Comments on Material Honesty on the Web

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  1. Great, great article Kevin. It articulates a lot of what I’ve been struggling with for a few months now.

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  2. Fantastic post and a great reminder for all designers, regardless of discipline.  I appreciate the references to industrial design, and it brings to mind #6 of Dieter Rams’ 10 principles: good design is honest.  This article is one of the best explanations of that concept I’ve seen.

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  3. Temporal beauty lives in state-change animations, nuanced timing effects… and other “interesting moments,” not drop shadows and Photoshop layer effects… All honest—all web—all good.

    Aren’t state-change animations dishonest by the same reasoning? Elements on the page aren’t really fading out. I’m not trying to be snarky. I’m just curious about the limits of honest design on the web.

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  4. Thanks for a great article. I am getting an IPEVO!

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  5. I completely agree with the use of sketches. “Even if you wanted to, it’s hard to fuss about fonts in a pen sketch.”

    Another sketching option might be an iPad app, like Paper by FiftyThree.

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  6. Excellent article. I can’t help wondering though whether you aren’t a little harsh on drop shadows: given that items on a web page are indeed layered one on top of the other, can’t use of shadows provide an essentially “honest” indication of this aspect of a page’s structure? Sure, there is no source of light on a web page, but the information that shadows (and opacity) convey about layering can be a useful, immediately understandable affordance - perhaps even more so when you’re playing with temporal aspects of the page: elements appearing over each other, etc.

    I guess, like you say, there is bound to be a degree of subjectivity about what constitutes “honesty”, and there is a continuum from subtle, intuitive indication of layering, to fully decorative pseudo 3D effects.

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  7. Wonderful article. It says so many things, that have been wondering about for so long.

    There might also be another thing to the honesty, don’t force things to materials:
    One of the bests advices I’ve ever got was from my sculptural professor. We were working in clay and I tried to shape the small spikes out of it. He looked at it and said I can’t do that. Clay is to soft for such delicate structures, they will keep hanging down. And even if I’d managed to get it burned this way I would end up with something that would break of, to the slightest touch. Such fine structures can’t be done in clay, they are, as he said „not in the material“.

    I guess that is a bit different thing than sceumophism, but the implications are similar to what the article states.

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  8. The flat design is more honest discussion reminds me of the Clement Greenberg discussions (manifestos) in the 60’s that flat painting is more honest.
    This ultimately led painting to the Modernist end-gaming of painting.

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  9. The article describes what is practical and the emerging or dominant paradigm today, but I’d hesitate to assign it values. There’s no debate of context, content, control, or any of the thorny issues that frame design where it is associated with the notion of honesty.

    Google or Facebook have a more “honest” arsthetic approach than Apple. Does that make one company more honest than the other?

    Also where is the room for the web’s equivalent of molecular gastronomy - where the formal elements are pushed beyond what anyone knew to be possible, creating new forms and experiences?

    I’m drawn to material honesty myself, but can’t help thinking the current period is a precursor to something else - perhaps a time where digital design becomes truly ubiquitous and largely invisible.

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  10. In the end, I agree with Alan Bauchop. This article makes great arguments for using it, including its practicality and longevity. I favor design devoid of drop shadows and pseudorealism myself. However, I would hesitate to use the term “honesty.”

    Getting deeper into the “juicy metaphysical question” of computer honesty, consider that our machines are “dishonest” by their nature. Computers trick us into thinking a series of 1s and 0s represent something else. The monitor tricks us into thinking we are seeing things with more meaning than light passing through filtered cells onto a screen. On top of that, there are countless metaphors that help us understand and use computers ― desktops, files, folders and so on. Some concepts have stood the test of time, others have not. This evolution seems to have more to do with practicality than material honesty. Who can say these metaphors are more dishonest than a representation of a vintage stereo knob? The article notes that there is a subjective continuum. I would argue that the continuum is too subjective to pass judgement.

    I agree we should use flat design. Not because it’s more honest, but because it works well.

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  11. I hate it but is true.  Flash and Styling mostly with Images were a necessary evil to get to where we are.  We are moving to simpler designs due to mobile devices (and fashion), better UXs and Leaner UIs. And we’re all getting purists because of this, someday.

    This is all valid for the written part of the web, web interactive/video/animated/art heavy stuff has it’s well deserved spot and should be classified apart. We know they provide experiences we all want, worth spending on and the kind of thing you’d like to see on web tv.

    What I’m aiming for this days is to get rid of the ugly middle, so that content pops up. I often recommend my clients to put the effort of overly designed websites in advertising and aim for a clean visual identity…

    Great article!

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  12. This is the only tool you need.

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  13. Is “dishonest” to talk about “materials” in an immaterial medium like the Internet? Is “dishonest” the use of serif fonts (SIFR or web fonts), because serifs mimics the effect produced by tools used in the manufacture process of letters? Is “dishonest” to use cursive fonts (SIFR or web fonts) that mimics hand writing? Is “dishonest” to use the word “dog” or the picture of a dog because it’s not the actual dog? Is “dishonest” to design gestural interaction when users are not actually touching anything but a glass surface? Is “dishonest” the tag “flat design” because screens are flat, anyway?

    This article is a macro-metaphor. The arguments for the adoption of “flat design” (what a silly name *facepalm*) is far more simple. Like @agargara said: “it works well”. Period.

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  14. Really awesome article. Very thought provoking.

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  15. This is like useless, completely impractical, buzz-wordy crap. I will never get time spent reading this article back… this is sort of BS that makes life of all front end people needlessly complicated, website designs fugly and makes no sense to end user. Waste of time. Complete waste of time.

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  16. “But for end users, macro metaphors are dishonest, no matter how you slice ‘em.” Sharp and to the point. Definitely adding to this terms required reading.

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  17. I agree with the intent of this article, but the logic problem appears to me to be that images are excluded from any category of “web materials”.  What made The Web different from The Internet was the ability to present raster images as page content and to present a visual layout for content that improved readability and utility of content.

    I’ll agree that the use of raster images for decorative elements is overdone, and our team has numerous examples of this in our portfolio.  But to fundamentally exclude them from the list of materials available to a web designer seems to be an arbitrary decision.  I’m not sure I see the support for that decision within your article.

    I absolutely appreciate your position and I agree with you, but I think you’ve set up a premise that leads to a specific conclusion and I see this as problematic.  Why, for instance, is a drop-shadow effect to distinguish a page element more like putting cement over brick than putting plaster and a fresco over brick?

    Thanks for a great article, my opinions on web aesthetics are completely in line with yours.

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  18. Back to the command line interface, the only truly honest digital material!

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  19. Kevin, thanks for all the thought and research that went into this article. I agree that the web 2.0 look is bloated and dishonest. However, some designers are taking this “flat design” aesthetic too far… like building websites where you can’t tell a button is a button :)

    Also, one thing we need to remember is that not every product/website should have the same design style.

    If you are working with a company who wants to portray a fun-loving style instead of a business professional look, then you might need to add more design elements that are ““dishonest. You might want your text to look like a crayon, when it’s really not…. this would not be dishonest to the company’s values and that particular design style.

    Just some food for thought.

    Thanks again!


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  20. Hi Kevin, I enjoyed the article and your exploration of the question.  I feel the translation of ‘honesty’ doesnt quite work for a digital medium which has no real tangible form….except perhaps 1’s and 0’s. What would it be like if we replaced the term ‘honesty’ with simplicity? For me this is core of design.

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  21. HI Kelvin, you’r article is really interesting, According to me just few designers to can use honest materials or their design are unique. I personally belive in this policy…. Honesty is a best Policy…..

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  22. @Minneapolis Design: well! thanks for great article. I also agree with the use of sketches. “Even if you wanted to, it’s hard to fuss about fonts in a pen sketch.” Flat design should be good, because It can easy to work.

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  23. Just as you write about honest design, this article is written with honesty. Well done, Kevin! A lot of good things to think about.

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  24. Can’t leave Loos’s manifesto out! :)

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  25. Hi Paul Bellows 1,

    Images (as in <img>) are all good. They’re content, like <canvas>, <svg>, and other HTML tags that hold content. HTML tags are the foundational materials of the web.

    But loading raster images via background-image, list-style-image, border-image, and cursor:url is a hack. It’s a hack we’ll continue to use in some contexts, but nonetheless a hack that creates real limitations.

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  26. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I see a lot of correlation between your talk of honest design and minimalistic design principles. It is a much needed direction change in the web design industry and one that I am glad to be making on our own website, Kesil Consulting. I dare call myself a web designer, but I am learning, and more importantly, willing to learn!

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  27. Just do a simple mock-up, all these “gadget & electronics enhanced mock-sessions” where one paints bored on the board instead of having a nice session where every one scrabbles on paper - why should someone go for the first option?
    I can’t remember any meeting where this gadgets brought any value to.
    Just my 2cts ;-)

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  28. no to noUI – a must read in the debate between flat and skeuomorphic design:
    “We must abandon invisibility as a goal for interfaces; it’s misleading, unhelpful and ultimately dishonest. It unleashes so much potential for unusable, harmful and frustrating interfaces, and systems that gradually erode users and designers agency. Invisibility might seem an attractive concept at first glance, but it ignores the real, thorny, difficult issues of designing and using complex interfaces and systems.”

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  29. Really great thoughts. Very inspiring. Though it seems to me that the list of “Web Materials” is a little bit too short. There is so much more to the web. Tons of other protocols and technologies. What about vector graphics and other forms of media that are shared through the web?

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  30. Thanks for sharing your philosophy on honesty in design and the methodology for implementing it. We follow similar steps pen sketching, pure css so really enjoyed the article.

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  31. Awesome read thanks a lot. Adreamcreation

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  32. Regardless the quality of this web site, this article is a pure bullshit. If you are a web designer, you know that Design is not a decoration, it gives sens to a web site. Evil Pixels are a necessity for the visitor, Could you imagine a butcher’s shop and a jewelry store with the same decoration ? No They will require different styles to make sens to the visitor. Nowadays people are well educated to design so we can give them more simplicity, but we have to take care who will visit the web site.

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  33. Some of the ideas are worth exploring but it’s clear that by the time you’ve reached “The Continuum”, this was all an incomplete thought that begged for further polish by the author.

    With all due respect, the very premise crumbles before the headline ends and repeatedly falters throughout in its misapplication of metaphors, analogies, and parallels.

    That’s not to say there aren’t some good points—there certainly are—but, taken as a whole, it’s entirely unclear what the core message was intended to be.

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  34. background-image a hack? Since when standards are considered hacks? Is there any other way to achieve a pattern background or border effect? Oh, please, and don’t suggest CSS Gradients thing, because that is way more “hackish”.

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  35. Even lighting effects like drop shadows, form shadows, specular highlights, and reflections are dishonest because there’s no light source inside a digital screen that’s manufacturing these lighting effects.

    There aren’t any printing press or metal movable-type system in your computer neither: should we stop using typography on the web because of this awful lie?

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  36. No raster images? We all should probably stop taking pictures too, those aren’t honest. Flatland is so boooooring, and 99% of the web looks exactly the same: flat. I agree with Gene Dombrovskiy and I want my 10 minutes back. Way too many yesmen here and no discussion at all.

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  37. Hi Kelvin, I really enjoyed reading this post, Honesty is the best policy but unfortunately only few designer adopt it. Strongly agreed with your thoughts.

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  39. @ Daniel Tello LOL that is a funny graphic!

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  40. Thanks Kevin; much agreement, and the idea of honesty of design and materials goes a long way towards explaining why some of the things around us resonate very deeply, and why some just seem cheap and shallow.

    I like to draw a distinction between visual design that arbitrarily mimics another material, such as a fake stone interface, and one that mimics another material to take advantage of either deeply and broadly understood interaction modes (the stereo interface, if not overdone, may achieve that, and add some delight) or to take advantage of universal pre-existing hardware and software, such as our ability to differentiate small and complex objects and textures using three-dimensional cues of lighting and shadow. That particular hardware/software system has hundreds of millions of years of refinement behind it, and is universal.

    An interface that makes use of just enough drop-shadow and shading to make a large number of new and unfamiliar things stand out as distinct and operable chunks is being honest within the larger context of interface/human. A tab, as this site uses for comment numbers, even without a shadow, gives a subtle sense of layering and depth which simplifies our cognitive load through the metaphor.

    Some contexts that are more dense with information and complexity may need stronger cognitive differentiation, and thus may use stronger cues of dimensionality. Those cues are honest and true to the human operating system. So we can say the rules to follow or break are within the entire context of the interacting systems, which includes us, our messy and varied cultural histories, and our astonishing evolved visual cognition.

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  41. Very nice Kevin, thanks for sharing and keep them coming :)

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  42. Honesty is very important, but who are we to say that certain ways of displaying information is dishonest? When you say dishonest, do you mean that using pic art or other insert methods are dishonest? Is it dishonest to put a picture of the beach on a page even though it is truly not a beach?  Our computers are designed to create images that seem real.  What we take from material that is displayed to use is based off of our life experiences and our cultures. So again who are we to say that certain material is dishonest verses material that is honest? It is all about cognitive reception.

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  43. Ruskin also wrote in The Lamp of Truth:  “Evidently, then, painting, confessedly such, is no deception: it does not assert any material whatever. Whether it be on wood or on stone, or, as will naturally be supposed, on plaster, does not matter. Whatever the material, good painting makes it more precious;...”

    Apparently, Ruskin was more an artist than an architect; here he says the material being used “does not matter”, presumably in terms of artistry. There is nothing deceptive in art, in other words, but then Ruskin tries to speak for architecture, where he feels the use of cement is deceptive.

    In many senses, web design is artistry expressed, so perhaps raster images are not after all dishonest?

    Since Ruskin was speaking to architecture, let’s consider a few modern examples of material honesty. Suppose a house is being built. Is the use of air sealing tapes, designed to cover sheathing joints, dishonest? Can that be likened to cement over brick? To me, air sealing tape is a new construction material that could help preserve the sound structural condition of the house and help lower the cost of heating and cooling it. I’ve never asked myself whether it is honest or not. I just see that it is an advance in construction techniques.

    Now suppose we could replace cement when it is used as mortar and the replacement is a plastic compound that you simply press into the mortar joints. Is that dishonest because it totally replaces cement? I don’t think so. Again I think of it as an advance in construction techniques.

    Is a bicycle made of the latest lightweight materials dishonest because the first bicycles were constructed of metal and possibly some wood? Is a car dishonest for using an electric engine, rather than an internal combustion engine? Are engine-powered ships dishonest when compared to the sailing vessels of thousand of years of antiquity? I would say that these are all successful efforts to make the bicycles, cars, and ships better as products and perhaps even cheaper to operate. There is always an evolutionary effort to make a thing that is really wanted better. I find such efforts to be honest.

    With that said, I don’t quite understand the point of the article. I have no background in website design, perhaps that disqualifies my commentary. You did, however, convince me to purchase an Ipevo document camera. I’m not sure how pen sketches make website design more honest. I can see how the sketches will almost surely make all the parties think a great deal more about the design and performance of a site. But as a tool to promote honesty? Or honest design?  Perhaps the point is to sell more document cameras (smile.)

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  44. Aw god, what a bullshit… Seriously man, i thought ALA was a serious website.

    What is the material on the web ? Why CSS shadows are more/less honest than plain color ? No light soure in a flat screen ? So no Typography, paint bucket or servomotors either, but you can write in a website, add colors and animation.

    And you use a camera form filming sketches. Is this honest ?

    wow O_O.

    For french reading people :ête#main

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  45. As someone else has mentioned, this article reminded me very much of the 1950s art critic Clement Greenberg’s failed arguments about medium specificity and creating artworks that were more and more about their particular medium. In the case of painting, the emphasis was placed on showing the flatness of the 2 dimensional surface of a painting as honest as opposed to the illusional depth found in paintings before it. Greenberg promoted the work of Abstract Expressionists as the next stage in Modernist art as these painters emphasized the flatness of the canvass and a more “pure” form of art.

    Painting isn’t exactly web design, I understand that, but we can learn a lot from other artistic fields. This debate about “pure” art was settled long ago and it was shown to be a completely false and shallow argument. Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and later Pop, Minimal and Conceptual art challenged the idea of medium specificity; the distinction between an object and its depiction, the genius of the emotional artist and purity in art. Are Johns’s American flag paintings impure and dishonest because they are paintings of a flag which is a flat object on a flat canvas? If I make the same flag using CSS on my web page is that dishonest or impure because I’ve made a flat real world object using CSS? If I make a sculpture of a cursor, is that dishonest because I’ve made a real world object from something that is two dimensional on my computer screen?

    I think most of us know what bad design is that tries to use every bell and whistle available rather than crafting a design for the content. Using a flat design is currently the trend in web design now, there are many technical as well as aesthetic reasons for this trend some of which the author covers in the article. That said, it is a trend and like all trends at some point will change and go in a new direction. Trying to brandish one design as more pure than others is a very slippery slope and leaves many philosophical holes of which this article has many.

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  46. Great article, I agree with so many points you make, but, where does this leave HTML5 ‘s SVG standard? Or Canvas, for example? SVG is semantic XML but it isn’t constrained by the limitations of traditional structured markup ... is this also dishonest? SVG is considerably more powerful than HTML in that it can do much that HTML does ( like css, hyperlinks and dom traversal, because it’s XML ), plus its a fully fledged vector language. Open standards vector graphics on the web! How can this be dishonest? To me, its evolutionary. When you combine SVG with javascript it has the potential to create much richer experiences in the geometric plane without sacrificing ‘honesty’.

    In my mind, animation and visualisation with SVG is just as powerful a medium and just as truthful, as text based markup. It embraces ‘Flatlander’ and skeuomorphic.

    Web materials fit nicely into three categories.

    Foundation: HTTP, URLs, SVG
    Style: CSS
    Decoration: Raster graphics

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  47. I wonder if the main motivation for simpler, flat, more honest, what ever you want to call it, design is that the people who best know how to use the tools of HTML and CSS will always promote designs that are best made with those tools and just those tools. Illustrations and photography, best made with other tools, will be pushed to the side. Carpenters seldom advocate the beauty of masonry work.

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  48. Kevin, thanks for the wonderful article. It resonates with me as it elegantly encapsulates everything I’ve been striving for in my web designs for a long time.

    I specialise in developing websites for architects, and always aim for relevancy & functional simplicity in my designs - with varied success! Too many architects are after a flashy extravaganza, instead of simply getting on with the business of explaining their work.

    I honestly don’t know why this is! I really should know, being an architect myself who is really passionate about modernism (which for me is another way of encapsulating the core points of your article).

    Your article has provided me with some wonderful ‘mental hooks’ to explore in my future work.

    Great stuff!


    3 of my recent websites for architects - check them out for the fantastic modern architecture / hundreds of high-res photographs, if nothing else ;-)

    Harry Seidler & Associates
    Kerstin Thompson Architects
    David Langston-Jones Architect

    And if you must, my own website, where things are all black and white: all-sorts website design

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  49. In reaction to this post, I’ve done a translation of my french post :

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  50. I can’t believe how right on you are with this article, I just wish everyone felt the same way about making digital look and feel unlike any other medium, because that’s what it is, a whole new thing. Great Article!

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  51. It seems that feeling should be considered in with honesty and dishonesty. If the image (or other element) is inline with the general feeling then it becomes an honest part of the design, just as embelishments or flat design can be honest or dishonest to a design.

    And as far as background images are concerned, I always felt that if the image was not really content, but a positive addition stylistically then the honest way to include it would be as a background image. That so, I do think that content is way too often included as background image.

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  52. Thank you for the thought provoking and well written article. I enjoyed it. I question the use of “honesty” and some of the assumptions you’ve made about design.

    The transformation of raw materials into something that they are not is at the heart of human creativity. Human beings don’t paint paintings of paint nor do we merely write words about words. The material is transformed to represent something that it is not. A woman, Mona Lisa. The psyche, No. 5, 1948.

    The degree to which human imagination is engaged and a fantasy played out is a matter of design aesthetic. Were the romantics less honest than the impressionists? The impressionists less honest than the abstract expressionist? It certainly can be, and has been, argued yes.

    I would say the imaginative projections that took shape on the canvas during the romantic period honestly represented what they understood. The same for the abstract expressionists.

    Designers of video games are constantly imitating the real world in order to engage the fantasy of the player. Are they decorating trash? Maybe so. Or is all that decoration and fantasy just modern theater? No doubt Aeschylus would have employed to great use.

    What about a dollar bill? Yes, a dollar bill. That is perhaps the greatest lie of all. It is not materially what it represents. It represents something abstract—the social contract between human beings and an exchange of power. And despite being a complete lie, it is something people will kill to get.

    Does that make me a fan of skeuomorphic design? No. I find a lot of it silly and unnecessary—in particular, Apple’s Calendar and Contact apps.  Do I like flat design? When flat design helps me have a valuable experience then I like it. What kind of experience do I want to have? I don’t know. Surprise me in way that I can understand. The way a comic does with a good joke.

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  53. A good read, and an interesting description of one school of web design.

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  54. It is great article!
    Thank you for sharing.

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  55. I’m not a troll ... but zzzzzz. First off I reject a mass movement to any one aesthetic be it fashion, decor, or web design. This is painful, academic navel-gazing. Hooray, we’re all so smart! (And boring.)

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  56. Sorry, commenting is closed on this article.