Torn Paper Edges

There has been a recent push in the software design world to try and break away from skeuomorphism, that is, the imitation of physical objects in computer interfaces, together with the general look and feel of the real world, such as wood, leather and paper textures, spearheaded by Microsoft’s Metro1 style design. The idea is to try and break away from the old metaphors of the physical world and create interfaces that are innovative and original. In his blog post last week, Cole Peters raised an interesting question of what post-skeuomorphist design might look like.

One thing to consider here is where the material for the new interface designs will come from. By material I mean the ideas of the visual forms and their combinations – the look and feel of the interface. The answer is that the material always originates with our experience of the external world. To imagine color we must first see it. Likewise with forms, patterns, textures, sounds and so on.

Once we have a foundation to work with after seeing the various colors and forms in the real world, we can play with them in our mind. We can begin to imagine the perfectly straight line, the perfect circle, the perfect color, and so on. Our imagination allows us to create “pure” material, which, while originally based on experience of the real world, is not a part of it, being wholly the product of our mind. This pure material can then be used to create designs that are abstract and conceptual, though it is also possible that the composition of such designs themselves will be once again be a reflection of our experiences from the physical world.

Because the pure material always originates from the real world, our work will never stray too far from the appearance and workings of the physical world, and if at times it does move away, as with interfaces like Metro, it will always keep coming back. After all, to fuel their creativity and imagination, the designer primarily relies on new experiences from the physical world around them, not a reconstruction of existing material already in their mind. Yes, they can do that too, but this is a more difficult task the outcome of which the designer cannot really control. What they do control is the amount of new experiences of inspirational material they get from the outside world, which, when given enough time in their mind after assimilation, can be combined in new ways.

As I wrote before, natural textures give us more than the visual metaphor, they convey a certain feeling by calling up our memory of the complete experience with that material, which includes touch and smell, not merely sight. Those extra senses are not themselves part of the experience, but the positive emotional association that is the product of those senses is. Additionally, because natural forms and designs are pleasing to the eye, likely for evolutionary reasons, those are the forms that we will keep returning to in our work.

All of this is not to say that we cannot break away from skeuomorphic metaphors that help the user figure out how your product works, that may very well happen and right now we’re progressing in that direction, but the overall visual treatment of products will likely keep a close relationship with the real world for the reasons stated above. This means that as long people keep using paper calendars, those torn paper edges will keep making an appearance in our interfaces.

  1. Microsoft recently tried to change the name of their design language, possibly for trademark reasons, but everyone still knows it as ‘Metro’ so I will go with that here.
August 2012