O LED, O LED…, or: The visual rhetoric of ubiquity
A little more technical and granular than we generally get here, but there are a couple of things coming together at the moment that constitute what I think of as the first consumer-level flowering of the visual rhetoric of ubiquity.
Consider this lovely Stephen Fry piece from the Grauniad, discussing the phenomenological and experiential consequences of Motorola’s decision to equip their otherwise “frankly unremarkable” U9 phone with an OLED, or “organic LED,” display. Here’s the money graf:
What is new is that there is no secondary screen; the whole exterior of the phone is pure glossy violet plastic, giving no hint of display capability. The image appears to be going on somehow inside the very surface of the plastic cover. What’s more, if I close the phone while playing a track, a music player now appears – a touch-sensitive music player at that. It is as if you are looking at a perfectly ordinary spectacles case that suddenly decides to show you a television programme and allows you to change channels by touching it. What witchcraft is this?
Witchcraft, sure, or equally so, magic. What Fry’s bumped up against is nothing less than a visual instantiation of the logic of seamlessness, the urge in the design of ubiquitous systems to deny or efface the messiness of everyday life, in favor of an experience “indistinguishable from magic“; I’d argue that what we see here is a novel technical capability rising to meet a pre-existing articulation of value.
Not that I’m necessarily saying that it’s an entirely bad thing, as suspicious of the logic of seamlessness as I am. The first OLED-bearing product in our household – that I’m aware of, anyway – is the rather unbelievably pretty wireless keyboard we picked up from Apple’s new Meatpacking store last weekend, where the OLED application is simply a power-indicator light that’s invisible until switched on. Taken as a whole composition, the keyboard is utterly convincing, and while the indicator is only a small element of the design, it plays a disproportionately strong role in pushing the experience over the threshold separating “pleasurable” from “delightful.”
I have two questions, though maybe they’re really one question posed two different ways. The first is whether “ubicompy” design cues like OLEDs and frameless displays – the closest commercial approximation to which is currently the iPhone – will be anything but a momentary fashion, whether they’ll come to be seen as connoting “late oughties design” every bit as much as a Memphisian explosion of form and color marks objects designed in the early 1980s.
The other has to do with whether this sort of visual vocabulary will support the market differentiation perceived as necessary by the institutions that build these things over the longer term. Clearly, at the moment, Apple and Motorola intend unseamly designs like these to communicate something about their respective brands, and the value propositions that attend them. But it’s not at all clear to me if this is a sustainable strategy, or whether those who got here first will be forced to (cough) “innovate” past an optimized visual design in pursuit of mere distinction.
Obviously, time and the market will tell. In the meantime, I find myself surprisingly open to the language of smoothness, if and when it’s deployed anywhere near as delicately as it is on Apple’s keyboard.