6 November 2012

Against chrome: a manifesto

Recent news suggests an internal war at Apple over its “skeuomorphic” interface designs: making software visually resemble real-world physical objects. I here republish my anti-skeuomorphist manifesto of February 2011, originally posted at 3 Quarks Daily.

Please tear your eyes away from this elegant and curiously seductive prose for a few seconds and look at what surrounds this webpage on your display. Unless you are browsing in full-screen “kiosk” mode or kicking it old-school with Lynx, chances are your browser program is designed to look like some sort of machine. It will have been crafted to resemble aluminium or translucent plastic of varying textures, with square or round or rhomboid buttons and widgets in delicate pseudo-3D gradients, so they look solid, and animate with a shadowed depth illusion when you click them. Me, I hate this stuff. I think it’s not only useless but pernicious and sometimes actively misleading. Won’t you please join me in declaring War on Chrome?

By “chrome” I don’t mean Google’s browser of that name, but all the pseudo-solid, pseudo-3D visual cruft that infests user interfaces in modern computing. For an example of Chrome Gone Wild I need turn only to Apple, who have somehow acquired a reputation for elegant and minimalist user-interface design while perpetrating monstrosities like this:

Ultrabeat

Can you tell what that does, and how to work it? Me neither, and I’ve been using it for years. (It is the Ultrabeat drum machine in Logic.) Now, this kind of severe chromatosis is particularly widespread in music-making applications, perhaps hoping to assuage the gear-nostalgia of composers who once had actual knobs and buttons to play with but now are reduced to pretending to operate pretend knobs and buttons on a screen. That’s the only reason I can think of for this, a kind of glorious reductio ad absurdum of rampant chromiology, in Reason:

Reason

Yes, you do actually have to pretend to plug those pretend cables into the pretend holes in order to change the audio routing.

Chrome arises from a chronic case of object-envy. We like interacting with physical objects in the real world, goes the reasoning, so it will presumably be more pleasant to interact with computer software if it pretends to be a physical object too. But why? Couldn’t the appeal of using a computer be that of a world precisely without friction and texture, a world where things are weightless, virtual and easy? I’m writing this in the fullscreen view of Writeroom, an entirely chrome-free environment whose virtues I have sung elsewhere, and the simplicity is like a refreshing mental breeze.

Chrome not only wastes space — think of the extra information that could be displayed if you got rid of all those pseudo-metal or pseudo-plastic frames and edges — but it adds another layer of wonky metaphor onto what already is the embarrasingly incoherent paradigm of modern computing. Oh, right, so there are windows on my desktop? What’s that about, exactly? That mode of design is “metaphorics”, defined thus by Eric Freemand and David Gelernter in “Beyond Lifestreams” (Beyond the Desktop Metaphor, MIT 2007):

Metaphorics is a method of building software based on comparisons of software to objects or machines in the real world (e.g., to the physical desktop in the world of office furniture).

Well, the aggregate system of “metaphorics” in today’s UI design is tottering and nonsensical. It’s time to scour away the accumulated sediment of imaginary hardware and furniture, time to chuck out the chintz.

Perhaps the most absurd and brainachingly stupid example of needless chrome I am aware of, the most terrifying villain on the loose in this episode of Chromewatch, comes from — oh, hello again, Apple!

Ibooks

That is the iBooks app. Notice how lovingly the designers have made it look like you are in the middle of reading a physical book by drawing a little pseudo-3D evocation, down each vertical side, of the pages you have read and the pages you have still to read. What do you think this looks like when you are on page 2 of a book, or 2 pages from the end? I’ll tell you what it looks like: exactly the same. It still looks like you are right in the middle. That’s correct: because of the sentimental and unnecessary chrome, the app ends up lying to you about where you are in the text you’re reading.

I don’t know about you, but my eyes hurt. And so, for some much-needed relief, to the perhaps surprising hero of this story: Microsoft. Despite it’s frighteningly boring name, the Windows Phone 7 operating system is in the vanguard of what I fondly hope is an anti-chrome revolution:

Win 1Win 2

Isn’t that beautiful? Clean, neat, efficient and stylish in its display of information. (People are already customizing their Android phones for a similar minimal look.) I say that flat is the new black; that 2D is the new avant-garde; that a surface doesn’t have to be ashamed of being a surface. Technology users of the world, unite: you have nothing to lose but your bas-relief buttons. Let us march forwards together, spurning chrome, into a cleaner, lighter future.

  • Sharky

    I came here to defend what I assumed was an anti-Chrome article, instead finding an interest read about one of my pet hates that make me cringe to use offending Apple software. I’d argue that the ‘chrome’ itself is the required elements of the UI, whereas it’s over stylization and unnecessary additions to the chrome that are the real offenders. I don’t think 3D is always the root of the evil – both Android and Windows 8 move 2D items in 3D space to good effect – but the attempted reconstruction of real-world objects on 2D displays is where the problem lies.

  • http://twitter.com/jurkiewicz Alex Jurkiewicz

    Typically “chrome” refers to merely UI elements, not their aesthetic style. Windows Phone apps have chrome in the same sense that iPhone does. That the chrome is blank space doesn’t stop it being chrome.

    I think you should stick with the (admittedly awfully obscure) word “skeumorphic” to describe what you hate.

  • http://twitter.com/kinjacono Jim Kinsey

    When I saw the Ultrabeat grab my first impression was that of an early 90s vertical-scrolling shoot ‘em up.

  • Miles Bader

    Hmmm, no.  Like it.  Pretty.