We want magic!

A reflexion on the shared fascination for the digital world, from skeuomorphism to material design.

With more and more people attached – if not addicted – to their digital devices, I came up with some thoughts about the fascination that we all seem to share.

Everybody wants to be in a magic world

The first thing that I want to point out is that most people – even if they don’t believe in magic – want to live in a magic world. We want more than reality, something beyond, something more poetic, more powerful, more interesting.

So, whatever your thing is exactly – the Greek mythology, Santa Claus, Harry Potter, the force in Star Wars or the wizards of Lord of the Rings – you know you want magic to be real.

Digital world is magic

Of course, it’s not really magic.
It’s more like what illusionists have to offer: very convincing illusions.

This is not a page.

But it looks like it: a page made of paper with ink on it. What it really is is a bunch of pixels of different colors and light – very tiny light bulbs with colors around them.
And that’s why the page can vanish or turn into virtually anything.

A digital device does magical things

The same way you don’t need to understand the concept of an aircraft engine to enjoy flying, you don’t need to know any programming concepts to be amazed by what you can do with a computer. In fact, you are often fascinated by what it does because you don’t know how it works.
And I’m sure that anybody involved in the IT world will back me up on this: some people truly believe that everything is so simple with computers, you just have to push a button or two. Magic!

Skeuomorphism to the rescue

Skeuomorphism is the concept of using visual cues to look like its reference. In the digital world, it basically means copying real life objects.

Its advantage is to reassure the user and give him/her clues of what to do and/or to expect from that given application. It’s a discreet guide for the user’s understanding and works especially well for the people who don’t have a lot of experience of the digital world. The interesting thing here is that we are reproducing the real world while we could totally reinvent it. Is it to please the user, or because of a lack of imagination from the designer? Or maybe both? We are human after all, so why try to build – and make the user digest – a totally new world? And for what benefit? It would certainly make the learning curve exponentially steeper.

On the other hand, trying to be as realistic as possible can be boring. Who wants to play a game where you would reproduce exactly somebody’s life? Did you play Accountant 2015™? I’m stuck at the coffee machine and I don’t have any change for my second cup of the morning. Great…

iCal, back then.

iCal, back then.

Another aspect of this boredom is the trend in design: skeuomorphism can look old-fashioned – although still easier to understand. Take the change in Os X Calendar for example.

Material design

In November 2014, Google released Android Lollipop and included a Material design. Material design is in short a style guide meant for developers and designers to help them build better apps for the Android ecosystem.

But what interests me here is Google’s use of physics to give a natural feel. It’s not just about colors or proportions: it’s about interaction, motion and imitating life.

To me, it represents what makes a great illusion: the right balance between what would feel natural and something extraordinary. Too far from reality and the user is lost, too close and you lose the magic and delight.
And in my opinion, this is what makes it a success: it’s magic!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *