February 01, 2005

Interface Culture

Interface Culture might just be Steven Johnson's most important book, but at the same time its probably his least read, and deservedly so. This is a less a book that was written before its time and more of a book that was written too soon. If one could extract an algorithm that Johnson used to generate the book in 1997 and run it today the result would be markedly better.

Johnson's core argument is simple, interface is important and needs to be understood. As simple as it sounds, its never quite been articulated properly, we still lack a language to properly address interface. Johnson comes the closest of anyone in this book, but ultimately he's betrayed by his examples, which are more rotted then dated. The materials to properly write this book just where not around in 1997 and it suffers. Johnson also has a problem I wish a lot more of us had, he writes too well. The prose is so efficiently polished it leaves on craving a clunky paragraph or two simply to break the pace and create a space to actually think about what he's written.

Wrapping up his little breakneck ride, Johnson calls out for the creation of an interface avant garde, a subculture of radical interface designers. Since the books publication there have been numerous moves in this direction, but I'm unsure if any have actually gelled into real form. Flash designers circa 2000, skinners, game modders, they are more like microcultures of interface, never quite reaching the mass and velocity necessary to self-replicate into full fledged subcultures.

The one group that has emerged is the information architect/interaction/experience designer, a set that seemingly seeks obscurity through a constant renaming process. There is no question though this is a subculture, and they tend to focus on a space Johnson quite accurately brought to the for, text as interface. But as an "interface subculture" I find them rather lacking. In Language of New Media Lev Manovich postulates that a core task of new media is the creation of interfaces for databases. And it seems to me much of what the information architects are doing is prepping the database for future interfaces. There is of course a degree of interface innovation going on, but its yet to reach any level fitting of the "avant garde". But much like the shortcomings of Interface Culture in many ways this comes from a lacking in the contemporary database, not from a lack of concepts.

Manovich's book is in many ways a better starting point then Johnson's although they are quite complementary. Manovich devotes quite a lot of space to interface, but essentially stops right where Johnson starts, focusing on the screen as interface through history. Neither break very far from the screen either, interface clearly needs a dose of physical computing. And the tools for analysis of computing culture are still being built, beyond the interface and database lies algorithm (anyone know a good book here?), protocol and beyond..

Posted by Abe at February 1, 2005 10:24 AM


"...he writes to well." Heh. Is that an intentional typo?

I always really liked IC, particularly because there are so many interesting tangents in it: the effect of word processors and hyperlinks on writing styles, the oddball comparison of interfaces to the Dickensian novel, etc. For a while after IC, Johnston continuted to argue for the idea of "user hostile" interfaces as a sort of interface avant-garde (see, I think, his essay in ID Magazine's Interactive Design Awards issue c.1999).

That kind of needling punk-rock opposition to Jakob Neilsen-style interface design is pretty hard to really maintain, though. I don't think he's used the term since. Maybe Johnston, like a lot of people, just started assuming that the only real example of the interface avant-garde is in video game design, which is so obviously more radical and creative than any database-front-end design. It's hard to really take seriously the idea of experience design/ID/IA being any kind of "subculture' or "avant-garde": these fields are desperate for mainstream viability, economic stability, and consumer acceptance, not outsider status.

ooops on the typo..

I'd agree on those particular fields being too tied to the mainstream to ever be "avant garde" but I don't think that means it can't emerge. Dreamless at its peek truly seemed to offer some promise before it crashed and burned.. But the big leap I think comes from physical computing, the mouse/screen/keyboard dominance is too constrictive a paradigm, but its about to shatter. Once interface designers begin to realize in real numbers that they can roll their own hardware, then the real story begins..

brought to the *fore*

dead on post - great blog

Great site, was just reading and doing some work when I found this page