How Modernist Art influenced Windows 8
Posted by Ashley May, Designer at ORM on 02/04/2013
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Microsoft's newest platform, Windows 8, is with us. Initial scepticism turned to intrigue at ORM upon exposure to the Nokia Lumia 920, likewise our excitement upon return from the Windows 8 dev camps. The interface design places emphasis on good typography, has large eye-catching text and uses iconic ‘Charms’ as shortcuts to favourite apps. Microsoft sees the design language as "sleek, quick, modern" and a "refresh" from the interfaces of earlier Windows iterations, Android, and iOS. But did you know that it originally bore the name “Metro”? (Ignoring the legal reasons that Microsoft abandoned the name, in this article we will refer to the Windows 8 user interface [UI] by the moniker it heretofore held). At the Build conference in 2011, Windows Design Director Samuel Moreau cited the reductive functionality of the Bauhaus School, the grid-based adherence and clarity of Swiss poster design and the iconic economy of transport wayfinding systems (for instance, those found on the King County Metro transit system, which serves the Seattle area where Microsoft has its headquarters) as influences on the larger Metro philosophy. The key theme here is Modernism.
The Modernist movement was a revolution of parity and focus; Modernists placed emphasis on design that worked with, and made virtue of, the properties of materials used. With Metro, too, Moreau took this response to the UIs of the past, and the change of interfaces over the years, from type, to click, to touch. It can be posited that the digital authenticity of Metro echoes the use of raw materials Kandinsky used in his Wassily Chair, or the way Barbara Hepworth worked with the natural forms inherent to marble in her sculpture. In the same way that the bold ideals of Modernism swept through a post-industrialised culture romantically holding onto Neoclassicism in design and architecture, so too Metro represents a departure from the visual familiarity of skeuomorphic UIs of Apple et al, through the use of ‘flat’ geometric shapes, bright colours and bold typography. Using modern platforms and placing emphasis on social interactivity and the Cloud, the Modernist ideas reflected in Metro inform much of its core experience, and it can be argued that understanding the evolution of Modernism could reflect upon the development of Metro.
Another evolutionary trait belied in Metro’s interface is that it tends to favour consumption over creation. Metro’s UI grew out of the tried and tested Microsoft platforms of XBox Live, Windows Phone 7 and Windows Media Browser, and as such it is more like a magazine to be browsed, than a tool to be utilised. Such is the evolution from the MS-DOS command-line interfaces (CLI) of old, to the 1980s home computing revolution brought about with the Graphical user interface (GUI), that the emerging Natural user interface (NUI) seems naturally improved by the clarity and direction that Metro offers.
If we are to think of art and design as a timeline, it was not long in the relativity of art and design history between Swiss Style (the primarily defined influence on Metro) and the advent of the desktop publishing revolution, which changed typography and design of the printed word forever. The principle that future interfaces might reflect late-20th century print design – created on computers – is quite a self-referential one, leaning toward Postmodernism and parody which is scarcely different to the objective mimicry of iOS.
The Metro user experience, then, clearly owes much to the ideals of early 20th-century Modernism; one of the more interesting opportunities is in tracing a line of thought of the history of art and design to predict possible futures for user interfaces. And so, after Modernism? Postmodernism of course. Postmodernism is, of course, a hopelessly broad term; attempting to define some consistent characteristics, uncovers elements of remix, irony and humour. Postmodernism also tends to value skepticism, relativity and plurality over absolute objectivity. By this measure, we can expect to see a greater degree of human influence, personalisation and interaction in device experiences – moving away from rigid structure, and applications in isolation – in line with more personal and natural interactions.
We can again learn from the past here, albeit a much more recent history. This is what happened with iOS and Android; earlier apps tended to lean on the native interface as a form of associative gain: “look at me, I’m an iOS App!” As the app market became saturated, the need grew for apps to look fresher, diverse and more innovative to stand above the competition. That same need exists with Metro; the need to avoid homogeneity and reflect user individuality, whilst providing a consistent platform from which to develop a consistent Natural User Interface, is surely where the scope of Metro’s own design evolution lies.