Tag Archives: iOS

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.

To Skeuomorph or Not to Skeuomorph?

There’s a debate going on in the land of graphic design over skeuomorphism. What’s a skeuomorph? The OED’s got our back via Wikipedia (just being honest): “A skeuomorph is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.”

It sounds pretty straightforward until you try to pin down definitions for “object,” “ornamental,” “cues,” “structure,” “necessary,” and “original.”

I’m going to approach the term along a more concrete path: apps. Skeuomorphic design features you may have encountered:

  • Handwriting fonts in apps that use a keyboard for input
  • Spiral bindings at the top of your digital calendar app
  • Wood grain background for your ebook collection
  • Dials to control volume in a music app

At this point you’re either someone who knew about this debate and knows where this is going, have recognized that all of the above are characteristic of apps on Apple’s iOS, or you’ve never used an iPhone.

The debate over skeuomorphism could probably be had if it were only iOS providing an example of the “pro” camp. (The benefit of theoretical discourse in design is that we can fight about things without actually having the things.) But then the guys and gals in charge of the user interface guidelines for Windows Phone and the upcoming Windows 8 operating system decided to become evangelists for anti-skeuomorphic design. To the fake brushed steel, leather, paper, and wood textures of iOS, Microsoft responded with flat, colored squares and overlaid with consistent sans-serif typography.

Nothing says “first world” like watching the cliché and increasingly irrelevant Mac versus PC debate renewed in the form of a proxy war for an esoteric debate about graphic design. Well, nothing except interrogating the parameters of this debate from an architectural perspective.

There are three things I want to talk about in relation to skeuomorphism. They overlap a lot, so I’m going to split the discussion into three separate posts in the hope that it forces me to retain some argumentative organization. I’m listing them here so that if I exhaust a topic early or forget what I wanted to say before I get around to writing it, it’ll still be here as a provocation.

One: Traditionally, criticism leveled at skeuomorphic design makes reference to the fact that the work is anachronistic. I want to point to the fact that “anachronism” a tricky term in relation to design, but that this complexity might suggest new ways of talking about type in architecture.

Two: There’s a whole “class” of arguably skeuomorphic design elements that have gone unaddressed by the anti-skeuomorphism camp. This “naïve skeuomorphism” rests on a set of unquestioned architectural metaphors whose invisibility is performative in ways that have not been sufficiently explored.

Three: As we dig deeper into the debate over skeuomorphism, we discover that it arises out of the more generally problematic/complex intersection of metaphor and functionalism. Looking more carefully at the debate about skeuomorphism illuminates certain problems in architectural discourse that have been paved over or considered resolved.