Anti-Skeu is Still Tail Wagging

Navel GazingI originally was going to put a picture of my own navel here, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that to ya. This pic is, according to wikipedia, the official representation of the human navel. So there you go. Okay, now look back over here.

Why a navel? Because I just stumbled upon yet another anti-skeuomorphic article by a designer. (Argh!) And if there was ever a fit of navel gazing in the design community, it is this one. The funny sad thing is that even when we try to not gaze (as this fella is), we do it.

This article is so paradoxical. It says it is not anti-skeu, but the bulk of the article is critiquing just that. And in its critique of skeuomorphism, it makes the same mistakes it is critiquing. It dances around and even says some good things, but then falls into the same trap that those who use skeuomorphism as a way to show off do.

Great experiences are the sum of multiple factors. Any one thing being off can ruin the overall effect. Content and context, focus and environment: they’re inseparable and necessary parts of the whole experience.

Software experiences aren’t just software; they’re also about the device. Alan Kay was right: “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” We can’t literally do that, but we can accept that the hardware is part of the user’s context when using our software. The two exist in symbiosis, to create the user’s context.

The first paragraph is spot on. The second one rapidly falls off the cliff. Hardware and software by no means “create the user’s context.” The user’s context is a function of many other things, such as physical environment, mental state, personal history/experiences, current desires, other people they are engaged with, time of day, and so on. But that’s not the real issue.

The real issue is there seems to be an underlying mentality here that is problematic, one that does lip service to the human experience with designed things while fetishizing the designed things themselves–in this case software (and/or hardware together). When the designer’s focus is still the object–the thing we are designing, whether that is software or  something physical–then we still have a case of tail wagging.

When it comes to a question of tail wagging, it is no different to expend your designer expertise and effort to create a thing that is “true” to its medium than it is to expend that expertise and energy to create a thing that mimics something in a different medium. Both are subject to the same navel-gazing dangers because both are fundamentally focused on designing a thing according to some designer-appreciated principle. If in the past designers looked down on each other because a design wasn’t skeuomorphic, today they look down on each other if a design isn’t minimalist. You can just as easily show off how properly minimalist your design is as you can how skeu it is. In both cases, the focus is on things and designers’ pride in having designed those things.

Who bloody cares if a designed thing is “true” to its medium if the people it is designed for don’t like it or have a hard time engaging with it. It’s one thing to say that you want people to be immersed and not think about the thing, but then if you turn around and just talk about making the thing “true,” you’re still missing the point. People don’t want a chromeless photo browser–they want the experience of remembering what the photos call to mind. People don’t want a flat, clean calendar–they want to situate themselves in time and keep track of things in relation to it. People don’t really even want photos or calendars–the things–they are simply a means to an end.

“Content over chrome” is missing the mark. “Being true to your medium” is missing the mark. It’s all designer fetishes and fads. The only reason there is good in them is inasmuch as they, incidentally, cause the designer to better evoke the experiences that people want. You might say that’s the whole point of minimalism, but I say that 1) you can evoke those experiences with or without minimalism, 2) sometimes you can even do it better, and 3) why obscure the real goal with a goal focused on the things? It’s just as simple to ask yourself “does this chrome distract from the experience I intend to evoke for the people I am designing for in such and such a context?” as it is to ask “is this design ‘true’?” And the first question is actually more to the point and doesn’t put the focus on adhering to principles that may or may not incidentally answer the first question, which again, is really the question you should be asking.

If a design that looks like a paper book and imitates turning paper pages evokes an experience that people want–it is a good design. If it surprises and delights people, even better! Who effing cares if it is skeuomorphic or minimalist or whatever other fad, trend, or school of design it is? If that’s what you’re worried about, you’re doing it wrong.

As someone who is something of a freak in the Design community, maybe I find it easier to see it from an outsider’s perspective. One thing that I was surprised by was the tendency to embrace fads and trends. “That’s so 2004” is a valid criticism for many designers. One year big rounded jelly bean buttons are in. The next year straight edges with reflections are all the rage. Now “flat” is in and with that is “anti-skeu.” I get it; the need for novel stimulation is a built into the human psyche, as is group belonging and the desire to feel superior to others (i.e., to feel valuable).

Being fashionable is certainly a valid consideration to have–all other things being equal in terms of designing for people and their contexts, you might as well be fashionable to boot. But if you’re going to adopt minimalism, at least do it for the right reasons (i.e., not because it is fashionable to be anti-skeu), and don’t get so caught up in it that you lose sight of what really makes a design best–that it fits what the people you are designing for want and/or need.


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