Design shifts

Thu May 18, 2017

Although I deal more in words than aesthetics, I have a deep appreciation of design - especially architectural, industrial, and UI design.

I have an extra appreciation for a fully-realized and well-documented design language. When I was tasked to design a user interface, for example, I found that Google’s documentation for their Material Design to be an invaluable resource.

I recently upgraded to Windows 10 on my work machine and I am enjoying the fresh coat of “Metro” paint. But I have to say that Microsoft’s newly-announced Fluent Design feels far more like the future. And I mean that literally, because the future of computing may very well take place in augmented reality, or mixed reality as some now prefer to call it.

If there is a counterpoint to the so-called ambient computing environment (presided over by virtual assistants such as the Amazon Echo’s Alexa), then this is it. Or maybe we are moving toward a fusion of these two UI paradigms?

Fluent Design is clearly an attempt to establish some design fundamentals in a 3D environment. But, there is also a sparse Desktop concept floating out there that looks amazing. I’m looking forward to a more defined design language as Fluent Design moves out of the concept and into the implementation phase.

Having said that, is it time for the pendulum to swing away from the clean, minimalist trend of the past decade and back toward colour and chaos?

I’ve taken up listening to podcasts in the car, and one that I enjoy is Tomorrow with Joshua Topolsky. In the latest episode he talks website design with Ivar Vong - Chief Technology Officer at the Outline. As Joshua describes it, the Outline is an attempt to move away from the paucity of minimalist design. He points out that minimalist design arose out of the deficits of the web in terms of available bandwidth to render complex web pages (think Flash). Now that we don’t have these bandwidth restrictions anymore, why do we cling to such a linear design approach?

Ivar even built a custom CMS from scratch after deciding Wordpress wasn’t going to cut it. He believes content can be constrained by content creation tools. Medium is a good example of a constrained tool. So is Facebook.

But was Myspace any better? Not really…

I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.

In case it wasn’t obvious by this website’s design, I happen to think that the clean look is more about restraint than constraint - minimalist design gets out of the way of words like nothing else. I agree that there is little leeway for creativity in the design, and perhaps leans more toward function than form, but there’s nothing wrong with stripping down the storytelling medium to its base level.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate experimentation with creative and interesting content delivery platforms or engagements with new ways of storytelling - especially in the mobile space where you can engage with technologies like the gyroscope or mixed reality to push the storytelling medium to the bleeding edge.

Also, I don’t think bucking a design trend should be seen as either foolish or anachronistic. A design should reflect the brand, respect the space surrounding the design, and not be a cookie-cutter stamp phoned in from a template farm. Contrary design is healthy and reasoned.

A terrific article about Apple’s new campus came out today that really hits this idea home for me. But Steven Levy’s summary of the critical response to the campus design doesn’t quite sit right:

As Apple Park inches toward completion, its critics are getting louder, and what began with aesthetic judgments of the digital renderings — the Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic called the Ring a “retrograde cocoon” — has lately turned to social and cultural critiques. That the campus is a snobby isolated preserve, at odds with the trendy urbanist school of corporate headquarters. (Amazon, Twitter, and Airbnb are all part of a movement that hopes to integrate tech employees into cities as opposed to having them commute via fuel-gobbling cars or numbing Wi-Fi-equipped buses.)

First of all, the Apple campus was designed to blur the lines between the inside and outside - the building “breathes” with a system that circulates the air from outside instead of using air conditioning.

The 9000 trees on the campus will allow employees to take a walk or run in nature - a practice that clears the mind and promotes a higher level of cognition. Steve Jobs did his best thinking while ambling around on one of his walks. Also, it’s well-documented that people are less depressed when exposed to green space.

Try immersing yourself in nature or breathing in fresh air in one of these so-called urbanist corporate headquarters.

Secondly, at its heart, the new Apple campus is a loving realization of Steve Jobs’ vision in every way. Steve’s attention to detail famously extended to even the innards of his products, even though users will never see it. Here’s a great example from the article:

He could be scary when he swooped down on a detail he demanded. At one point, Behling recalls, Jobs discussed the walls he had in mind for the offices: “He knew exactly what timber he wanted, but not just ‘I like oak’ or ‘I like maple.’ He knew it had to be quarter-­cut. It had to be cut in the winter, ideally in January, to have the least amount of sap and sugar content. We were all sitting there, architects with gray hair, going, ‘Holy shit!’”

Granted, to bring the budget down to a respectable five billion or so, Steve’s wishes about cutting timber in January weren’t followed to the letter. But the spirit of Apple’s founder is found in the details with “infrastructure like water pipes and electrical conduits…hidden in the beams” and other efforts to ensure Apple employees are never in doubt about the commitment of their company to excellence.

The ivory tower model so prevalent in institutions of higher learning fits perfectly with Apple’s cloistered dreamers. Apple’s engineers and designers don’t want to integrate into the community - they want a liminal, magical space to devote to their craft.

Before I go, I should mention Google, since I/O happened this week. I normally do a full write-up about this developer event, but it was a low-key affair this year. Design-wise, it seems like Google is content to stick with Material Design while pushing forward in AI efforts. Needless to say ambient computing dispells the need for any visual design at all as it is essentially invisible - existing in the space between spaces.

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