is user interface design getting worse?

Hey everybody, sorry for the radio silence — I’ve been traveling, and will be traveling again soon, so I can’t promise regular posting for a while. But I’m hoping to get a few thoughts up here, starting with this: 
I’ve read two recent posts about computer interface design that really have me thinking. The first is this reflection by Riccardo Mori about using a first-generation iPad. Mori discovers that that original Apple tablet, despite its significant limitations in processing power in comparison to today’s machines, still works remarkably well. But he also, and this is the really interesting part, decides that some of the design choices made eight years ago (the first iPad came out in 2010) are actually superior to the ones being made today. This is true to a minor degree even with regard to the hardware — Mori finds the iPad 1 more pleasurable to hold than some later models, despite its greater weight and thickness — but he thinks that the design language of iOS 5, the last version of iOS that the original iPad can use, is in certain respects simply superior to the new language introduced in iOS 7 and largely persisting, though with some modifications, today.

when it comes to visuals it’s ultimately a matter of personal taste, but one thing iOS’s user interface possessed before iOS 7’s flattening treatment was consistence and more robust, coherent, stricter interface guidelines. Guidelines that were followed by third-party developers more closely, and the result was that under iOS 6 and earlier versions, third-party apps presented a user interface that was cleaner, more predictable, easier to navigate than what came afterwards, update after update. After iOS’s UI got flatter, when it came to designing apps, things got out of hand, in an ‘anything goes’ fashion.
There are apps today with poor discoverability, ambiguous controls, UI elements whose state or function isn’t immediately clear — i.e. you cannot tell whether they’re tappable or not simply by looking at them; whereas before iOS 7, a button looked like a button right away, and you didn’t have to explore an app by tapping blindly here and there. Spotify is the first example coming to mind: its early iOS and Mac clients were more usable and had a better interface.

Concluding this section of his posts, Mori writes:

During my trip down Interface Memory Lane these days with the iPad 1, I’ve stumbled on many other cases, and the result was always more or less the same: I found the old version of an app to have a more usable interface and a clearer interface language than its current counterpart. Despite all the pre-iOS 7 skeuomorphism, for many app interfaces of that time design was truly ‘how it works’. Today, more and more often (and it’s not only with iOS) I see examples where design is simply ‘how it looks’; attractive apps, but with ambiguous interface controls, poorly-designed UI architecture, and sometimes even with little to no accessibility, disregarding users with disabilities.

The second post is by Mark Wilson, who found himself using version 7 of the original Macintosh OS, issues way back in 1991 — and loving it. “Using an old Mac is pure zen.” Now, Wilson doesn’t suggest that that old interface could simply be implemented today; we ask too much of our computing devices today, and too many kinds of “much.”

But I do believe that the old Mac makes for a timely reminder that the digital age hasn’t always felt so frantic, or urgent, or overwhelming. And maybe, even if an old Mac interface isn’t the solution, we can view it as a subtle north star for its sensibilities, and how much it was able to accomplish with so little.

Few interface designers are indifferent to the needs of the user, but I can’t imagine that there are many for whom that is the first consideration. One way designers keep their jobs is by producing new designs, and in a corporate setting (like that of Apple) novelty helps get customers to update their hardware and software alike. And what kind of designer wouldn’t want the challenge of making the best use of increased processing power or display resolution?
So I don’t expect the desires and needs or users to be at the top of any designer’s priority list. But Lordy, how I wish it were a little higher than it is. Then perhaps the best elements of the work of earlier designers, people working under far greater constraints, could be recovered and redeployed. Because, as I never tire of saying, creativity arises from constraint and resistance. And it’s not clear to me that, from the user’s perspective, UI design for computing devices hasn’t been getting worse and worse for the past few years — with Apple leading the way in this sad category. 

the future of the codex Bible

Catching up on a topic dear to my heart: here’s a fine essay in Comment by J. Mark Bertrand on printed and digital Bibles. A key passage:

Pastors and scholars rely heavily on software like BibleWorks and Accordance, and laypeople in church are more likely to open Bible apps on their phones than to carry printed editions. The days are coming and may already be upon us when parishioners look askance at sermons not preached from an iPad. (“But aren’t you missional?”)

And yet, the printed Bible is not under threat. If anything the advent of e-books has ushered in a renaissance of sorts for the physical form of the Good Book. The fulfillment of the hypertext dream by digital Bibles has cleared the way for printed Bibles to pursue other ends. The most exciting reinvention of the printed Scriptures is the so-called reader’s Bible, a print edition designed from the ground up not as a reference work but as a book for deep, immersive reading.

Please read it all. And then turn to Bertrand’s Bible Design Blog, where he has recently reflected further on the same issues, and written a few detailed posts — one and two and three — on the new Crossway Reader’s Bible, in six beautifully printed and bound volumes. I got my copies the other day, and they really do constitute a remarkable feat of workmanship and design. You can read, and view, more about the project here.

I would love to say more about all this — and other matters dear to the heart of this ol’ blog — but I am still devoting most of my time to work on two books, one on Christian intellectual life in World War II and one called How to Think: A Guide for the Perplexed. Those will be keeping my mind occupied for the next few months. When I am able to post here, the posts will likely do little more than point to interesting things elsewhere.

a public amateur’s story

There is so much that’s wonderful about Sara Hendren’s talk here that I can’t summarize it — and wouldn’t if I could. Please just watch it, and watch to the end, because in the last few minutes of the talk things come together in ways that will be unexpected to those who don’t know Sara. Also be sure to check out Abler.

One of Sara’s models is the artist Claire Pentecost, who sees herself as a public amateur:

One of the things I’m attached to is learning. And one of the models I’ve developed theoretically is that of the artist as the public amateur. Not the public intellectual, which is usually a position of mastery and critique, but the public amateur, a position of inquiry and experimentation. The amateur is the learner who is motivated by love or by personal attachment, and in this case, who consents to learn in public so that the very conditions of knowledge production can be interrogated. The public amateur takes the initiative to question something in the province of a discipline in which she is not conventionally qualified, acquires knowledge through unofficial means, and assumes the authority to offer interpretations of that knowledge, especially in regard to decisions that affect our lives.

Public amateurs can have exceptional social value, not least because they dare to question experts who want to remain unquestioned simply by virtue of accredited expertise; public amateurs don’t take “Trust me, I know what I’m doing” as an adequate self-justification. But perhaps the greatest contribution public amateurs make to society arises from their insistence — it’s a kind of compulsion for them — on putting together ideas and experiences that the atomizing, specializing forces of our culture try to keep in neatly demarcated compartments. This is how an artist and art historian ends up teaching at an engineering school.

There are two traits that, if you wish to be a public amateur, you simply cannot afford to possess. You can’t insist on having a plan and sticking with it, and you can’t be afraid of making mistakes. If you’re the sort of person whose ducks must always be in a neat, clean row, the life of the public amateur is not for you. But as the personal story Sara tells near the end of her talk indicates, sometimes life has a way of scrambling all your ducks. When that happens, you can rage vainly against it; or you can do what Sara did.

designer deaths

Death is such a bummer, but you know, that’s just a design problem:

Bennett’s fixation on death began with the death of his father. He was close to his dad; in a recent talk, he likened his childhood to the plot of Billy Elliot, a story “about a little nelly gay boy who twirled in the northeast of England” and the exceedingly masculine father who dared to love him. Bennett, in fact, traces his identity as a designer to the day in 1974 when his father, Jim, a former military pilot, brought home The Golden Hands Encyclopedia of Crafts. Jim Bennett then spent the next two years sitting with his son, making macramé and knitting God’s eyes, so that sensitive little kid could explore his talent and find his confidence. In 2001, Bennett’s father wound up in a hospital bed, stricken with bone cancer. Bennett was 5,000 miles away at home in San Francisco. He told his father he’d be on the next flight, but Jim ordered him not to come. Eventually, Bennett understood why. His father had painstakingly maintained his dignity his entire life. Now “he was trying to somehow control that experience,” Bennett says. “He was designing the last granule of what he had left: his death.”

In 2013, Bennett started sharing his ideas with the other partners at Ideo, selling them on death as an overlooked area of the culture where the firm could make an impact. He had a very unspecific, simple goal: “I don’t want death to be such a downer,” he told me. And he was undaunted by all the dourness humanity has built up around the experience over the last 200,000 years. “It’s just another design challenge,” he said. His ambition bordered on hubris, but generally felt too child-like, too obliviously joyful, to be unlikable. One time I heard him complain that death wasn’t “alive and sunny.”

T. S. Eliot, 1944:

I have suggested that the cultural health of Europe, including the cultural health of its component parts, is incompatible with extreme forms of both nationalism and internationalism. But the cause of that disease, which destroys the very soil in which culture has its roots, is not so much extreme ideas, and the fanaticism which they stimulate, as the relentless pressure of modern industrialism, setting the problems which the extreme ideas attempt to solve. Not least of the effects of industrialism is that we become mechanized in mind, and consequently attempt to provide solutions in terms of engineering, for problems which are essentially problems of life.

Ah, don’t be such a downer, Possum! Everybody, come on, sing along!

designing the Word


Bibliotecha is a remarkably successful new Kickstarter project for designing and printing a Bible made to be read, in multiple volumes and with bespoke type design. Here is the Kickstarter page; here is part one of an interview with Adam Lewis Greene, the designer; and here is the second part of that interview.

Lots and lots of things to interest me here. At the moment I’m just going to mention one, an exchange from the second interview: 

J. MARK BERTRAND: Your decision not to justify the text column threw me at first. Now I think I understand, but since I’m a stickler for Bibles looking like books meant to be read, and novels are universally justified, could you explain what’s at stake in the choice to leave the right margin ragged?
ADAM LEWIS GREENE: This goes back, again, to the idea of hand-writing as the basis for legible text. When we write, we don’t measure each word and then expand or contract the space between those words so each line is the same length. When we run out of room, we simply start a new line, and though we have a ragged right edge, we have consistent spacing. The same is true of the earliest manuscripts of biblical literature, which were truly formatted to be read. I’m thinking of the Isaiah scroll, which I was privileged to see in Israel last year and is the primary model for my typesetting….
Unjustified text was revived by the likes of Gill and Tschichold early in the last century, and it continues to gain steam, especially in Europe. We are starting to see unjustified text much more frequently in every-day life, especially in digital form, and I would argue we are slowly becoming more accustomed to evenly spaced words than to uniform line-length. To me, justified type is really a Procrustean Bed. Too many times while reading have I leapt a great distance from one word to the next, only to be stunted by the lack of space between words on the very next line. I admit, I think justified text looks clean and orderly when done well, but it doesn’t do a single thing in the way of legibility. It is simply what we have been accustomed to for a long time, and since this project is partially about breaking down notions of how things “ought to be,” I ultimately decided to go with what I believe is the most legible approach; not to mention its suitability for ancient hand-written literature.

I couldn’t agree more with Greene’s decision here. I have long believed that we pay too high a price in legibility to get the perfect rectangles of fully justified text. In my experience, the single greatest source of distraction coming from a text (as opposed to the distractions that arrive from the outside) is variable spacing imposed by the demands of justification. 

When my book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction was being typeset for publication, I made two requests of the designer. First, I wanted it set in Eric Gill’s Perpetua; and second, I wanted ragged-right justification. To my astonishment, both of my requests were granted. 

on reading and flux

Please read this lovely reflection by Frank Chimero on “what screens want” — a gloss on Kevin Kelly’s what technology wants — though Chimero makes this important and (to my mind) necessary pivot near the end: “Let me leave you with this: the point of my writing was to ask what screens want. I think that’s a great question, but it is a secondary concern. What screens want needs to match up with what we want.”

It’s a rich and subtle essay that covers several key topics, and thinks in appropriately large terms; I’ll be returning to it. But just for now I want to zero in on an especially intriguing part of the essay in which Chimero meditates on Eadweard Muybridge’s early moving pictures of a running horse.


Of these images Chimero writes,

And you know, these little animations look awfully similar to animated GIFs. Seems that any time screens appear, some kind of short, looping animated imagery of animals shows up, as if they were a natural consequence of screens. 

Muybridge’s crazy horse experiment eventually led us to the familiar glow of the screen. If you’re like me, and consider Muybridge’s work as one of the main inroads to the creation of screens, it becomes apparent that web and interaction design are just as much children of filmmaking as they are of graphic design. Maybe even more so. After all, we both work on screens, and manage time, movement, and most importantly, change. 

So what does all of this mean? I think the grain of screens has been there since the beginning. It’s not tied to an aesthetic. Screens don’t care what the horses look like. They just want them to move. They want the horses to change. 

Designing for screens is managing that change. To put a finer head on it, the grain of screens is something I call flux.

He then goes on to define high, medium, and low flux, and to describe some situations in which one or the other might be called for.

All this has me thinking about the degree of flux appropriate to different reading experiences. This seems to me highly variable according to genre and purpose. For instance, the New Republic’s iPad app is designed to offer higher flux than other magazine apps I’ve seen, which are minimally interactive: here you have poems that you can use your finger to slide into view, taps that activate deeper levels of content, and so on. Sometimes it’s too much, and at other times it takes too long to figure out how a given story works — they vary more than they ought to — but in general I like it. A good deal of thought has gone into the design, and more often than not the interactions are appropriate to the particular story and help me to engage more fully with it.

But I would never want to read Anna Karenina this way. The kind of concentration demanded by a long, complex, serious novel cannot bear much, if any, flux. And unnecessary flux can readily be avoided by reading it in a codex — hooray for that! But if people do gradually shift more and more towards reading on some kind of screen or another, and screens become increasingly capable of variable degrees of flux (as e-ink screens currently are not), then we readers will be ever more dependent on designers who possess a deep sensitivity to context and purpose — pixel-based designers who are widely, as a matter of basic professional competence, as flexible and nuanced in their design languages as the best print-based designers are today. Or, at the very least, they’ll need to build in the possibility of opting out of their fluxier interfaces. As someone who’s headed for a more screen-based reading future, I’m a little nervous about all this.

books by design

I’ve been really taken by the images in this blog post on the recent resurrection of the cover-design style of the old Pelican Specials. What strikes me, as I expect it will strike you when you click through, is that the attention given to reproducing the old cover art is, shall we say, not quite matched by the attention to typography.

The old Penguin/Pelican cover styles have been fetish objects for some time now. I am especially fond of M. S. Corley’s redesigns of the Harry Potter covers:


And this application of that classic style to bands and TV shows is pretty cool:

But when you’re making a cover for an actual book it would be nice if the fidelity to lovely tradition was carried through to the text itself. The dissonance between the quality of the cover of that Jacqueline Kent book and the unimaginative flatness of its text is troubling.

Now, this is not to say that we want books whose typographic style reproduces too slavishly the aesthetic of another era: when that happens the result is, as my friend Edward Mendelson has noted, “typographic kitsch.” (American Typewriter, anyone?) But in this post-TeX world there’s really no justification for the amount of typographic blandness or incompetence that we see today.

Not incidentally, this is one reason it has been such a pleasure for me to work — three times now — with Princeton University Press. Their attention to all the details of design is really admirable. I especially commend the books in the Lives of the Great Religious Books series to which I have contributed: they are lovely to look at, delightful to read, and a real pleasure just to hold. You can see a few of their admirable features just by clicking that link, but you really need to take one in your hand to get the full effect.

Apple’s design problem

An oft-quoted remark by Steve Jobs has been in my mind lately. It’s been cited in many different forms, and who knows what the original words actually were, but it goes something like this: People tend to think of design as how something looks, but it’s really a matter of how it works. It seems to me that Apple is in real danger of forgetting this. And that’s not good news.

I could illustrate this claim in many ways, but let me just give two examples. First, take a look at this screenshot from my iPad:

It took me a few seconds to figure out how to attach this photo to my email. Why? Because the modal box that includes the photo is almost indistinguishable from its surroundings. The menu bar for that box, with its “Use” command, is almost exactly the same shade of gray as the menu bar for the message window, and is nearly aligned with it vertically, with the result that I first assumed that it was the message window.

This is what comes of Apple’s newly-discovered preference for “flat” design elements: they have fled from the illusion of three-dimensionality whenever possible — with some notable exceptions — and in so fleeing have abandoned many good principles of interface design. Among those principles few are more important than making different UI elements clearly distinguishable from one another.

And of course, many iOS developers are simply following Apple’s lead in this. The UI elements in the new OmniOutliner for iPad are so uninterpretably flat that I had to return the app for a refund and go back to version 1.

For more along these lines see, for instance, Jonathan Rotenberg.

So that’s one example, and here’s another: when Apple redesigned their iWork suite of apps from the ground up, they almost completely eliminated AppleScript support in addition to introducing various other regressions in usability. The appearance is wholly new; features, including features that many users have relied on for years, have been unceremoniously dumped.

So what do these changes have in common? I think the answer is clear: seeing design as a matter of “how it looks” rather than “how it works” — or at the very least placing such a premium on how it looks that fixes to how it works get set aside for some putative future release. Many users who are happy about the appearance of iOS 7 assume that it’s just a matter of time until the usability problems are fixed, but I’m not so sure. Consider, for instance, the fact that in Apple’s Reminders app, whether on the Mac or iOS, it’s still not possible to sort tasks by due date except through a painstaking manual process. (Hard to imagine a feature more fundamental to an app for reminding you of what you need to do.) Or the fact that attaching non-photographic files to mail messages in iOS is a mess and always has been.

In short, I think there’s mounting evidence that Apple is forgetting what design is really all about. I’m worried.

take your tastefully redesigned flag and shove it

This project — to redesign all the state flags in a single visual language — seems to me to combine rather remarkably the features of today’s techno-liberalism:

An active disdain for historical, cultural, and aesthetic difference: “I was immediately bothered by how discordant they are as a group”;

The easy assumption that unity is best brought about by imposition from On High: “Mitchell’s first move was to strip away ‘everything that reminded me of a divided nation’;

Implicit belief in the titanic suasive power of design;

Wish-fulfillment dreams of artistic power: Give us free rein and we’ll fix things;

An inability to see that the design languages of the moment are unlikely to last longer than, or as long as, the design languages they are replacing: “And I wasn’t surprised to learn they break just about every rule of flag design.”

Flag design has rules, people: created by the International Federation of Vexillological Associations, whom you may defy at your peril. We may but pity those unfortunate enough to live in benighted times when there were no organizations to establish rules for flag design and no designers who believed that those rules, and their own design sensibilities, obviously should overrule the whole of history.

Fie on all of it, I say! Of course I know this isn’t seriously meant, in the sense that Mitchell isn’t planning (as far as I know) to petition his Representative to introduce an amendment to the Constitution empowering the federal government to mandate a unified design language for state flags. But I think it is seriously meant in the senses listed above, and to that I say: Yuck. Give me history with all its messiness, its visible residue of evil acts and its mixed messages; give me aesthetic incoherence, give me people who don’t know the Rules of Flag Design — give me, in short, the flag of Nunavut and, better still, the coat of arms of Nunavut!

Yeah, I know Nunavut isn’t one of the United States, but still.