Our Dark Age Of Design

manofsteel

The opposite of a golden age is a dark age.  When it comes to design and visual imagery, I believe we are living in a dark age.

The last dark age was the 1970’s.  I sometimes like to go to the Plaid Stallions and laugh at what people thought was cool back in the 70’s.  From today’s perspective it is pretty embarrassing. Back then we did not really notice how bad it was, but it seems the further away we get from it, the worse it seems. But that is the nature of fashion.  It was only 10 years ago that super low jeans and backless halters were in, and already those are uncool.  Time makes fools of every fashion trend.

I believe we are in a new dark age of design today, and can prove it, by pointing out how bad the supposedly trendy “fresh, new, and modern” trends coming out today already look like crap — no test of time needed.  Lets start with the new Superman movie Man of Steel coming out this weekend. Above are two versions of a promotional picture.  One is the original, one has the colors blue-shifted and increased the saturation 10%.  Which movie do you want to see?  The main color of Superman’s uniform is BLUE, and yet the film makers go out of their way to avoid using the color blue anywhere in the movie trailer, and I expect the entire movie.  They are not alone.  The supposedly visually stunning  The Great And Powerful OZ has the same problem.  Even though there seems to be a lot of blue in it, it is actually all shades of teal.  Are film makers purposely avoiding the color blue for some reason?

Meanwhile, in the world of software design, especially operating systems, we have the exact opposite problem: too much color.  I have already pointed out how crappy Windows 8 looks to everybody who does not have a master’s degree in design, which is at least partly responsible for its poor sales.

But then Apple decides to Windows 8ify its popular iOS used in iPhone and iPads.  Like Windows 8 look, it is flat, it is simple, and it is ugly.  To make themselves different from Windows 8, they added gradients, which looks even more ugly.  I am not alone in my assessment, there is a whole Tumblr page dedicated to software designers complaining about the look of iOS 7.

This is the baby of Apple hardware designer Jony Ive who in this embarrassingly bad video explains his design philosophy, which works great in hardware design, but fails miserably when it comes to software interface design.

The problem is that there is a lot of functionality changes in iOS 7 which are actually pretty good, and probably a good reason to upgrade, the automatic app upgrades are my favorite change, but who wants to stare at that screen?

Who indeed, especially when Apple realizes that one of the big selling points of  iPad was the cool looking main screen sitting on display next to the generic looking Android cousins.  iOS 7’s redesign takes that marketing advantage away, and now the iPad looks just as generic as the cheaper android tablets.  I predict iPad sales this holiday season to be just as disappointing as Windows 8 PC sales were last holiday season.

Far and away the best article on the design decisions behind iOS 7 is this Wired article. It explains and occasionally criticizes the decisions behind the redesign.  This quote is the most telling:

The smartphone’s greatest problem today isn’t teaching people that there’s a virtual space for doing everyday tasks. Rather, it’s teaching people that they no longer have to use their computers anymore. The functions of phones themselves are growing even as the actual size of a phone screen is approaching its natural limit. Smart phones have, in many ways, exceeded the metaphors that used to define them. Thus, in order to do more complex interactions on the screens, and to keep those interactions uncluttered, you have to strip down the design language.

The emphasis is not mine, but important.  It shows the arrogant misinformed mindset of both Apple and Microsoft inherent in their awful redesigns.  I would hope that the lesson we all learn from all of this bad OS design fiascoes is this:

Phones are not computers and Computers are not Phones

Windows 8 was a redesign of the OS with touch screen as the primary input tool.  It never seemed to cross anyone’s mind at Microsoft that desktop computers do not work as touch screens.  Did they really think that we want to lift our arms, reach over our keyboard do hand gestures on the surface of our monitor screen, sometimes for long periods of time when we are doing visual design work?  Our arms would get freaking tired in a matter of minutes doing that, when it is so much easier to use a good old fashioned mouse with an ergonomic arm rest.  We didn’t spend our youth pumping quarters into arcade machines developing master hand-eye coordination skills just to have them go to waste because “touch screens are COOL”.

Touch screens on desktop computers are not cool, especially in the work environment which accounts for around 80% of desktop computer usage.  OS design for desktops needs to reflect that model, and while Windows 8 is useable with keyboard and mouse, it often feels awkward like using an up and down scroll wheel to move the screen left to right.  Hence Windows 8’s poor sales.

iOS 7’s redesign seems to be inspired by the belief that people will start using their phones for more than just phone calls, taking pictures, listening to music, and flinging angry birds as unsuspecting pigs.  They want your tiny phone screen to be a medium for actual productivity.  Tablets make more sense in that regard, but even they are going to fall short of that goal.  It did not seem to cross anyone’s mind at Apple that the sole functionality of phones and tablets are: 1. playing media, 2. locating media to play, and 3. making media portable and useable anywhere.  That and making phone calls.  Any functionality outside those three categories and you are better off with a PC.

Writing this blog post would take me at least twice as long to do on a tablet.  It can be done, true, but takes more effort.  The hard truth is: The only time tablets become productivity tools is while sitting on the toilet.

I know what you tablet fans are thinking: “If tablets are so useless, how do you explain tablet sales outpacing PC sales?” Easy. 1.) only a small percentage of home users use their computers for productivity, most people have computers for nothing more than surfing the web and watching videos, activities that are perfectly doable on tablets, and 2.) activities that are also perfectly doable on 8 year old Windows XP computers, so many people have no need to upgrade.

Bad OS design is the result of a flawed mentality that this OS will be used everywhere and for everything.  This same flawed mentality is the root cause of the horrible design decisions behind the XBox One which wants to be the one and only box you need connected to a dumb monitor, even though smart TV’s are all the rage these days taking away the need for most of the extra functionality in the XBox One (whose starting price is higher than a smart TV).  But that is another complicated topic.

Bottom line: Good design is all about form and functionality, true.  The bad designs we see today are the result of corporate mindsets that completely misunderstand what the actual form and functionality are.  Overuse of color correction in movies is a form mistake, the movie equivalent of auto tune and needs to die like shaky cam and auto tune.  Oversimplification of software interface is a functionality mistake.

There is no pattern here

I haven’t written in a while, not because there is nothing to say, but because I have been busy with other stuff. So here is a post of random thoughts.

Gaming thoughts

So last month L.A. Noire, advertised as the most expensive game ever, was released for XBOX360 and PS3, but not for PC. People keep talking about a “next generation” in consoles, but that next gen already exists among us PC enthusiasts. Now I do not want to start a war between consoles and PCs, but this is something I have learned and have numerous examples to its veracity: Complex games are far better on PCs than they are on consoles. Console controllers are fine for simple games like arcade ports, 2D scrollers, racing games, simple sports sims, etc., but for FPS, or third person 3D, or RTS games, PC controls are far superior. Keyboard in one hand and mouse in the other just feels more natural than two thumb controls and a dozen awkwardly placed buttons on controllers designed for 12 year old hands.

So why do gaming companies not support PC gaming anymore? Most likely it is sales, and also copy protection, and not having to try and support 3 dozen different graphics cards, all good reasons. But games are hitting an upper limit in how complex they can be by pandering to consoles. A complex game like L.A. Noire could be a lot better on a PC, but there are no plans to port it.  Even though I own both an XBOX360 and a PS3, I will not be getting it anytime soon.  I already got Red Dead Redemption collecting dust, having never gotten past the tutorial because I hated the controls so much.  (I don’t really play game with controllers, I use my PS3 for watching videos, and my XBOX360 for playing Kinect Sports and occasionally Windows Media Center).

I tried the demo for Dragon Age 2 on my PS3, the PC version is better.  I tried console and PC versions of DC Universe Online, and the PC version is better.  They ran into a problem on DCUO in that there is a power combo that is uber powerful when played on the PC version (specifically the Transmutation power in the Sorcery line and Shuriken Storm on the Martial Arts line would, when executed in sync, do massive amounts of AoE damage).  This combo was easy to execute on the keyboard/mouse, but damn near impossible to do on the console controls for the PS3 version.  The problem was that there was no fix for the PC version that did not create a massive nerf of the PS3 version.  I do not know if they ever fixed it, I stopped playing DCUO back in February, and haven’t gone back.

WTF is going on here?

Another blogger name Cyber Trekker over at http://thegreatslexpedition.blogspot.com/ has been posting a lot that Cyberspace (aka the Metaverse, aka the 3D web) is already dead, thanks to mobile communications which are moving people back to “reality”.  (He’s not the only one, I have been seeing a lot of 3D web is dying articles lately, this was just one).  Simultaneously I see this video demonstrating Windows 8’s new interface model, which looks like Microsoft has plans to turn the PC into a big Windows phone.  Simultaneously EA announces that SimCity 5 will be a Facebook App. Meanwhile, famous game designer Richard Garriott wants to create a new “semi-3D” Virtual world portal that will tie social networks like Facebook, with mobile apps, with new virtual worlds into one big happy family.

I’m sorry but, this is insane.

Let me be clear: There is enough room on the Internet for everything and everybody.  Some may get the impression that the 3D virtual worlds are dying because their “share” of the internet is getting smaller.  In fact, the 3D Web continues to grow and it is only a matter of time before it too expands into the realm of mobile computing.  Its already making minor dents. But I have always said that the 3D web will never take over the 2D web, instead they will enhance each other.

Second: Memo to Microsoft: If I wanted to have my PC work like a tablet, I would just get a freaking tablet.  The Windows 7 interface is the greatest PC interface ever, and I already have gadgets on my desktop that show me news and weather and other stuff, and it is a lot prettier than the ugly orange-green-blue-purple mobile phone interface you are pushing for Windows 8.  Why not multiple interface models? One for traditional keyboard and mouse, one for “touch screen”, and one for Kinect?  You did not think of Kinect did you?  The bottom line is this: If you focus on merging the PC experience with the mobile experience, you are going to lose on both fronts.  Android, based off Linux, is already available for PCs that want to behave like mobile phones. There is no need to have common interfaces between devices.

Thirdly, Facebook sucks for gaming!  I know how the 300 million facebook users seems like a huge audience for gaming, especially social gaming, but every game on Facebook is a novelty at best.  SimCity might do well, as long as it is simplified to the casual user (wasn’t that what the godawful SimCity Societies try to be?)  As far as trying to interface a virtual world with Facebook, its been tried multiple times, always ending up in failure.  Facebook is a place designed for real people and real identities, virtual worlds are place for fantasy and role play make believe.  Are you really interested in letting your family, friends, and workplace know about your cosplay activities? Virtual Worlds and real life Social Networks do not belong together, ever!

Is there a pattern here? We have console game designers trying to turn console gaming into something it is not. We have advocates of mobile computing saying that mobile computing will take over everything, which is clearly not true. We have game designers tinkering with gaming on social networks, something it is clearly not designed for.  We continue to have people wanting to merge social networking and virtual worlding, which are incompatible.

The only pattern I can see is that there seems to be an ongoing battle between those that want to merge everything together, and those like me that think we are better off using the right tools for the right uses.  But this battle has been going on for a couple of decades.  In the 90’s “portal” websites like AOL and Yahoo wanted to be everything for everybody.  They wanted to make their websites so complete, there would never be any reason to go anywhere else.  They failed of course, but a lot of good came out of those attempts.  Now Facebook wants to play the “portal” role, and mobile phones and gaming consoles want to eliminate the need for PCs, and none of these objectives will succeed, but maybe some good will come out of the attempts.

Or, maybe there is no pattern here.