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Sunday,  01/31/16  04:45 PM

I've been musing about design and patience.

(I started this blog post last night, then decided I should think about it a little and maybe make it better today before posting :)


Yesterday I was debugging something which required two computers.  Rather than use two actual computers, I decided to use my main computer - a laptop running Windows 7 - and a virtual machine inside my main computer which was running Windows 10.  I happened to have a Windows 10 system because I've been playing with it for a year, tracking new versions from Microsoft and waiting for the inevitable day when I'll have to switch/upgrade from Windows 7.

As I was doing this, with windows open in both Windows 7 and Windows 10, I couldn't help but notice that the Windows 10 look-and-feel is much uglier and less useful.  Windows 7 features transparency, shading, gradients, drop shadows, and 3D controls which light up when you mouse over them.  Windows 10 features none of these things, just a bunch of flat rectangles with solid colors and 2D controls that sit there until you do something with them. 

The same evolution toward dumb simplicity has occurred in OS X, and in IOS, and in Android, and as a result the whole software design ethos has shifted the same way.  You can't write software for Windows without considering what Windows itself looks like, and you want your OS X software to look like OS X.  Your IOS and Android apps have to be aesthetically compatible with their host systems.  This design trend has pulled everything else along; even my Tesla car now has an uglier and less usable interface so it looks more "modern".

I suppose there are people who will argue that the "clean and simple" look is better, but they're wrong.  Clean and simple is all very exciting, but elegant and simple is better, especially when it is more beautiful and more functional.

Why did this happen?  Let's get back to that in a moment...

Unrelated except in time, I just read an article about a company called Birchbox which is laying off some of their staff.  I looked at their logo, and it's just ... the word "Birchbox" spelled out in all caps.  That's their logo!  But it epitomizes a design trend, look at the evolution of Google's logo.  They went from a colorful word with 3D effects and shading to a flat bland design.  Microsoft have done the same thing.

Does anyone actually think these new logos look better?  No they do not.  They are more "modern" and more consistent with the overall trend toward plain simplicity, but they are not nicer.

Why did this happen?  Let's get back to this...

All through our society, there is a trend toward brutal simplicity and efficiency.  True beauty and elegance are being left behind.  No one designer can be blamed, but there is an overall trend being pushed by our society.

I think the key ingredient now missing in design is patience.

It takes time to design something nice, and it takes a willingness to wait for good ideas.  It takes iteration.  It takes difficult design choices and careful evaluation of simplicity vs functionality.  It takes care, and it takes patience.  And I don't think we as a society value the good design that results from patience.

I'm trying to imagine the marketing team at Birchbox, coming up with their logo.  Sure, they could have spent a lot of time and come up with something unique and interesting.  But instead they just wrote out their name and moved on.  They probably even told themselves "this looks cool" but maybe in their hearts knew it wasn't, and that they could have done better.  (I found the possibilties at right in just minutes...)

What happened at Microsoft when they were designing their new "Metro" look and feel?  Did they truly think it was better?  Or did they block something out and just decide it was good enough, and then moved on.  I cannot imagine a scenario where people who truly cared would get rid of shading, drop shadows, and 3D affordances because they thought it was better.  I can imagine that shading, drop shadows, and 3D are difficult to render and require a lot of design decisions, and that it was easier and faster just to skip them.

Note not all design which results in simplicity is laziness.  It took the original Mac team months of work to get rid of a second mouse button.  That was worthwhile simplicity which resulted from care and patience.  Swapping out rendered logos in favor of blocks of primary color is a different kind of simplicity.

So what will happen?  Is this the end of design, or simply a pendulum swing which will come back?

My bet is that good design will never lose favor, and the present lack of care and patience is simply a temporary aberration.  Software user interfaces are definitely trendsetters, and this tail is wagging a large dog.  Soon a little elegance will creep back into designs, it will be valued, and it will trigger a little more.  And a little later we'll have better user interfaces again with shading and drop shadows and 3D affordances.  Maybe even something new (gasp!)

In fact we might have 3D itself, not just a 2D approximation of it!  How cool would it be if you could turn actual knobs to interact with your computer?

It would be very cool.  And I predict it will happen.  We just have to exercise some patience :)


Thanks for reading all the way through :)