Thursday, December 09, 2004

Interface Designs

A skin for Windows Media Player from Valve
As my daughter and I were discussing recently, the windowing motif suggests rectilinear surfaces on the desk top, as the stereotypical window is rectangular. However, skinnable media players in particular have helped spread a non-rectilinear aesthetic, when it comes to interface surfaces and controls. The buttons aren't rectangular either.

Whereas The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte correctly excoriates "chart junk" -- cluttering up the read-outs with irrelevant eye candy, obscuring or even distorting its meaning -- our control surfaces impart more than data. The shaped controls serve a mnemonic purpose, helping users to visually and/or tactily distinguish functions based on form.

A design also says something about the culture behind it. Any museum of clocks (time pieces) from different ages and societies will prove informative in this regard. Some cultures were so into froo-froo (the French still take flak for that, which politicos tried to redirect at John Kerry -- there's a great take in Outfoxed about that).

Quakers ain't Amish (nor Shakers), but we all show up at the other end of the spectrum, favoring stripped down and spare -- some would call it austere (we say plain -- and mean that as a compliment). Out here on the Pacific Rim, Quaker and Japanese aesthetics have converged quite a bit. Zen, too, is stark, as was the Bay Area's est (I did Centers Network logistics for a spell in NJ/NYC, learned the skills). A related term is bleak, and is often applied to places like Pine Ridge (see the opening paragraph of On the Rez by Ian Frazier, a book I only discovered a few days ago, and am enjoying).

The science fiction genre often exploits the ability of artifacts to bespeak their multiculturalism: an away-team beams aboard some alien and perhaps oddly sinister-seeming craft and encounters control interfaces (somehow Spock always seemed to know what to do, uber-geek Vulcan that he was). I'm often on the lookout for Buckyesque hexapentalism -- seems like the Klingons "get it" a little more (the Federation always seems so square).

This Half Life 2 skin also supports more rectangular surfaces, e.g. to contain the visualizer (by the way, Apple's iTunes visualizer really blows me away with its kaleidoscopic range and nuance), but even these more traditional windows are "bumpy" i.e. graphic protuberances keep the windows from having perfectly straight edges.