Digital versus analogue

Digital design used to be all about skeuomorphism. What’s skeuomorphism? It means designing things to look like real and familiar objects. Remember TVs and stereos with ‘wooden’ sides? Remember how Apple’s iOS interface used to look with its wood-effect bookshelves and leather-bound calendar ? Yep, that’s skeuomorphism in action. It’s all about designing virtual things to look like familiar physical things. Why? To save our poor brains from getting too confused and to encourage us to use them. I prefer to call it ‘analogue design’, mainly because the word skeuomorphism is hard to spell and to say.

A screenshot of Apple's notes app
Apple’s ‘Notes’ app from its iOS 6 operating system.

Apple’s departure from skeuomorphic design to so-called ‘flat’ design has challenged skeuomorphism as a design approach to digital things. You could argue that some had already done this (Microsoft’s Windows 8 interface springs to mind) but, of course, Apple is the most Designer (note the capital ‘D’) of all virtual brands. When it does something in the world of design, people sit up and take notice.

A screenshot of an iPhone's home screen showing use of 'flat' design
The home screen from an iPhone after Apple adopted ‘flat’ design for its iPhone operating system.

Just because Apple has stopped doing it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t design digital things to remind you of physical things. Did you ever imagine that the ‘floppy disk’ save icon would still be used in 2014? No, neither did I. It doesn’t escape me that when my daughter starts using computers, she’ll probably use this icon without ever having seen an actual floppy disk. That’s weird.

Relics of the analogue world such as the floppy-disk icon remind us that we often need to rethink design once conventions become obsolete. This said, do we always need to banish the analogue from our digital spaces? Is ‘analogue’ design always indicative of out-dated design? I’d argue it isn’t. Here’s why.

The joy of analogue

Bellroy makes wallets. Beautiful wallets. Wallets that remind you that analogue things are often beautiful things. Their website could simply sell you their wallets using a digital store but it doesn’t. It embraces the joy of its analogue products in every inch of its digital space. From the stitched fabric of its backgrounds to the ability to compare its wallets to other physical things, it’s a celebration of analogue.

Bellroy’s wallets are said to have a healthy dollop of ‘old-school craftsmanship’ at their heart and its website certainly reminds you of this. You can almost detect a whiff of the rich scent of its leather as you work your way through its pages. Bellroy has created a perfect marriage of digital and analogue. Its website reminds you of the joy of analogue.

A screenshot of Bellroy's virtual try-on feature
Bellroy’s ‘Virtual Try-On’ feature. Image taken from Bellroy.com

 

When’s a watch not a watch?

Digital watches have been around for ages. I had one when I was 10. It had a pathetic light in the left-hand corner that let you see a quarter of the time when you were sat in the cinema. Some of my friends had ones with calculators. Most chubby, adolescent digits couldn’t use it, of course, but it looked pretty rad on your wrist. Plus, there was always a rumour that someone had managed to sneak one into a maths exam to jab their way to numerical victory.

Apple’s watch is the latest attempt to make us think again about digital watches. Once again we’re being asked to reconsider the scant real estate of our wrists to see if we can make better use of them (lazy wrists, always along for the ride).

Being a bit of a watch aficionado  (I have 5, including a watch that tracks my runs), I’ve been keeping a close eye on developments. I even managed to configure Motorola’s Moto 360 into something that looked about half as good as one of my watches. As I did this, I noted that the default display option for most digital watches is analogue. Why is this? I’ll be the first to say that an analogue watch face is not a quick or efficient way to tell the time. Particularly at a glance. The reason analogue reigns in the watch world is because we’re used to it and it represents time-honoured, trusted design. It’s become a sign of quality. For some reason, a digital watch face makes a watch seem less of a watch.

And the little hand is pointing to my email…

The problem with the latest iteration of digital watches (smart watches) is that they’re not watches at all. In nearly all cases they fail to meet to two basic success criteria for a watch:

  1. can I use it to tell the time without fuss or bother?
  2. will it keep telling the time, accurately, for a reasonable amount of time?

I’ve yet to see a new digital watch that does both of those things well.

Shifting paradigms

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that smart watches have no future. What I’m getting at is that smart watches aren’t watches. They’re wrist-worn computers better used for micro interactions with your smartphone and to harness the power of the internet of things.

If you want to tell the time in a useful way, get an analogue watch. If you want to start exploring how to carry out digital micro interactions without getting out your (now considerably cumbersome) smartphone, then get a smart watch. I’d recommend you wait until at least the second iteration of your chosen watch though. They’re not all that useful yet.
A screenshot of Rory Cellan-Jones' smart watch showing 319 unread emails. The caption reads: 'My smart watch tells me I have 319 new emails. Now how useful is that?'A screenshot of Luke Puplett's wrist showing a drawn-on picture of a watch that says 'You always have email'.