The Texture of Pixels

There is a certain beauty in how some materials wear away through use and time. Metal will become polished by the human hand where it is held, or perhaps take on a coat of scratches to mark the object’s travels through the world. Old kitchen pans will get burned countless times and in the process assume a varied texture of their own through the markings of fire. Stone will get worn away by rain and wind, and will sometimes let nature climb up and settle in its cracks. Leather will get worn around the creases, losing its uniform color but gaining character. Wood, like metal, can get scratched, but as those scratches lie upon the intricate weave of fibers that forms its own texture, they don’t destroy the uniformity, but blend right in. Paper will get torn, creased, stained, and will also gain a healthy tan if left in the sun for too long.

Other materials don’t wear so well. Artificial materials like plastic don’t have much of a texture on their own, so when they do wear away they do not do it gracefully but begin to look cheap and damaged. Where natural materials look well used, plastic looks old and neglected. I think this is largely because plastic is designed to be textureless, so when the texture of age is introduced it looks out of place rather than blending in. But even new plastic rarely looks good. There is some lifeless, sterile quality to it that makes it look cheap, artificial, transient.

This is the problem with software and Web design: the materials we work with, the pixels on the digital screen, are all like plastic, artificial and textureless. There are a lot of sites that are built using just typography and plain colors, avoiding textures, patterns, illustrations and so on. These sites are clean, clear and beautiful in their simplicity, but they suffer the degradation of the artificial screen. The white background of the page isn’t like paper, which you can not only see, but touch and smell. No, it’s just a white screen, and even if the surface of the display had some texture of its own, it gets drowned out by the light that shines through. The digital page is completely monotonous and lifeless.

You can see other designers trying to combat this lifelessness by introducing texture. Some introduce just a hint, others go all out, but the idea is the same: break through the monotony of the lifeless pixel by imitating materials we’re used to in real life: wood, paper, cardboard, metal and so on, and it works to some extent. By using real life textures as opposed to imaginary textures we tap into our experiences of those materials, we use the texture as a recall mechanism to retrieve a shard of our memory of the complete interaction, which includes other senses like touch and smell.

Take wood for example. We like wood not just because of what it looks like, but its tactile feel, as well as its smell. The designer that uses a wooden texture on their website asks us to recall our experience of wood, and so we react positively to what we see, we remember the texture as wood, not just a pleasant arrangement of pixels on the screen. But what we ultimately get falls short because it is just the visual, it is just an arrangement of pixels, nothing more. Yes, we do receive a little pleasure from the imitation, but we also recognize it as inferior, as a fake.

This inauthenticity causes a struggle in the design world where we have two camps: one that imitates materials and creates skeuomorphic interfaces because they work, and others that recognize the inferiority and dishonesty of the imitation and so focus on creating interfaces and designs that avoid using such devices. The latter camp essentially follows the typographic route, arranging elements of a Website as they would on a printed page, but what they lack is that very page, the physical medium on which their work is realized. Pixels don’t share the tactile feel of paper, nor the smell, nor do they age. There is that missing element that made the printed page more beautiful that the digital copy cannot recreate, and so the clean design falls short. It is digitally authentic, but at the same time digitally cheap.

I guess the closest we’ve come to pixels with texture is the glass surface of the iPad. Here, we have the tactile feel of glass, we get to touch the interface or the website. We now also have the high density pixel grid of the retina display that almost manages to hide the pixels, to make them so small the eye cannot make the individual ones out. It almost works. The pixels are still visible, though barely, and the smooth surface of the glass isn’t very interesting, but it is nevertheless better than the experience on the personal computer. I’m also one of the few people who doesn’t mind the fingerprints that get left on the surface of the iDevice. They can be annoying, but they also destroy the monotony of the textureless surface of the pixel grid – they give the digital interface real texture, one that always varies with time.

Right now we’re stuck in a compromise. Designers add torn pages to their calendar apps and subtle noise textures to their website backgrounds to give the interface a little more life. But these methods are not ideal, they’re imitating something else rather than trying to reflect the nature of the medium on which the interface lives.

Some may say that the pixel grid is a window, a window to our world as well as other worlds we may imagine, in which physical objects can be easily imitated and used to shape the experience as we see fit. It’s true, the pixels are meant to do this, but the problem lies in that they cannot do this perfectly, that the imitations they create fall short for the reasons I’ve outlined, and that distance, between the imitation and the real thing, is felt. The experience we get is that of a flat, one-dimensional imitation that never changes with use or age.

I don’t know if we can ever resolve the compromise. I think better screens, like Apple’s “retina” displays, will help a lot, and so will better made devices that make use of more natural materials. Plastic laptops and tablets are the worst: they complement the artificiality of the pixels with the artificiality of the plastic. Metal and glass are better, though they also feel cold and sterile. The pixels will always remain plain and textureless so it is up to the device itself to elevate the experience in that regard.

On the screen, the better design is the one that is least imitative. For example, there are sites that merely use paper or noise textures to break the monotony of a solid white background. The imitation here is light and inoffensive because visually it is not far from the real thing, i.e. the look of the rough surface of paper. As we move towards the other extreme by trying to imitate the physical object more, or introduce even more such objects, the gap between the real thing and the imitation widens. This is the case when designers recreate 3D objects with complex textures, details, highlights and shadows. As you try to do more with the pixels, your work becomes ever more inauthentic and so does more to degrade what’s been taken from nature than to build up an artificial design. So in this regard, less is more. The simpler texture looks more real and the lack of physical metaphors leave the designer’s creativity unrestrained.

Published August 2012