What Do Roast and Designing for Digital Mediums Have in Common?

Pot Roast
(Image Source: My Recipes)

Over the past four weeks, I’ve read About Face (Cooper, et all), Design of Everyday Things (Donald Norman), Designing the Obvious (Robert Hoekman), Designing the Interface (Jenifer Tidwell), parts of Simple and Usable (Giles Colborne), and I’m a few chapters in to Inventing the Medium (Janet Murray).

I won’t lie, the volume of information, though incredibly interesting, is a bit overwhelming.  These texts’ publication dates span across the past decade (well, past couple of decades if you take into account that the first publication of Design of Everyday Things was in the late ’80s). If read chronologically by publication date, each successive text introduces new terminology, slightly adjusts key definitions, offers more comprehensive explanations, and provides newer examples.  But, putting all of that aside, one common theme comes up again and again and again–the importance of affordances.

Digital technology provides us with new (and sometimes better) affordances–ways for us to complete tasks and accomplish goals. Yet instead of taking advantage of this, it seems we struggle with recreating the same exact system in the newer mediums.  And instead of allowing us to do things better, our designs often make it more difficult. Or, we simply engage in some sort of affordance exchange; we accept a certain number of newer, better features in exchange for sacrificing some of the older features that did actually work.

Why is this? Is it because we are concerned that users won’t accept new technology without the comfort of the familiar medium?  For example, why was it so important for Apple and Kindle to create “pages” that “turn” in it’s reading app? Quite honestly, it seems like a very inefficient motion. Pages are features of a book because the design was more efficient than a scroll. Why recreate that in a digital medium?

By publishing texts in a digital format, we are already essentially saying that the format of the book (for whatever reason) isn’t working or fitting our needs anymore–either cost of printing is too high, the printing process delays the dissemination of important information, the volumes are too large and cumbersome, the information can’t be updated quickly, etc… Yet, despite our admission that the form isn’t working, we insist on re-creating it.

It reminds me of a story my dad used to tell me around the holidays about a woman who was preparing a roast for the family Christmas dinner.  She began, just as her mother taught her growing up, by cutting off both ends of the roast before placing it into the pan.  She’d made this dish countless times over the years, but this time, she stopped and wondered why she was discarding what looked like perfectly good meat.  She called her mother into the kitchen, thinking she would know the answer. But her mother only shrugged, “Well, that’s how my mother always taught me.”  So they called grandma into the kitchen and asked her.  The grandmother laughed and said, “Darlings… I didn’t have a pan big enough to fit an entire roast.”

It seems like the way we often approach design is very similar. We limit our design options, simply because the previous mediums didn’t offer those affordances. As a very basic example, we place footnotes and endnotes in digital publications, because that’s the disciplinary style format we’ve been taught to follow. We ignore opportunities for color images, video, animation, and sound because there’s no way they could ever fit inside the pages of a traditional book.

Yes, we can make re-purposed, digital versions of  printed texts, but does that take advantage of the affordances of the medium?  I’ve been purchasing a number of my books in digital versions, rather than hard copies, because, quite frankly, I’ve become tired of lugging 30 pounds of books around with me everywhere.  Ironically, many of the texts I read are about design, layout, and formatting–yet very few of them take advantage of the digital medium they are discussing. These texts were clearly written for print-publication and simply reproduced in digital formats. Essentially, the ends have been cut off to fit a pan that is too small.

Rather than simply remediating the format of old content to fit into the context of new mediums, shouldn’t we be thinking more carefully about how we can better use new mediums to help us more adequately display and interact with our content?  Isn’t it time we just get a bigger pan?


7 thoughts on “What Do Roast and Designing for Digital Mediums Have in Common?

  1. Flipping pages on a tablet is just ludicrous. (I spoke about that in my S.O.P. btw -_- ) I get what they are trying to do, but argh.

    I hope that the blinders come off soon. The pan isn’t the restriction anymore.

    • There’s such a fine balance between constraint and affordance (Murray addresses this). The challenge is thinking about design in an innovative way that allows us to take advantage of the affordances of technology, while still creating usable products. It would be foolish to deviate so drastically from the familiar that products are disorienting and confusing. But creating recognizable interfaces doesn’t necessarily mean taking the affordances from old media and reassigning them to new media.

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