Plastic, Interrupted

One thing that I like about my new iMac (in spite of its problems) and my iPod— is that they’re both basically hunks of cheap plastic — and neither tries to be anything else. This is a beautiful thing.

By way of contrast, consider my Treo 650. Or, for that matter, consider any of the many, many pieces of digital hardware currently available on the market that, like my Treo, share the absolutely cringe-worthy characteristic of being pieces of plastic that are painted to look like metal.


Metalheads

We seem to have a fascination with metallic surfaces here in the early part of the 21st Century. In commercial hardware, a high metallic polish is one of our most facile methods of quickly signaling that a product is digital, that it’s a refined and efficient mechanical creation of some aesthetic value. It’s a conceit that I can abide, sure, when the constituent materials of an object are in fact metal of some kind. A good case in point is the Motorola RAZR mobile phone, which isn’t a design that I adore tremendously, but it’s a design that I can respect, because it is in fact made from metal (well, mostly).

But nothing irks me more than a hunk of plastic that’s trying to look like it’s something else. To me, if you paint a plastic object to look like anodized aluminum or chromium steel, you may as well paint it to look like rosewood and line the walls of your basement bar with it. Which is to say: the attempt to disguise its true nature seems cheap.

For savvy industrial designers, this lesson of respecting the essential nature of materials isn’t a new one. But I think it’s also a germane one for visual designers: to bring to life the most effective and aesthetically pleasing solution to any design problem, let a thing be what it is — whether that thing is a button, a tab, a block of text, a hyperlink. Don’t try and make it something it’s not.

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  1. That’s why you use the Nokia 8800!

    Real stainless steel. Real sapphire crystal. Real mechanical slide.

    It’s one of the finest quality of anything I’ve ever held. I’ve tried to go to a smartphone, but I can’t until they make something with the same quality standards.

    You couldn’t pry my phone out of my dead hands!

  2. G’day Khoi,

    Just thought I’d let you know that I wrote an article referencing one of your older posts. You can find it at this link. It’s related to the one entitled, ‘Music for blogging: What do you write when you listen to music in the Blogosphere?’ Check it out. Any comments would be much appreciated.

    Cheers,
    Jesse

  3. I got in a huge debate with my wife and brother-in-law at the music store a few weeks ago, over his indecision over whether to buy his new Yamaha keyboard in the black&birchwood color scheme or the plastic-painted-to-look-like-metal (&birchwood) color scheme. I was adamantly with you on this – avoid metallicized plastic!

    I do, however, like metallic paint when it more radically breaks materials taboos and is applied to wood. That’s hott.

  4. Just being a pedantic jerk…

    They’re not painted. You can’t get paint to reliably stick to plastic. They are coated with a thin film of metal. The actual coating process varies depending on the type of plastic, the process used to make the plastic, and the metal look desired. It is actually a quite complicated process to get that look.

  5. iMac and iPod = undisguised plastic = hooray. On the other hand, remember when Apple went through its horrifying Brushed Metal Interface phase? I shudder just remembering.

  6. It pains me to see what’s happened to stereos in the last fifteen years. I think they’ve suffered the most at the hands of the fake-metal fetish.

    Also, all the “metal” parts of my 18 month old Sharp phone are peeling away, leaving uncoloured, off-white plastic beneath. It looks ridiculous.

  7. Jeremy: thanks for the clarification on the process. Still, it doesn’t change my mind on this aesthetic.

    Joe: Apple has committed its share of similar design goofs. My Titanium PowerBook, for example, was painted (or whatever) to look silver. Since it was metal anyway, it wasn’t that too bad, but what made it worse was that the paint had a tendency to chip off easily.

  8. I couldn’t agree more, but I do have to say that I like it when my cell phones get personality by being roughed up and chipped. Their true colors (a mix of clear and matte black or nasty grey) show through. In a way, it’s more human.

    But how does the “truth” bit apply to the digital realm? What is the truest form of a pixel? Does making a website look like a newspaper equate to painting a plastic phone metallic silver? Or does the pixel’s nature as a formless-shapeshifter grant amnesty?

  9. My personal favorite consumer electronics shell is still the flat black plastic. It was hard to give up my G3 PowerBook for the aluminum…

  10. I’m in total agreement about plastic painted to look like metal it simply subtracts from the product IMO and in some cases flakes off to reveal the cheap material it really is made of.

    However, Khoi how do you feel about metallic look in interface design? Its interesting I’ve been shying away from the metallic look and trying to achieve a more semi-aqua plastic feel (I know it overused in some places) when building interfaces, but I much rather it than the cheap brush metal look in interface design,

  11. Come to think of it, how about that whole brushed metal UI in iTunes/Quicktime not too long ago. Think mimicking metal with plastic is weird, why the need to do it in a virtual sense?

    Don’t get me wrong, I get the concept – match the aesthetics of UI to the hardware. Still, it strikes me as a little odd…

  12. I can’t believe no one has pointed out the G5/Mac Pro enclosures. They are good examples of real metal being beautiful in a realm occupied by plastic.

  13. And the aluminium PowerBooks which live on as MacBook Pro’s. When it looks metal, it had better BE metal.

    As for interfaces … a more complex realm. I like the unified “Mail” kind of look most. But it is a matter of great dispute and arguably worth change for change’s sake every once in a while. (Leopard’s Finder hopefully!)

  14. The interface question is interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what is essential nature of the screen, and how to take advantage of that.

    After all, the gradients, drop shadows, brushed metal skin that are so prevelent in UI design these days are all visual tricks to get the screen to look like something it’s not (3D and tangible). But all those tricks can help by providing users an easily understandable metaphor for their tasks (buttons, etc.).

    Perhaps there’s another way to take advantage of the screen’s essential nature, pixels of light emanating out towards the user.

  15. The interface question is interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what is essential nature of the screen, and how to take advantage of that.

    After all, the gradients, drop shadows, brushed metal skin that are so prevelent in UI design these days are all visual tricks to get the screen to look like something it’s not (3D and tangible). But all those tricks can help by providing users an easily understandable metaphor for their tasks (buttons, etc.).

    Perhaps there’s another way to take advantage of the screen’s essential nature, pixels of light emanating out towards the user.

  16. Khoi, this is a great post. I’ve often thought that designed things should be as they “prefer” to be. The question, for me, is how does one make good decisions around default culture versus design culture?

    For instance, you write: “.. let a thing be what it is — whether that thing is a button, a tab, a block of text, a hyperlink” Your site lives up to this exactly except for the last component, the hyperlink, in which you don’t specify underlines. Where does one draw the line (pun intended) for default vs. design?

  17. The G5 or Mac Pro is a great example.

    I understand the need to mimic the product but I guess the question is where do we go from here? The G5 wasn’t redesigned simply because its a great design and definitely hard to top. Where as the iMac keeps getting thinner as well as the iPod.

    As far as interfaces I do admit I like the look and feel of Aperture, albeit it seems a bit more complex than most of the usual Apple apps.

  18. I agree somewhat with the philosophy of let the material be what it is, but more in the sense of: don’t try to make the material be something it is not if it is going to fail after a short time to reveal the cheap illusion.

    I more prefer new things to not try to be so completely like the old thing or metaphor that it can’t be it’s own thing. I mean that, originally, the old things were original and not trying to totally emulate some older thing. I think more things need to be original, but the majority seem to prefer old things – maybe because “tech” has become associated with cheap fake metal plastic and such.

    I loved my Sony Clie T-615 PDA because the illusion of it being real metal was very good. I think the main body was, but the front plate was not since it was probably too hard to make it in metal, but it still does not reveal this after all these years until I had taken another one apart. It felt good in my hand; expensive, like a fine pocket watch. My Treo feels cheap by comparison.

    As for UI design, I think the brushed metal was okay as a texture but was overall just a bit flat. The new “unified” look has a subtle depth and visually cleaner. However, each app handles their unfocused appearance differently with many not looking different at all save for the greyed out titlebar text. I also do not mind that each app has a slightly different appearance. For example, GarageBand has a black brushed metal (with wood grain!), iTunes has a darker unified look than others, and Aperture has a dark theme (makes a better darkroom for photo handling). This gives each a slightly unique look that you pick up on so your brain switches context to the app you are using.

  19. When I saw the title of this post, I imagined it might be about the long lacuna at the website plastic.com.

    Anyhow, it’s worth noting that the polycarbonate used in iMacs (and iPods, I think) is on the expensive side, as plastics go, and has superior properties to the ABS plastic used for many other gadgets. Perhaps that’s part of the trick: Apple is letting the plastic be itself because that particular type of plastic is desirable. If they were using something cheaper, it might simply be unsatisfactory, regardless of the finish. Though I agree with the general point that metallified plastic is silly.

  20. It’s also worth noting that Apple’s iPods (especially the mini and the new nano) take the other approach – using real metal for the case.

    I like the aluminum shell of my nano. It gives it a bit of weight, and it’s usually cold to the touch, which I really like.

    Speaking of fake-metal, this is nothing new. My 15-year-old Timex digital watch is plastic, with a gold-tone metallic finish. It looked great when it was new. Today, the paint has chipped away and the whole thing looks pretty ugly. (But I won’t get rid of it until it actually breaks – it’s still a good quality watch, despite its now-ugly appearance.)

  21. It’s also worth noting that Apple’s iPods (especially the mini and the new nano) take the other approach – using real metal for the case.

    I like the aluminum shell of my nano. It gives it a bit of weight, and it’s usually cold to the touch, which I really like.

    Speaking of fake-metal, this is nothing new. My 15-year-old Timex digital watch is plastic, with a gold-tone metallic finish. It looked great when it was new. Today, the paint has chipped away and the whole thing looks pretty ugly. (But I won’t get rid of it until it actually breaks – it’s still a good quality watch, despite its now-ugly appearance.)

  22. Love the post! I can’t stand imitation anything but I can’t necessarily afford the real thing all the time. When it comes down to plastic, however, I’m a little more lenient. Plastic has an intrinsic beauty when used correctly. However, if given a choice between, say, painted plastic or imitation-wood-or-metal plastic, I would have to go with the painted one because it’s at least closer to the original. Plastic has a tendency to switch from beautiful (Mac love!) to ugly without a lot of effort.