Friday, December 20, 2013

Henry Dreyfuss on survival forms

The industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss:

By embodying a familiar pattern in an otherwise wholly new and possibly radical form, we can make the unusual acceptable to many people who would otherwise reject it.

A simple, practical example of this may be found in the unnecessary numerals that today adorn the faces of most clocks and watches. I call these numerals unnecessary because children as a rule learn to tell time before they can distinguish one number from another. They do this by memorizing the positions of the hands on the clock dial, and it doesn’t make any difference whether the numerals are Arabic or Roman or are represented by dots. Yet it has been demonstrated over and over again that popular-priced clocks and watches without numerals on their faces simply don’t sell in quantity. Unnecessary or not, the numbers constitute a survival form that most people demand. Things like electric toasters, coffeemakers, typewriters, and fountain pens often bear survival forms that manufacturers think are necessary or desirable. The chrome band on the base of a typewriter is, for instance, a modern version of an older molding, and the stylized decoration on the side of an electric toaster is a modern replacement for the rosebud or fleur-de-lis that appeared on some household article Grandfather used.

The purist is likely to throw up his hands at the thought of such a restriction and accuse the designer of artistic blasphemy. True, we are straying from the path of utter purity when we consider anything but pure form, proportion, line, and color, but we have larger horizons than the purist need consider. Ours is the ever-changing battleground of the department store rather than the Elysian fields of the museum.

Designing for People (1955)
The “survival form” seems to be more or less synonymous with the skeuomorph, and I would imagine that Dreyfuss’s reasoning here was of great interest to Apple in its work on iOS. I have no strong feelings about survival forms or skeuomorphs in general: they can be beautiful, charming, and witty (the now-gone microphone for iOS’s Voice Memos) or absurd (see below). The individual instance is all.

[The pebbled leather and ragged paper of the original iOS Notes, as seen on my first-generation iPad.]

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