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.+
If you can’t tell already I’m a fan of the movies, pretty much all kinds of movies. From art house fare to popcorn flicks, I’m pretty confident I can find something interesting in just about every film I watch, and so I try to watch as much as I can of as many different genres as I can. This requires a well-practiced suspension of disbelief, of course, which is not hard to muster if you are passionate about films in general.
But one thing that almost always breaks me out of any movie’s spell is the on-screen appearance of any kind of computing technology — specifically the appearance of interfaces for computing technology. The reason is obvious: they’re almost always completely phony, designed not so much to reflect what the movie’s characters are supposed to be doing with a computer as to reflect what the movie’s producers want us to understand about what the character is doing with a computer.
Blip Bleep Bloop
As a user interface professional you might think that I find these interfaces offensive, but in actuality I find them quite riveting, even if they do jolt me out of whatever world the movie is trying to immerse me into. These almost universally poorly designed interfaces are groan-inducing, to be sure, and I certainly wish they were better on the whole. But at the same time, they offer fascinating insights into common misconceptions of how digital technology works.
You can see what I mean at Access Main Computer File, a Tumblr collection of graphical user interfaces culled from dozens and dozens of films. This is a real treasure trove of interfaces that we’d otherwise never be able to assess as a whole, so I’m totally obsessed with it. Looking at them all together, it becomes evident that each one is like a snapshot of the general public’s understanding of computing magic, one that was taken whenever the movie was made. The older the movie, of course, the more naïve the interface appears; to riff on the old saw that tragedy plus time equals comedy, you could say that a movie U.I. plus time equals kitsch. Which offers its own kind of entertainment value.
Here’s one of my favorites, taken from “Total Recall.” I can’t even remember what role this particular interface played in the script, but it does seem obvious to me that the director’s vision of the way computers work was that they would essentially dehumanize people, especially women, in this case by reducing a human body to a mathematical wireframe representation of slimness, athleticism and/or voluptuousness.
Ridiculous and getting funnier every year.
Compare what you see at Access Main Computer File to software artist J.T. Nimoy’s work on last year’s “Tron Legacy”. I didn’t see the movie (from the reviews, I kind of dread the day I do) but the work shown here looks very careful and thoughtful and gorgeous. But it also doesn’t really look that different from “Total Recall” or any number of other examples you can find over at Access Main Computer File.
That suggests there’s always likely to be a gap between the reality of computing technology and what the movies understand about them. Which is okay, I think; you never really want reality catching up to your dreams.+