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 Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair 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.+
A design flourish whose time is clearly now — or maybe it was fifteen minutes ago — is reflectivity, that very popular style of making objects cast a reflection on a horizontal plane directly beneath them. The most notable example of this, and to my mind, the apex of the trend, is Apple’s iChat AV release from last year, which renders video conferences of three or four people as if the concurrent screens are arranged in a virtual room. Beneath each of the video conferencing screens is a beautifully rendered, dynamic reflection.
It’s a very slick look that creates a dramatic spatial illusion — the kind of illusion that, in the recent past, digital design has been skittish about. The conceit of virtual spaces — rooms, cities, etc. — being used as metaphors for information display is something that fell out of favor with the passing of CD-ROMs as a viable medium; three-dimensional space in user interfaces became cheesey, basically, and we’re only now starting to think of the approach as not cheesey. But it may be too late.
Reflective surfaces and (increasingly) virtual spaces now have a certain currency when designers and marketers try to denote creativity, attention to detail, and rich consumer experiences. All of which owes a debt of gratitude to Apple’s design strategy of the past several years. The heavily labored and polished Mac OS X user experience — interfaces like iChat AV, Apple’s own Web site, and all the attendant marketing — has established a canon for the design of consumer computing that much software design and marketing now feels compelled to follow.
The marketing for Microsoft’s Max, for example, could be easily mistaken as something cooked up for an Apple product (or one designed and developed by a Macintosh-centric software publisher). It features exquisitely rendered objects — a stack of newspapers, a slide box — that are iconically hyper-real, placed on a highly polished, reflective surface.
It’s a gorgeous piece of work, but a little sidebar in the right-hand column belies Microsoft’s somewhat anxious desire to shed their image as authors of complex and user-hostile software: “We are not robots,” the page declares right there, on the top layer of copywriting. If you feel so compelled to insist in one of your opening lines that you are in fact human and not an automaton, it betrays the rest of the artistry employed in the delivery of your message as only skin-deep. In ways like this, where the design short-hand of reflectivity and virtual spaces has become a sheen intended to impart a ‘creative’ look, the style has started to lose whatever authenticity it previously had.
To be sure, I’m under no illusion that this kind of visual window dressing ever represented an “authentic” voice, though. I’m just remarking that, in its very short life span as a trend through which we’re living, it’s now passed from design innovation to design cliché.
A good example of its current state can be seen in the installer window for Mariner Software’s MacJournal application. This is a program that I like very much; it’s clean, well realized and sturdy. But when users download the installer, they’re presented with a window featuring a background of clouds (another kind of cliché), and instructive text superimposed on top of the clouds.
So the idea is that this is a line of type, sort of floating among the heavens. But the type itself is casting a reflection on an otherwise invisible horizontal plane beneath it. Casting a reflection on clouds? The two visual metaphors don’t make any sense juxtaposed with one another, and they wouldn’t even if they weren’t painfully rote clicheés. Anyway, the lesson that I’ll take away from all of this is: avoid using reflections, unless it’s the year 2016 and you’re going for an unmistakably retro and kitschy 2006 look.+