On flatness, truth and authenticity

A contribution to the dialogue about flat design inspired by an article on Smashing Magazine.

A couple of days ago Dmitry Fadeyev published an article on Smashing Magazine titled "Authentic Design". Fadeyev argues that "flat design" is, or can be when properly practiced, a more "authentic" design than skeuomorphic or more stylized design. The article provoked a very interesting critique by Marc Edwards, which inspired me to write a long critical comment of my own, which was latter answered both by Edwards and, with a very long and interesting comment, by Fadeyev. At that point the discussion had reached a very interesting point and I thought that something more elaborate than a blog comment was needed to continue, so here we are.

I would like to say from the start that I quite like flat design. I suppose that most of the websites I have created can be classified as flat, even though many were made before the term appeared. They were called minimal a couple of years ago. I prefer simple grid- and typography-based layouts, I have never created 3-d elements and never used gradients or material textures. I am not even sure that I could design a good 3-d button with proper light and texture even if I wanted to.

On the one hand this is a personal preference; let us say for the moment that I simply like it better that way. On the other hand, most of my work is done for other designers or artists who usually want a minimal website and would never accept a three-dimensional button or a wood texture on their websites.

Recently I found myself involved in a couple of projects that required a stronger metaphor; websites that had to look like something, or remind of something or reference some historical style. Being used to work on more minimal projects I understood very well the difficulties of creating a layout based on a strong metaphor and maintaining a high aesthetic standard at the same time.

Many advocates of flat design argue that although flat design looks simple, it is actually more difficult than something more skeuomorphic or ornamented. From my experience every type of design is difficult to do good and easy to do bad. It is just as easy to create a mediocre flat website as to create a mediocre skeuomorphic one.

Ornament and Modernism

Dmitry Fadeyev starts his argument in favor of flat unornamented design by going back to the modernist critique of ornament, mentioning specifically Adolf Loos, Louis Sullivan and the Bauhaus. According to the modernist view, pre-modern design was loaded with unnecessary ornament, which was a waste of resources and a hindrance to functionality. Ornament was also, according to many modernist authors, an unethical indulgence. Adolf Loos was speaking about "Ornament and Crime", we should remember. In his view ornament was a custom of primitive (non-white) people, criminals (working class), and women. A middle class white male had to be unornamented in all senses. Modernism was all about function, true form in relation to materials and removal of anything superfluous.

I find this approach quite simplistic. There has been a lot of recent (and not so recent) scholarship around the issue, that has already dismantled this view of modernism. This has been done on two fronts, both quite interesting in relation to our problem.

Critique of Ornament

Modernist critique of ornament is unfair because it misrepresents its object of criticism. While it is true that many late 19th century mass-produced objects were loaded with cheap and usually ugly imitations of historical ornamental forms, this was just one particular outcome of early industrialism and did not represent the richness of thought and research on ornament that the 19th century has to offer (think of John Ruskin, William Morris, Gottfried Semper and Owen Jones, to name just a few people who wrote about ornament at that era).

In traditional arts and crafts, ornament is not something superfluous but it is an integral part of every object where it appears, it is loaded with meaning. Ornament is, in almost all forms of traditional crafts, the main carrier of meaning. Fadeyev acknowledges this in the comments to his article and mentions Gothic Art as an example. It is indeed a very good example, but one can think of many more. Ancient Greek and Roman architecture was based on the use of specific ornament systems, today called the Classical Orders. While, today, most people may be unable to tell a Doric from an Ionic capitel, for the people who created them the difference was crucial. Each one could be used only in specific circumstances and carried meanings that were not only religious but also social and, in many cases, clearly political. Architects and designers of the 19th century were very conscious that their world was removed from the ancient and medieval past and had developed a very rich discourse about which could be the proper form of ornament for their era.

Trying to form an analogy with our situation one can think that skeuomorphic design adds meaning to an interface helping many users understand how to use it.

The second argument in favor of ornament raised in the 19th century and ignored by modernism was that ornament was the result of the joy that a craftsman found in his craft. Even when whimsical and superfluous, ornament was the result of a craftsman's pride about his work, a bit of showmanship that added a playful element of enjoyment even in everyday objects. This of course got lost with industrial production (as Fadeyev notes) that removed the craftsman from the production line. But when we speak of contemporary design for websites and apps the argument may have its interest. Websites and apps, although elements of an industrial economic system, are not industrially produced. The way we work to create these things is much more similar to the work of a craftsman than to that of an industrial worker or even industrial designer. I will argue here that it would help us a lot to see ourselves more like craftsmen and less like designers.

Modernist Truth

Modernist design and architecture were supposedly more "true" and "authentic" since their forms were derived from function, material and construction methods. While this may be true in some cases it is clearly false for many modernist buildings that we consider masterpieces. Take for example the Einstein Tower built by Erich Mendelshon in Berlin. The building was considered an artistic expression of the new possibilities offered by the use of reinforced concrete and its form was supposed to derive from concrete's properties. However, at the time it was not possible to create such forms with concrete so the building was built the traditional way using bricks. The Fagus Factory by Walter Gropius is another similar example. The houses of Le Corbuisier have also been criticized in similar lines. Their abstract white surface is white-painted plaster that covers rather than shows a complex brick and concrete structure and their simple geometric form hides rather than exposes their complex interior arrangement.

What we see is that modern buildings became so important not because they were an honest expression of materials and construction principles, but because they created an image of modernity, of the possibility of using these materials to create something new and bold, an image created by aesthetic and not technical considerations. So, the modernist white surface is in reality nothing but a mask, a new form of ornament, an ornament abstract in form and industrial in nature but an ornament nevertheless.

This does not dimminish their value or the effect they had on art, design and culture in general. They are still masterpieces, but for different reasons.

Digital Truth

How can we bring the argument of truthful expression of materials and structures to web design? What are the materials and structures here? Why is a flat rectangle a more "truthful" rendering of a navigation link than a button?

In most cases navigation elements are HTML links inside an unordered list. Before the hand of the designer touches them they usually render as a bulleted list of blue, 16 pixels, underlined, Times New Roman text. By creating a rectangle with centered, uppercase, sans-serif text for each of these links we have already gone a long way towards skeuomorphism, towards interpreting hypertext links as "buttons". Whether we will give them rounded corners and shading is a detail.

If we consider our "material" to be the content then the most "true" form that we have is the browser's default representation of it, which is both ugly and dysfunctional. (This becomes very clear in many "undesigned" websites that mimic this look). But even this representation is arbitrary in many senses; why not 24 point Arial, with red links and square bullets?

The way I understand it, the argument in favor of flat design has to do not so much with the material (the HTML) as with the display medium, the screen which is essentially flat. So, instead of imitating three-dimensional objects it is somehow more appropriate to imitate a (modernist) design style that was first developed for printing on (flat) paper. Adapting it, of course, to the needs of the content and the absence of a defined frame or format.

To see the arbitrariness of all this one can imagine a, not unlikely, future scenario. Imagine that Google Glass succeeds. Imagine that Google Glass 2.0 (or 3.0, or 10.0) comes with full 3-d support that lets you transmit 3-d graphics on real time and lets the user see them as 3-d through the glasses. Then your website could be a cathedral, a palace, a forest, or an abstract three-dimensional environment with no up and down. Suddenly 3-d will be "true" and "authentic" and our problem will be whether a website should look more like a cathedral or a Frank Gherry museum.

Or simply imagine Google Glass developing more and more towards an aural model of interface where the user speaks instructions and the Glass reads in his ear, showing only photos and videos.

I think we are very far from understanding the "truth" of the digital medium (if there is such truth). The technology moves far more rapidly than our ability to conceptualize it and we will always be trapped in anachronisms like horseless carriages, electronic computers, wireless phones and e-books. By the time we learn to call the horseless carriage automobile we already have air-ports, space-ships and web pages.

Our material is pure information, structured and written in machine language. To make it accessible and useful to humans we have to invent forms for it whether 2- or 3-dimensional.

Dmitry Fadeyev, to go back to the subject, speaks of an authentic design that: "is about doing away with features that are included only to make a product appear familiar or desirable but that otherwise serve no purpose. Authentic design is about representing function in its most optimal form, about having a conviction in elegance through efficiency." I think that these are very grand words for so small stylistic differences. If we want to create things a that are useful, elegant and efficient and not just pretty and salable we have to think of what projects we develop, what clients we choose and what we offer them. Truth and usefulness in design are very big issues that have to do with social and political situations way out of our stylistic choices.

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