The Lack of Contradiction

No. 2 • April 3, 2013

Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, 1917, Photo: © Tate, London 2012

The Fountain

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp, a celebrated French artist who had the art world buzzing after his Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2,, walked into JL Mott Ironworks, a plumbing supplier, and bought a Bedfordshire model urinal during his stay in the New York 1. Later at his studio, he would take the porcelain object, lay it flat and rotate it, and sign it with the pseudonym “R. Mutt, 1917″ for the purpose of submitting the work to the Society of Independent Artists, an organization that would display works of artists provided that they paid. Submitted under the name “The Fountain,” the Board of the organization rejected to display the work. Duchamp, a member of the Board and the creator of the piece unbeknownst to the other members, resigned in protest. 2 After subsequent protest and controversy, the piece went on to become of the one of the most influential pieces in modern art history.

The brilliance behind The Fountain is the simple yet genius maneuver that questioned people’s perception of what art is. By taking an everyday object and placing it out of context, does the object continue to be it’s former self? Or does it take on new properties now that it is placed in new context? By submitting it as a sculpture, Duchamp made us look the inherent characteristics of objects and whether their environment dictated their function.

Apple & Skeuomorphism

There’s been much discussion regarding the subject of skeuomorphism, the use of design made to resemble another material or medium, particularly in digital design. If you’re not familiar with the topic, do yourself a favor and read Sacha Grief’s excellent essay to get a primer on the subject or find examples at Justin Maxwell’s Skeu It! blog. If you’re reading this blog, no doubt you’ve seen it, most likely in Apple’s products and strewn throughout the web.

While there’s already been an enormous amount written on the use of skeuomorphism (maybe too much), it has recently come back into the light with Apple’s recent redesign of their Podcast. The original design depicted a reel-to-reel tape machine interface to users:

Apple's original design for the Podcast appApple's original design for the Podcast app

Forstall’s Legacy: Apple’s original design for the Podcast app. Credit: Gizmodo

Skipping to present day, Apple has now gone with a visual language that is reminiscent of the recently redesigned iTunes and subtle changes to iOS’s music player:

The new redesigned Podcast app.

The new redesigned Podcast app. Side note: Bill Simmons is a Miami Heat hater. Credit: Gizmodo

Why did Apple ditch the dated machinery display? Many point to Scott Forstall’s departure (software engineer who oversaw the development of iOS), which is the highly probable contributing factor. Even with the departure, though, why not keep the same UX? After all, podcasts (and their creators) are a highly engaged community. PEW Research estimated 90,000 podcasts were being created in 2010. 3 With thousands of users creating and subscribing podcasts, this large user base is used to the interface. Why rock the boat?

It’s an evolution of Duchamp’s argument: environment does not dictate function. In fact, in the case of UX, we’ve actively restricted function because we transferred characteristics from an outside environment that betray the inherent nature of the interface.

This isn’t about Flat vs. Skeuomorphism,
it’s about Evolution

For years now, we have been giving our online and mobile interfaces attributes that we find in the real world. Page turns, embossed buttons, dials, reel-to-reel machines, etc… Why? These elements betray the inherent characteristics of the devices we are using. If a smartphone is able to scroll endlessly through pages of content, then would we would place a restriction on the amount of text on a screen at a given time and force the user to swipe “pages” to see more?

A book is not a computer

So why treat it the same?

In the beginning, we transferred characteristics from the real world on to the digital display because it helped the user to become familiarized quickly and associate functionality to their real world counterparts. They’re used to it because they’ve used it all their lives. Everyone’s read a book right?

It’s an inevitable evolution that interface design will evolve and move away from skeumorphism for this primary reason. In the example above, as the print medium sails to the horizon and the digital revolution/transformation continues, we will see less interfaces mimic the behavior for the sheer reason that is there no reason anymore to continue that behavior. Today, Gen Y’ers already consume 78% of their news digitally. 4 Magazine circulation dropped nearly 10% percent in the US last year. Hearst Magazines, the mega-media corporation that publishes 20 magazines in the US, recorded almost 20% reduction in sales in the second half of 2012 alone. 5 When my child grows up and uses a future version of Flipboard, will he even know what a magazine was?

To be sure, it’s happened before in other industries. I grew up in an age where the remote control was seldom, people walked up to their televisions and changed a dial. Today, on-set controls are seldom, slowly being phased out allowing for slimmer, sleeker design. Microwaves, as well, used to have large clunky dials and now utilize a flat touch-panel interface. In an existential way, it happens in music as well. The environment (and technology) changed and no longer dictate the function of the device.

It’s only a matter of time

The use of skeuomorphism was not wrong because no other design system has been able to dominate user experiences due to its efficiency, nor is it right because it betrays the inherent nature of the device.

“Contradiction is not a sign of falsity, nor the lack of contradiction a sign of truth” – Blaise Pascal

It is a development in the current life cycle of interface design that will be phased out for a new system that, in time, it too will also be replaced as technology advances. It’s an introduction to initiate the new to the shifting landscape of the digital interfaces that, really, is in it’s stage of infancy compared to other industries. The previous medium that digital devices will replace will disappear – digital devices will no longer be a medium of choice because there will be no choice. It will evolve, as televisions have, as microwaves have, and as art has done.

After all, a urinal laying flat on its back today can hardly be called “art.”