Windows 8: The New Modernism
At the Build conference in 2011, Samuel Moreau gave a talk to a group of Windows developers about the background and influences of the Metro experience. Moreau referenced three key influences—modern design, Swiss design, and motion design. More specifically, Moreau cited the Bauhaus school, Swiss poster design and transit wayfinding systems, and Saul Bass film title sequences. Each of these allusions lent certain ideals to the larger Windows 8 philosophy—the reductionism and functionalism of modern design, the clarity and objectivity of Swiss design, and the dynamism and storytelling of motion design—but the unifying theme here is Modernism.
Modernism is an umbrella term for a series of artistic movements arising from broad changes to Western society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a time defined by change. Imperialist expansion and subsequent world wars, in addition to developments in travel and communication, were bringing the world together in new ways. Sweeping industrialization and urbanization as well as significant advances in science, technology, philosophy and economics through seminal thinkers like Darwin, Einstein, Nietzsche, Freud and Marx were fundamentally transforming everyday life.
Modernism was a reaction to this rapid change and to the lack of change present in the art of the day. The Neoclassical and Romantic movements of the previous two centuries embraced a level of allegory, artifice, illusionism and ornament that Modernists found out of sync with the changing world. These styles were prevalent in the academic art of the European academies and salons which were not only slow to change, but actively rejected art with more modern tendencies. As a result, a series of artistic movements arose, holding their own exhibitions and publishing their ideas themselves, starting with Realism, Impressionism and the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th century, and exploding in the 20th century with Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism, De Stijl, Dada, Surrealism, and so forth.
The New Modernism
When Microsoft looked for inspiration for their new platform, they found similarities to changes in the world today. The parallels include the proliferation of mobile and tablet computing, the emergence of touch and gestural inputs, the spread of ubiquitous connectivity and the growth of cloud services, the rise of social networking and new modes of communication, and the digitization of content of all types and the wide range of functionality offered by the app. They also recognized limitations in the popular UI languages of today. Specifically, Microsoft saw in the skeuomorphic UI of Apple what the Modernists saw in the Romantic art of their day — the dishonesty of illusionism, and the decadence of ornament.
The fundamental difference between Microsoft and Apple UI is the approach to metaphor—Microsoft eschews metaphor while Apple embraces it. Apple builds on the original premise of the GUI, the desktop paradigm, creating digital experiences based on physical metaphors.
Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines
Ironically, the products Apple looks to for inspiration for both experience metaphors and hardware designs are often Modernist industrial designs. Many have referenced the noted functionalist, Dieter Rams and his work at Braun in the 1950s as key influences for Jonathan Ive and the design teams at Apple. Somehow the same Modernist ideas have inspired both Apple’s reliance on metaphor and Microsoft’s disdain for it.
“Somehow the same Modernist ideas have inspired both Apple’s reliance on metaphor and Microsoft’s disdain for it.”
For Apple, advancements in technology enable these metaphors to be more natural and more believable. For Microsoft, technological advancements only prove these metaphors to be more and more outdated. Microsoft rejects the premise altogether. It looks instead to the Modernist aims of reductionism, functionalism, objectivity and dynamism, and strives for something they call digital authenticity.
Digital authenticity is at the very core of Windows 8’s philosophy and echoes the ideals of its art historical influences. It calls for a departure from the skeuomorphic UIs of Apple and its imitators through flat geometric shapes, bright colors, bold typography, and dynamic motion, and embraces the technology of the time with an emphasis on social connectivity and cloud functionality.
Microsoft is not alone in its search for digital authenticity. With the announcement of Android ICS in 2011, Matias Duarte posed a question with similar ambitions, “Can a machine have a soul?” Duarte may seem to be channeling Turing here, but the underlying impulse is comparable—it’s a reaction to the heavy handed metaphor of Apple experiences and a search for truth in digital experiences. And these similar philosophies have yielded somewhat similar experiences, though Duarte tends to reference the web, rather than Moreau’s Modernism, as Android’s inspiration. This rejection of metaphor is a fundamental part of Microsoft’s shift to natural UI, along with direct interaction and invisible UI—both ideas born from mobile’s touch and voice inputs and content-forward consumption experiences.
The experience of Windows 8 is heavily informed by the ideas of Modernism, and one of the fascinating implications of this influence is the ability to imagine possible futures for the UI by continuing to follow the thread of art and design history. So what comes after Modernism? Postmodernism of course. Postmodernism is another broad term, but some of its defining characteristics are elements of appropriation, remix and combination as well as irony and humor. Postmodernism also tends to value skepticism, relativity and plurality over absolute objectivity. If the art historical timeline is to be believed, as Windows 8 evolves in subsequent versions, we will see a greater degree of interaction and combination between siloed application and device experiences, and a movement away from objectivity and rigid structure to more personal and natural interactions.
Grunge Typography: A Reaction To Order
One of the first responses to Windows 8 will be a reaction to its emphasis on purity and order. Windows 8 promotes unity and objectivity, but the strict grid, simple geometry and flat color will leave some feeling constrained and unable to express their unique point of view. Dada, Fluxus and the grunge typography movements are historical examples of this sort of anti-art backlash. As Windows matures, we’ll see radical grid breaking and the embrace of disorder and imperfection. We may also see new emphasis on personal expression. In fact, to some degree this change is already underway. A closer look at the evolution of the Windows Start screen over the last two years leading up to its release already reveals movement from simple flat colors to a larger palette with subtle gradients, shadows and highlights as well as the ornamental tattoos introduced to enable greater levels of personalization.
This need for self expression will not stop with personalization. In the past, art movements like Expressionism and Surrealism became concerned with ideas beyond the physical, with the world of the mind, the world of emotion and imagination. Artists of the time were influenced by the works of Sigmund Freud on dreams and the unconscious. Again, this analogy represents a move from rational objectivity to the highly subjective, from restrictive structures to the freedom of pure thought. Emerging technologies like voice, facial and affect recognition will enable computers to better understand and speak the language of human thought and emotion. This will enable experiences that better capture and elicit emotional reactions from the user and may supplant the need for highly structured organizational hierarchies and codified user interactions in UI.
Performance and installation art also rose from Postmodernism. These forms broke with the historical conventions of the viewing experience. They fostered greater interactivity between the art and the space and time of its display, between the art and the viewer, and between the artist and the viewer. Similarly, technological advancements are beginning to make possible a new level of interactivity in user experiences. Artificial intelligence, wearable devices and interactive spaces will enable greater interaction between devices and contexts, between users and their devices, and between users and their contexts. Computers will be able to converse with humans in our native language, and traditionally dumb, static spaces will become intelligent and interactive.
Of course, another likely reaction to the Modernist ideas of Windows 8 is their reversal. One avenue of Postmodernism was the resurgence of Realist art which looked to faithfully depict people and objects as they appear in the real world. But this postmodern wave of naturalism was informed by the introduction of analog photography and later digital photography to create Photorealism and Hyperrealism. The artworks’ photographic source material made possible a higher degree of detail than ever before, and the photographic style leant to the art the assumed authenticity of photography. In user experience, technologies like three-dimensional display, haptic feedback, head and eye tracking, and augmented and virtual reality will enable UIs that coexist with users in physical reality and those that present virtual worlds so convincing that they become indistinguishable from reality.
This last imagined Postmodernist future represents the intersection of the traditional pre-modern values of natural mimicry and aesthetic beauty, and the rational objectivity afforded by modern technological advancements. Perhaps this is also where the opposing philosophies of Apple and Microsoft UI will inevitably converge. Perhaps user experience is simply working through its uncanny valley before the trompe l’oeil “tricks” of Apple’s skeuomorphism mature to the point where natural and digital authenticity truly merge.
Punchcut is a user interface design company with a unique specialization in multi-screen experiences for consumer devices — including handsets, tablets, ultrabooks, wearables and TV. We design experiences across major and emerging platforms: iOS, Android, and increasingly Windows 8. Our clients come to us not just to deploy apps on a new platform, but because we design user experience frameworks that help them create cohesion across platforms and devices.
Next, read part three, Windows 8: Origin Story where we’ll cover the experience heritage of Windows 8 and its mobile and entertainment beginnings.
Windows Needs a Restart
A Reaction Against Faux Realism
The Next Generation of UI
Principles & Philosophy
The Nuts & Bolts of Designing For Windows 8