The Truthiness of Software Design

John Gruber recently commented on the prevailing trend against skeuomorphism in software design, repeatedly describing minimalist designs as “true”. What bothers me about his analysis is the same thing that I have seen in discussions elsewhere on software design: taste is presented as if it is an objective measurement. Gruber’s use of “true” reminds me of Microsoft claiming that their Metro design language is “authentically digital”. “True” to what? “Authentically digital” how?

Let’s be clear here: 1s and 0s are authentically digital. The absence of gradients and a focus on typography are not. The backlash against gloss and shadows is a trending preference. Dressing it up in language that suggests that minimalism is objectively better than skeuomorphism is as nonsensical as stating that functionalist architecture is better than neoclassical, or that jazz music is better than rock.

There are, of course, objective criteria by which to compare software designs. Is one interface more efficient to use than another? Is one easier to learn than another?[1] You can argue these points and perform testing to discover which aspects are better or worse. But let’s stop framing personal taste as if it is an objective criteria by which to measure design.

Gruber concludes his discussion by stating, “If you want to see the future of software UI design, look to the history of print design.” I think this is an interesting point to consider. I also wonder if software design is more akin to architecture – will we look back in 20 years time and mourn the loss of artisan craft that used to go into digital design, in much the same way that we lament that there will never be another skyscraper with the extravagant detail of the Woolworth Building?

Above all, however, I wonder if there is a fundamental problem in criticizing skeuomorphic software design, then suggesting that the way forward is in mimicking another type of media. As with all inventions before it, software design will eventually find its own voice, and it will no doubt be wholly unique from other art forms. It’s perfectly fine to prefer minimalism over another style of design, as long as we recognize that what we are discussing is opinion, and opinion can never be true.

Update: Marc Edwards weighed in on this topic, as did Max Rudberg. Both are great perspectives.

  1. Given that Metro is such a well known minimal UI style, it should be noted that one of the criticisms leveled against it is that it is hard to use. As Gruber himself noted back in 2010, inactive elements (like labels and titles) often look the same as interactive elements (like buttons and tabs). Minimalist interfaces can be both beautiful and usable, but many minimalist UIs fall into the trap of being beautiful and unusable.  ↩