This is exactly the blog post I wanted to write. Thanks for writing it, and much better than I could have.
My pleasure, Justin. I'm flattered!
Really good post, Cole.
I agree that this is not necessarily new, and referencing the De Stijl movement is bang on. I think that you could take this further back and into the field of architecture and industrial design. In response to industrialization and classicism of the mid-1800s, architects like Otto Wagner began to reject materials and styles which did not reflect what they really were. In other words, pulling from disparate influences to create a building which had little cohesion or even respect towards what those influences, or even its own function. This certainly ties to your comments about honesty—or at least why some people may try to reject the prevailing style. I think we're seeing the same thing now. We have the ability to easily poop out incredibly refined interfaces but don't put the thought into whether it's relevant, or even suitable. Even a few years ago, before any designer would commit to such an elaborate design, there was a lot more though put into the 'why' before spending the time to make it so. Like the architects of 100 years ago, we're rejecting the classicism and trying to find a new approach which we —right or wrong — describe as 'honesty in design.'
An interesting, and maybe relevant article worth reading, would be Adolf Loos' Ornament and Crime; a polemic discussing the how machines have made ornament so easy that everything gets emblazoned with them. Ornament can also mask the lack of quality in a product. It's been a while since I read it, but all this flat design talk has really made me want to re-read it. If you really want to get messed up, read the essay, look at his work (and his contemporaries') and try and tie it all together.
Again, great job!
Thanks a lot, Bryan. Loved reading your feedback. Great observations re: architectural and industrial design parallels.
Your comment about Wagner made me recall something Louis Kahn often spoke of: honouring the materials used when designing architecture (there's that (somewhat) famous quote of his, where he asks Brick what it wants, and it replies, “I'd like an arch.”). He also spoke about material honesty, about not “short-changing” the material; with digital design, I think we've finally found a material that is impossible to honour in terms of honesty. We can mimic analogue objects, which I suppose one could argue is dishonest, but as I mention in the article: honesty is a very tough subject when discussing the nature of digital visuals.
Will definitely have to check out the Loos article you mention — thanks for doing so!
Loos was quite obsessed with Kahn and I'm sure that Wagner was as well (It's been a while since I was obsessed with early modernism). I strongly urge you to read Loos; you would find it interesting, but remember that he was known for his polemic arguments. Everything he says must be taken with a grain of salt!
You're right about 'honesty' in two dimensional space; it's a subjective thing. I think you could argue that we are continuously struggling with coming to terms with photography and it's 'honesty.' I do think that the crux of your argument (as I interpret it), is design must suit the problem that it is intended to solve. Thoughtful use of 'skeuomorphic' details are fine, provided they are appropriate and help solve the problem.
This is definitely the modernist in me, but I still think that ornament, for ornament sake, is a slippery slope. I find so many 'stitched woodgrain' elements to be more a show-off of a designer's abilities than serving a genuine need within the design.
Thanks for the comment!
Even more excited to check out Loos' article now. Awesome.
To respond to your points about appropriateness and ornament: I do believe that design must suit the problem it is intended to solve, but I also find the bulk of faux-realistic designs out there to be horrifically ugly and generally more frustrating than pleasing; like yourself, I'm not a fan of ornament for ornament's sake.
I think that concepts like texture, shadow, light, and depth can absolutely be used appropriately, however, within something like a minimalist framework (Path, for example, uses some textures and depth in a rather effective, visually pleasing way).
(Probably worth nothing at this point that I've done my share of design work that makes use of glossy buttons, textures, drop shadows and all that, but whenever possible, I still believe that the simpler, more elegant approaches in design are the best, and I very often push for this approach within projects I take on.)
Does anyone know where I can get a reprint of this photo? http://blog.colepeters.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/7092648531_48682e1ce6_h.jpg
I would love to have it.
Great question — I've not found a source for this one in particular. If you find out, let me know! :)
Wow, really well written and fantastic points. Well done.
Thanks, Jeff! Greatly appreciated.
Great write-up Cole, yet again. I think you have captured nicely the problems with deifying an aesthetic or approach within an industry, especially one which needs to be wielded so judiciously.
The implications of bearing "One Ring to rule them all" will inevitably hinder the design community more then it helps it.
Thanks for your much needed voice of reason.
Thanks very much, Darren. So glad you found it a good read!
Thanks to whomever corrected the typo in the title… iPad autocorrect is over the top sometimes.
At any rate, just sharing for those who might be interested in reading. Hope it fosters some good conversation.