This is the second installment of Humanist Interface: Critical Sharks. If you've missed it, be sure to read part one.
Around the web, criticism of the modern minimalist catastrophe has been suppressed. A wise commenter under the pseudonym “.X.” described iOS 7 as follows, “It looks unprofessional and simplistic, like something a person without artistic skills would come up with.” He continued, “Anyone can make single-colored circles and squares without depth.” In response, Tim Shundo, Lead Designer at Circa—an app named Best App of 2013 by both Apple and Google, retorted: “I’m sorry I’m calling BS. As a UI designer it’s my job to make software visually pleasing and useable.”
Shundo continued to fallaciously appeal to authority, “you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re not allowed to go into an art museum and say your 3 year old daughter could have made a better Pollock painting. I’m not gonna stand here and let you say that Apple’s hundreds of engineers are idiots. Sorry dude.” Note here that no one accused Apple's engineers (and designers, but they are surely irrelevant anyway) of being "idiots." That is entirely projection on Shundo's part.
As it turns out, Shundo is exactly wrong. According to the New York Times, Aelita Andre, an alleged “genius” and “prodigy,” began painting in the style of modern minimalist Jackson Pollock at less than one year old. She is now four years old and is the “latest sensation” in the farcical art market, with work fetching as much as $50,000 per painting.
The Atlantic Magazine pointed out the similarities between Aelita Andre and her counterpart Picasso, another alleged “child art prodigy” in his youth. They quoted Picasso, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” With Andre in her prime to “paint like a child,” we can look forward to seeing her modernist works influencing major operating systems in the near future, just as Picasso’s have.
With newfound interest in their abstract art, due to the rise of Aelita Andre, Pollock enthusiasts have gone about promoting a 2011 study which found that “adults, untrained in the arts, were able to distinguish abstract work by professional artists…from ‘strikingly similar works by untrained children and nonhuman animals’ like elephants,” as well as monkeys and chimps. Surely Andre would be quite insulted by that. She may be a child, but she is no animal.
It is truly telling that these abstract modern artists are proud of the fact that their work is almost distinguishable from the random schmears of wild animals. To call these ‘low expectations’ would be an understatement. And it does turn out that it is not only acceptable, but true for people to say that their “3 year old daughter could have made a better Pollock painting.” In the same way, it is perfectly valid to criticize designers who happen to work at big companies.
One should not be surprised by the childish aspirations and palettes of designers at major companies. According to Google’s design director Matias Duarte, one of his “figurative influences” is Takashi Murakami, the Japanese artist who initiated the tacky, self-described ‘low-art’ superflat movement in Japan.
In 2013, modernist tech journalists and design pundits like Dieter Bohn, Executive Editor of the Verge, pleaded with Apple to refresh their operating system aesthetic. He explained, “Apple doesn’t seem to be willing to take any risks at all with the core UI of iOS.” He implored Apple to take their minimalism further. For him the iPhone hardware was “thoughtful, beautiful, and a wonder of modern engineering" but that the UI was "not radical." Bohn felt that “Apple wasn’t pursuing a bold, new design, it decided to take a safer approach.”
Bohn and his fellow journalists can only thank themselves for the aesthetic coup of modern minimalist design. They asked—Apple, Google and Microsoft answered. Each with their own flavors of modern minimalism. Bohn believes there is no connection between public pressure from journalists and the OS redesigns of the flat design movement. He explained to me that “Your ideas about pressure are wrong.”
It is pretty presumptuous of Bohn to say that journalists’ criticism had zero effect. Especially when they supplied a torrent of bad PR telling OS makers they were not taking enough risks and they should be more minimal. Regardless, these journalists can sleep sound, because today they have the childish, neon-colored operating systems that they asked for.