On the subtle interactions and design of trompe-l’Å“il visual motifs and public policy

Steve Jobs was right about a lot of things. His aesthetic sense, his commitment to making computers and software less painful for users, and his marketing powress have obviously been successful–even if not altogether satisfying given the trade-offs they entail in other areas like serviceability, recycling, and vendor lock-in.

But was Jobs right about the visual metaphors that Apple uses in its products? Or more precisely, was he right about the long-term public policy implications of choosing and extending some visual motifs and interaction metaphors over others?

Apple’s style of using faux finishes like torn paper, wood grain, fabric, and brushed steel gives the two-dimensional visual design of its software products the appeal of depth and pliability. Employing a familiar visual metaphor, even if just its texture or the turn of a page, creates an instinctive cognitive link between familiar experiences and new, as-yet-unfamiliar ones. Important interaction metaphors can have a big impact* on the manner in which people acquire new and old technologies alike, and it can tell us a lot about the direction and platforms that subsequent technologies may be taking. The trompe-l’Å“il approach used by Apple gives impression of texture and sociability that even carry over into the sounds it uses and other contexts like bookshelves, desktops, and control panels–even as these technologies replace the so-called nostalgic instances of nature, familiar workspaces, and books.

In fact, there’s a term for this use of design elements that were functionally necessary in their original incarnation, but which become vestigial structures and ornamentation in their subsequent manifestations. It’s called skeuomorphism. Yep, I just learned the name of it too.

New York Times reporters Nick Wingfield and Nick Bilton recently described how ongoing management shake-ups like the ejection of Scott Forestall (a high-ranking proponent of the trompe-l’Å“il style) could lead to changes in how designers at Apple use visual metaphors to shape product meanings and interaction motifs.

Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would strengthen privacy protection for e-mails. According to a New York Times article on the subject, Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat and committee chairman leading the effort to remake a 1986 law that currently govens e-mail access, said at a meeting that e-mails stored by third parties should receive the same protection as papers stored in a filing cabinet in an individual’s house.

We’ve known for a little while that subtle interaction design choices can impact people’s choices (and macro-scale social outcomes) by helping them fail less better, as in the labeling of financial options for savings, the use of social norms for energy conservation, or the default settings for organ donations. But it’s less clear how the choice of interaction metaphors like desktop, bookshelf, or cabinet affects downstream policy outcomes like privacy protection, economic growth, assumptions of ownership, and patterns of use.

Taking Leahy’s comment literally for a moment, what if my papers were in my trash can, out on the street, and not yet discarded. The law affords some guidance on these matters (e.g. California v. Greenwood, 1988), but what if trashcan is on the same physical system as my password-protected vault? Or, what if I were storing my correspondence in the air in front of me (ahem, is the cloud public airspace?) or wearing it on my sleeve, without any device at all? Does my choice of human-computer interaction metaphor instantiate certain rights and privileges (or the lack thereof) based on norms and expectations that can be traced to contemporary physical objects and social relationships in the material world?

How do we account for laws and policy that derive their references, norms, and legitimacy from the skeuomorphic characteristics of objects and technologies–if only because it’s the only reference point we have for something new and uncertain?

We make a break from the physical in order to populate the virtual with items and relationships that have some cognitive correspondence to those we are already familiar with. The trade-off we make is to import suites of rules and expectations that go along with those metaphors. They become standards, and as a result, these linkages may constrain or unleash future possibilities. What would have happened if we used a neurological metaphor for messaging and email? Would our expectations of cohesion, torture, truth-serums, and mind-reading be carried along it and all of the mini animations of synapses firing?

Still, I’m amazed that it’s almost 2013 and we haven’t yet explored much more than the interior design of our offices as metaphors for for the future of human cognition and computer interaction. By the end of 2013, perhaps we’ll at least be able to switch between Lascaux cave painting, mid-century offices, Banyan trees, and stone tablets for all of our productivity and cognitive-aesthetic needs.

*Though many have discussed the importance and usefulness of metaphors in product and interaction design, Charles Hannon discusses how some of these relationships carry over in his talk on the Neuroscience of Usability.

**featured image: Evert Collier (circa 1640–1708)

One thought on “On the subtle interactions and design of trompe-l’Å“il visual motifs and public policy

  1. I like those old-fashioned simulated materials finishes, and I think they have done a lot to reduce antipathy by older (and influential ) people to online media and GUIs. They have a mostly emotional appeal. But metaphors like filing cabinets and trashcans, though also originally included to abet familiarity and ease of use, have meaning associations that influence how we think about, not just how we feel about, these media — including legal analogies and public policies.

    The rate of technological change is now outstripping the rate at which our legal system and our political system can intelligently respond to them. In more and more areas of life. What do we do about that??

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