of concept pitches using Layar, an augmented reality platform, my mind was further blown by Android’s potential for location-based interaction, and the potential of near-field communication.  This creative liberation was as much a result of expanding professional freedom as it was a shift in platforms, nevertheless it felt fresh and free.

I started seeing potential that poured out of the device and into our experiences fluidly, with interfaces unbound by the modern application of the pixel grid.  Experiences that felt different on every device, for every user, and existed in relation to the user’s needs rather than dictating them. Just the concept of the Density Independent Pixel as a unit of measurement (Android’s global measurement unit that accounts for the wide range of screen densities and sizes on it’s devices), was both bewildering and exciting to work with.

Sure, there is a wide range of design quality and consistency in the Google Play store, but I’d like to think that lets the true personality behind the designer and product show itself on a fair and collaborative playing field. It’s often the fringe and experimental ideas that inspire the new design thinking integral to innovation, so let’s hope that Android’s ever-evolving design guidelines are never exacted with the same whip crack as Microsoft or Apple’s.

But we’re talking about mobile design here, and beyond the design trends on any platform there are expectations of functionality and performance that will always be part of this conversation. Let’s be real; you want your phone to be efficient, useful … and to feel sexy. Moving forward, let’s think of Android as a playing field where these expectations can be expressed in any language or form, an inclusive discussion with looser limits and a Postmodern flare for experimentation.  Our current mobile design zeitgeist is so flush with Modern character that everybody from hippies to hipsters has ‘skeumorphism’ in their vocabulary. We get it, now let’s invent some new words in new languages to describe what’s next.

 

 

Liam Oscar Thurston is a designer at The Working Group, building custom Internet software for business innovators and entrepreneurs looking for an edge in their respective markets.

Having a firm grip on a pencil since birth, Liam’s aesthetic sense is founded in expert craftsmanship and a unique perspective on visual culture. A fondness for animals and a passion for popcorn are subtle themes in his personal work (www.liamthurston.com). His range of experience informs and inspires an approach to interactive design rooted in creative innovation. With previous engagements leading interactive design projects with ABC News, Red Bull, and Bloomberg, Liam’s experiences have honed his sense of efficient user experience design in the modern mobile landscape. 

Email Liam
@twg
twg.ca

 

 

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