Apple’s Flatland Asthetic

I’ve found something very offputting about Apple’s much touted UI design since around 2001 (the advent of OS X), and have never quite been able to put my finger on what the issue is, until I came across this series of articles by Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini, the founder of Apple’s Human Interface Group and one of the Distinguished Older Persons of the HCI world. He calls the problem the “Flatland Asthetic”, which he patly describes as “The new Apple seems to subscribe to the the belief that visual simplicity equals actual simplicity.” To put this more aggressively, Apple designs interfaces that are elegant until you use them in non-trivial ways. The biggest way in which this is offensive is where they have actively re-introduced problems long solved by hierarchy in computing, usually by taking away directories (folders. Whatever nomenclature you prefer) in places a consistent interface would allow them. I would also say the problem extends further back that Tog is giving credit for; even the much maligned one button mouse can be explained as an instance of the same ethos.

For some real-world examples, a few days ago I was watching my father use his G5 Tower (OS 10.4), trying to shuffle through a pile of icons which automagically piled themselves one on top of the other in the upper right hand corner of the (shockingly full) desktop, a behavior broken in exactly the same way as Windows 95. He then went to find an application in the dock… which had “elegantly” scaled down to near-illegibility because he had a non-trivial number of applications open or pinned (side-gripe: I still don’t like the confusing commingling of running applications and shortcuts, but with it being in Windows 7 as well now, it looks like I’m in the minority). Generally, any place where the UNIX-derived presumption “Everything is a File, and all files can be manipulated in the same way” is violated, I get unhappy (which explains my contempt for iTunes/iPhoto style “manager” programs as well).

I concede that some of the problems have been remedied, at least a little bit, in the most recent versions of OS X, with features like the the drawers (to use the CDE phrase, I have no idea what Apple calls them) in the dock. I would say these are band-aid solutions over a festering problem with mentality.
I’ve had my (obviously not entirely solitary) rant, now I’ll go back to my customized, bewildering to all others XFCE environment…

* a phrase I’m found of, borrowed from Brian Aldiss and Roger Penrose’s White Mars, the first half (or so) of which is excellent.

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