Tag Archives: authenticity

Skeuomorphism 2: Authenticity

There’s an interesting point of critique in the last line of the Metro tagline/manifesto that I posted before: by declaring their designs “entirely authentic,” the anti-skeuomorphism designers are implicitly declaring skeuomorphism’s inauthenticity.

As discussed in the previous post, skeuomorphism’s “inauthenticity” comes from taking relationships that were intrinsic to the way something worked (for example, the volume knob on an old stereo reflects its underlying mechanical basis) and recreating them such that their visual presentation is functionally extrinsic (there is no such underlying mechanical basis for turning a virtual knob to adjust volume.)

This opposition between “authenticity” and “inauthenticity” is perhaps clearest in the disagreement over fake materiality. It’s easy to read the flat, super-saturated colors of Microsoft’s “Metro” interface as an attempt to find visual elements without real-world analogs. Metro apps assert their virtuality, just as skeuomorphic interfaces on iOS assert their materiality.

Yet if we think carefully about this division – skeuomorphism as inauthentic and anti-skeuomorphism as authentic – things get more complex. This complexity becomes apparent when we notice that, directly adjacent to the battlefield where the skeuomorphism debate is being fought, there’s a swath of strategic territory that has gone wholly uncontested.

If “fake materiality” characterizes the majority of skeuomorphic design elements, we might think about this uncontested territory as the land of fake spatiality. And yet, while criticizing the former, Metro designers are explicit in their praise of the latter. According to the Building Windows 8 blog, “every piece of UI comes in from somewhere and goes somewhere when it exits the screen.” This isn’t unique to Metro, of course. Neither side in the skeuomorphism debate is making any move back toward entering commands line-by-line or designing static interfaces.

But there are no “somewheres.” In a digital interface, places and spatial relationships emerge gestalt-like out of the consistency and coherence of the visual cues that refer to them. When Metro designers decry the digital simulacrum of a volume knob, their criticism is based on the fact that there’s no underlying connection between function (which is now computational, not mechanical) and presentation. But this line of criticism is never extended to space and movement, which are no less arbitrary in relation to the underlying computational functions.

The “justification” (if we want to call it that) for the space-and-movement paradigm adopted by both sides in the skeuomorphism debate is not “authenticity,” but the functional benefit of using consistent, familiar metaphors (which sounds suspiciously like the justification for skeuomorphic design as a whole). It’s not that certain techniques aren’t more or less functional than others, it’s that we shouldn’t confuse “functionalism” with “authenticity.”  The former admits experimentation and debate (e.g. “Is anachronism functional or not?”). “Authenticity,” on the other hand, admits no further criteria. “Do you like this painting?” is an interesting question. “Is that a real Picasso?” is not.

Unable to define merit in terms of authenticity, we’re left not only to judge the value of particular techniques, but even to determine what ends these techniques ought to pursue. For example, skeuomorphic design might be more or less functional – but is it good taste?

It might be easier to see the value of bringing in new criteria of judgment if we look beyond digital interface design. Recently, Lebbeus Woods wrote a blog post about Michelangelo’s designs for fortifying the walls around Florence that speaks to this potential:

For all their practical purpose, these drawings have uncommon aesthetic power. Of course, this is because they are made by one of the greatest sculptors, and a self-taught architect—an “amateur of genius,” as he has been called—but it is also because the bastions required had too short a history as a building type to have ossified into a rigid typology. Michelangelo was relatively free to invent strong new forms and didn’t hesitate to do so.

Another way of saying “too short a history as a building type to have ossified into a rigid typology” is to say “too short a history for there to be clear linkages between techniques and criteria for judgment.” Michelangelo’s freedom here isn’t actually the product of new goals (or at least it doesn’t have to be): even if all he had in mind was “create functional fortifications,” he didn’t have sufficient precedents available to him to know what design techniques would accomplish that goal.

In the Letter from the Editors for PLAT 2.0 (an issue of the journal I co-edited with Eileen Witte), we wrote something that seems to overlap with Lebbeus Woods’ observation: that technological development can change the standards of judgment (or their hierarchy). Our example was Auto-Tune: by making it relatively easier for vocalists to sound like they’re singing on key, Auto-Tune increases the relative importance of other criteria for judging performance – say, physical appearance.

It’s obvious that technological development can produce innovative design, but we tend to consider only the direct advancements due to new materials and machines. The Michelangelo and Auto-Tune examples point to a different mechanism: the novelty that emerges from disrupting existing relationships between techniques and criteria for judgment. But this mechanism suggests that such experimentation is not contingent upon technological development: Peter Eisenman’s House series provides another example where changing the criteria of judgment (in this case, via a linguistic theory that wanted to make architecture that served as a meaningful text rather than functional machine) proved liberatory.

Any discourse where “authenticity” and “legitimacy” are the criteria for judgment tends to imply that the value of its techniques is universal. In the prevoius part of this discussion of skeuomorphism, I concluded by saying that usability which hinged purely on familiarity tended to produce homogeneity and close down innovation. Here I’ll extend this to say that design which justifies itself in terms of “authenticity” has the same result.

Skeuomorphism 1: Anachronism

First: I’ll just confess right now that this didn’t end up going where I thought it was going to. Nothing about “type” here.

Second: a story.

Once upon a time, there was a device named A.

A performed function X.

Because of the way A did X, it had a set of visual characteristics, B.

One day, a new device showed up named C.

C also performed function X.

Although the way that C did didn’t require it to have visual characteristics B, it had them anyway.

This story highlights the fact that “skeuomorphism” is a status conferred by participation in a specific historical narrative. The critique of skeuomorphism responds to the consistency of these historical relationships: it’s not that visual characteristics B are inherently bad; it’s that keeping them around in device C is inappropriate and inauthentic. The skeuomorph is necessarily an anachronism; the anti-skeuomorphism camp gives this fact a normative addition, judging that anachronism is bad design.

There’s a story in architecture with the same structure: it’s the classic tale of how a once great style with a political and/or social agenda became an empty aesthetic. (The canonical example is the shift from early modern architecture to the International style.) At some point the style’s techniques (expansively defined) were legitimately connected to a social and/or political agenda; eventually, however, we find architecture which seems to consist only of the superficial reiteration of those same techniques, devoid of ideological effect. These critiques share in common the idea that the legitimacy of a technique is historically contingent.

What about the other side in this skeuomorphism debate? To return to the variable-filled narrative from earlier, those in favor of skeuomorphism argue that visual characteristics help us understand that C does the same thing did. They, too, implicitly recognize the historical contingency of technique: as a simulacrum, the skeuomorph doesn’t retain the function of the original design element it references. In fact, a skeuomorph always makes the same performance: it reestablishes visual continuity between devices whose functional basis has become discontinuous.

The long-term (and wholly unsurprising) consequence of repeating a technique for the sake of establishing familiarity is that we forget the origin of these echoes. The skeuomorph disconnects from its historical (potentially functional or ideological) referent and becomes part of a homogeneous field of equally untethered brother skeuomorphs.

Since I’m starting to sound intellectually unfashionable, I should clarify something: the problem with skeuomorphs is not their lack of meaning or historical reference (pff!), but the tendency of this paradigm to equate “usability” with “familiarity.” Historical “familiarity” becomes ahistorical “consistency” becomes stylistic ossification. Applied to the architectural narrative, the problem isn’t that endless repetition of the International Style disconnected it from the ideologies underlying modern architecture, but that endless replication of the aesthetic tends to work against more complex engagements with new contexts.