John Maeda on the uselessness of the skeuomorphism argument

It’s unfortunate that outside of the design community, the thing for which John Maeda is most widely known is the controversy surrounding his presidency of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). His admittedly awkward attempts to create a transparent academic administration were met with a no-confidence vote in which more than 80 percent of RISD faculty voted in the negative.

Maeda’s approach to leadership — as well as to design — is iterative. Maybe because it’s the approach I most favor, I’m biased, but I find Maeda to be one of the best voices in design going these days.

Maeda recently published a commentary highly critical of Apple’s move away from skeuomorphism in its human interface designs. Or, more accurately, critical of those overly praising Apple’s move away from skeuomorphism:

“But I think limiting our discussion to what essentially boils down to a ‘do these pixels make me look fat’ question is a waste of energy. Instead, design should boldly go where no user or interface has gone before. More than ever, technology constraints have disappeared, and designers have their version of the mythical perpetual motion machine — a new medium where pixels are infinitely available and infinitely malleable. We should focus on setting them free.”

Maeda notes that the argument has become over-simplified to the point of uselessness and that simplicity — in design and elsewhere — is about “subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.” He argues that technology advancements have removed necessary design constraints and we’ve therefore surrendered to our bias to add more ornamentation merely for the sake of adding more. The natural reaction, of course, is to self-correct. “To manufacture constraints by flattening one layer — so design elements like translucency and simulated depth can ‘recede’ into the other layers,” writes Maeda.

What we’re missing, according to Maeda, is that we need to move way beyond the incremental.

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