The design community has converged on a principle of austerity in the visual design of graphical user interfaces (GUI). Leaving behind the textured, dimensional aesthetic that was previously the norm, the digital design of today is superficially minimal, with flat planes of color. It has been heralded as a simpler and more honest approach to designing interfaces. It is quite remarkable to see major industry players finding common ground, with the Big Three operating system giants urgently pushing out new design languages: Microsoft’s sparse Modern, Apple’s flattened iOS and Yosemite and Google’s deceptively named Material. With an effective consensus in digital design favoring modern minimalism, it warrants questioning: have we lost something essential by rejecting expressive interfaces?
This shift has been marked as a teleological sign of the maturation of the design community. Many designers have rushed to publicly distance themselves from their earlier practices. Cap Watkins, VP of Design at BuzzFeed, formerly at Etsy and Amazon, boldly claims that due to recent technological and stylistic developments, today visual design is more than just a trivial “coat of paint.” Brandon Velestuk, the Design Director at Slack, has chastised visual designers in his calls for designers to legitimize their craft and “de-couple their egos” from earlier “vacuous” and superficial work.
A senior user interface designer at Apple who worked closely with Steve Jobs described the company’s recently abandoned rich and decorative Aqua design system as being the height of “visual masturbation…It’s like the designers are flexing their muscles to show you how good of a [sic] visual rendering they can do of a physical object. Who cares?” Modern minimalism has in this way been celebrated as a means to cull the wheat from the chaff, the progressive trend-aware designers from the conservative designer-decorators. Indeed, if there is one site that has been accused of harboring such lowly and superficial aesthetes, it would be dribbble.com.
Most incredibly, today beauty itself is under attack, with the Intercom Product VP, Paul Adams, asserting that “the most important product design is usually the ugliest.” The article was of course entitled “The Dribbblisation of Design.” Dribbble in its early days had been a community centered around visual design and sharing expressive interface art. Ever since the flat design movement, it has stagnated. Incredibly, Paul Adams’ sentiment received an incredibly warm reception within the design community, including among Dribbble users themselves.
In her article “The Biggest Problem in Design,” Julie Zhuo, the Design Director of Facebook, explored her disdain for what is in her mind the “trivial nonsense” that makes up visual design. She bemoans the “sheer amount of attention placed on aesthetics.” Zhuo satirizes the visual designer, “People need sick visuals, dammit!” She continues: “Those icons, all 24 of them, looking like jewels. I mean, with gradients and gloss and shit. It’s enough to make you want to throw up a little in your mouth.” Moreover, “What the design world needs is a big-ass gun that’ll vaporize this skeuomorphic bullshit in the blink of an eye.” One wonders what could cause such vehemence.
Similar to Adams and Zhuo, for the Editor in Chief at WIRED, Scott Dadich, it is imperative that we justify the sterility and ugliness found in design today. His perspective is that the removal of the old guard of design requires “purposely creating something that wasn’t pleasing.” For Dadich, it is not enough for designers to “think outside of the box…to find a more perfect solution.” Instead we must deliberately make “unpleasant” designs and promote those designers in our community who “actively seek out imperfection.”
In a radical turn, Emmet Connolly, The Director of Product Design at Intercom, argues that “The status quo of visual design in software is pleasantly inoffensive, but also somewhat uninspiring.” Intercom is the very company that roundly condemned the visual design community only a year and a half before. Now, in slap to the face to visual designers, they ask “Has Visual Design Fallen Flat?” The hypocrisy of this question is astounding. Intercom itself was centrally vocal in the rallying cry against visual design.
Tech critic and Senior Editor of the Verge, Paul Miller, described his “kneejerk reaction to most modern user interfaces.” For him, the “problem with many modern UIs is that they’re always dressing up their various functions with glows and bevels and curves.” He continues, “There’s something deeper that bugs me, about the decorations themselves. Like the ubiquitous drop shadow. ‘Did you know that this window is on top of this window?’ it whispers to me, endlessly.” These visual contextual clues are apparently criminal in and of themselves because in his estimation, “They’re not only condescending and overwrought, they’re actually counter-functional.” He goes on to say something even more beyond the pale: “I like to dink around in Terminal, accomplishing nothing, but at least knowing that I’m engaging the computer on my own terms, with no buffer. I really like it. It feels right, and if it isn’t beautiful, at least it’s honest.” For Miller, “accomplishing nothing” is a worthwhile tradeoff in order to feel a vague sense of “honesty.” This despite the fact that using the Terminal is anything but engaging the computer on one’s own terms.
So, why have I decided to make the case for expressive design in the face of what is effectively a universal adoption of the modern minimalist aesthetic? Part of why I write is for professional reasons, because I truly believe the design community is going in an unhealthy direction. But I also write selfishly. Because every one of us, myself included, spends a huge amount of time using computer interfaces. It really makes a difference if they are enjoyable and understandable to use. I write because the need for a digital humanism is more pressing than ever.
When the dominant view in an industry is that practitioners should ignore wholesale what was learned in the past several decades of the development of their craft, it should inspire doubt as to the validity of their new claims. It is possible that there has been a revolution in the way users understand digital designs, leading to a justified repudiation of longstanding principles. But mounting evidence shows instead that modern minimalists are papering over an ignorance of aesthetics and usability, the means by which users ultimately engage with machines. In lieu of those principles, modern minimalist designers build misleadingly simple, objectively less usable designs that happen to be fast to produce, convenient and cheap.
The ideology of modern minimalism is sorely mistaken. Visual design is a whole lot more than veneer—not that veneer is unimportant. The recent changes in design standards leave much to be desired in modern software and the principles which have been desecrated deserve a rigorous defense. As such, my aim in Humanist Interface is to examine how designers, engineers and users relate to the GUI and what can be learned from the longstanding artistic traditions that are today being so casually discarded.