is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
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.
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.+