Several Clouds Colliding


Several Clouds Colliding by Brian Catling and Iain Sinclair

Artwork and design by Stephen McNeilly and James Brook
Co-published by the Swedenborg Archive and Book Works, 2012
Edition of 1,600
ISBN 978 1 906012 41 0
72 pages
Hard cover with blind blocking
225 x 135 mm

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The future is flat

On the 23rd August Microsoft unveiled a new logo, 25 years after the last update, which will be used across all of its products and communications and is intended to "express the company’s diverse portfolio of products." The logo has two components: a logotype and a symbol. The logotype uses the Microsoft font Segoe, set in grey and loosely letter-spaced. This is a stark contrast to the previous logotype which used Helvetica, tightly set in black, with a slice taken out of the first 'o' to create an upward-pointing triangle with the left terminal of the 's'. The ligature between the last two letters exists in both logotypes, visually connecting old and new.

What I find most interesting about the new logo is the flattening of the Windows symbol which accompanies the new logotype. The Windows symbol - four squares of colours, red, green, blue and yellow separated by bars of white - has been through several redesigns, most recently as a kind of flowing magic carpet seen in perspective, complete with shading and 3D effects but in this latest version the squares are simply presented as coloured squares with no shadows or other visual trickery.

I've been thinking about some of the bizarre design choices of computer software interfaces for some time - hardly surprising when I spend so much time in front of the computer. I was dismayed when I saw the OS X Leopard dock on my first iMac: why did it have to be a shelf rendered in 3D? If the concept of the screen as a 'desktop' was relatively easy to grasp then what did the shelf represent? I started thinking of it as the lip that holds brushes and paints on an artist's easel. Similarly Garageband, one of my favourite ways to waste time, presented a similar conundrum with its wood-effect mixing desk, working sliders and knobs.

'Skeuomorph' does not appear in my 1996 Oxford Compact English Dictionary but acccording to Wikipedia, a skeuomorph is 'a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.'

These functionally unnecessary skeuomorphic visual effects serve the purpose of making new technologies familiar to users: the digitally-rendered wooden bookcase containing leather-bound books with covers and pages makes Apple's iBook application understandable to those more accustomed to their analogue counterparts.

Microsoft, meanwhile have been quietly designing in another direction. Metro is a design language that was originally developed for the user interface of Windows phone. Instead of looking at other mobile phone or PC interfaces for inspiration the Windows Phone design team looked elsewhere: to the International Style of Josef Müller-Brockmann and others; to Massimo Vignelli's signage systems for the New York Subway System and his design for American Airlines; and to contemporary practitioners such as Experimental Jetset. The principles guiding the development of the design language championed reduction and refinement and clean and light typographically-based design with an emphasis on 'content, not chrome'. Crucially, the design team believed in an 'honesty of design': "A user interface is created of pixels, so in Metro we try to avoid using the skeuomorphic shading and glossiness used in some UI’s that try to mimic real world materials and objects." The design language developed for Metro informed the development of the new Microsoft logo as it as has informed the graphic design language being applied across all of Microsoft's products and communications including Microsoft's new operating system, Windows 8.

Online opinion is divided whether the new Microsoft logo is a good or bad thing. A user interface is different to a logo and while I applaud the design philosophy that has been applied to the design I wonder if it is distinctive enough to sell the ethos of the company. Apple's logo, based on the same silhouette of an apple with a bite taken out of it, has been through many mutations from the rainbow striped version of 1976 to the 3D rendered liquid metal version still in use today - albeit in a more toned-down version. Compared to the Microsoft logo, Apple's is more memorable and that's important: I think a logo that can be described in a few words is easily remembered and therefore more successful in terms of brand recognition.

I am seduced by the flatness of Microsoft's logo: it references the type of design that I am in thrall to and aspire to and this has prompted me to take a look at the design of the interface of Windows 8 which is highly appealing in its use of flat colours with very little use of digital 'shadows' or gradients. I've always felt that there was a discrepancy between the pared down minimalism of the design of the exterior of Apple's products and the overblown design of its user interface - think of how difficult it is to find something restrained in the iMac's library of desktops and screen savers. I don't think I'm ready to move on to a PC just yet but, with its embracing of flat design, looking back in time to the design philosophies of heroes such as Josef Müller-Brockmann, Microsoft somehow looks like the future.

The Braille Room

The Braille Room, a publication that I designed for Giuseppe Mistretta's exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow, 17-28 July 2012. The publication, featuring a text by the artist, took the form of a double-sided folded 'map', printed one colour, 746 x 470 mm. 




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