Fade to White
The battle of the styles continues everywhere always, but I
think minimalism might be becoming our default representation. I say this not just because of its ubiquity
in anything touched by Apple, in retail stores and in hotels (see my post on W
modernism), but because of the latest redesigns of the websites that are the
true frames through which we are at home in our world. Amazon.com and Google have both gone white (or much whiter than they were), as
have sites such as artinfo.com, which I happen to use a fair amount. White walls now have their equivalent in
virgin expanses of screen, except that what stands out is not art or human
beings, but ads.
The tendency has been there a long time. When the Internet first got going, around
1995, there was a pre-Cambrian explosion of forms and colors, especially once
technologies such as Flash became readily available. Your screen was a mess, sometimes beautifully
so. The core of experimentation took
place around Wired magazine in San
Francisco, where Erik Adigard and others tried to collect the energy of modern
life into sites such as livewired,
and in New York, where Razorfish let a thousand graphic images bloom on its RSUB site (no links here, sorry, the current inhabitants of that name do not do the original creativity justice).
Soon this experimentation gave way to value engineering. I remember Jeff Bezos, the president of
Amazon, telling me at a TED Conference in 1998 or so that every square inch of
the screen was worth about a million dollars, so that every font, every graphic
element, and every bit of empty space had to be calculated not according to its
look, but depending on its selling ability.
Now we seem to have learned that the power to promote
increases the more the machinery that makes it all work disappears. I see an analogy to early Modernism: the
expression of how things are made and work is giving way to an idea about
universal valence that is empty, both ideologically and physically.
There is more to come in the future, as Microsoft is
promising a “tile” design for its Windows 8o operating system, which it
will release next year. Everything will
go into little boxes.
Against this Yin tendency, Apple is, to a certain extent,
playing the Yang: its Coverflow technology, which lets you see many images at
the same time, and the borderless presentation of Quicktime, which lets images
float in space, give prominence to the multitude of messages and images, rather
than highlighting the safe space in which they appear.
There is logic to these developments, and it is one driven
as much by the integration of quasiscientific ideas about perception,
attention time and preferences based on appearance as it is on traditional
graphic design. The analogy there is to
the assimilation of post-occupancy evaluation, human factors, evidence-based
design, and other attempts to quantify how people react to their environment,
into architecture. Both lead to pleasant
blandness that favors sameness and default appropriateness over specificity,
complexity, and true give-and-take between humans and their environment.
I think it is time to think outside the box and beyond
white. I hope that somewhere beyond the
Apple Mother Ship and the Microsoft Death Star there are hunters and gatherings
collecting truly empowering information so that they can collage them together
into colorful, messy, and vital alternatives to the White Empire.