The Man Who Destroyed the Boring Interface and Lived

From the earliest graphical user interfaces, to the latest pixel perfect work seen in apps, the most basic elements of the interface have remained pretty much the same. For example the button: It has gone from a flat rectangle, to a beveled rectangle, to a beveled rectangle with a gradient.1

One of the first systems to fully utilize a graphical user interface (GUI) was the Xerox Star (Xerox 8010 Information System). It followed close to the metaphor of an office using folders and documents, and the user would click on icons and open windows… pretty much what we do today. The Star ended up becoming a commercial failure.

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Xerox 8010 Information System

From there, the more recognizable players like Apple and Microsoft came into the game. They were able to evolve the interface into what we know and use today.

So, it seems that interface design has remained a bit stagnant all these years, until today. Exciting designs and fresh experiences are being built around us. A rich, graphic realism is pouring into our work. It’s a new day for design. But wait, it’s not so new after all. In fact, there was one man who dared to see the interface in a different way years before many designers were even able to utter their first words. He saw more potential in the basic screen than just rectangles; he saw a design playground.

A Gooey (GUI) Pioneer

Kai Krause is considered an influential pioneer in interface design. He built many successful products that encouraged exploration and learning where most software at the time was mostly bare bones and unengaging. Kai breathed a new life into software design that was, until then, mostly dormant.

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Mac OS 9

Most designers look at screenshots of Kai’s design work and refer to it as kitsch, discounting it as mere eye candy for the time. I would imagine if Jakob Nielsen had nightmares about interfaces, they would look exactly like Kai’s Spheroid Designer. If we withhold judgment of “good design” and think about that time in the history of interface design, it’s hard to not appreciate that unique vision.

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Kai Power Tools Spheroid Designer

When most interfaces looked more like terrible clip art, he dared to push the boundaries of digital design. We see the remnants of his influence splashed across the Web. The staple design techniques like transparency, rounded corners, drop-shadows were in his products around 20 years ago.

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Kai Power Tools Lens f/x 3.0 over a Photoshop window

The tools that Kai created didn’t feel or act like tools. They made people want to reach out and start using them. The off-the-wall interfaces hid a real technology and power beneath their surface. There was no developer’s mental model present here. There was probably not even a user’s mental model to be considered either. It was a Disneyland of interfaces that simply welcomed you to its world to stop in and play for a while.2

Curse of the Sameness

The sameness that we currently find in design is pervasive. Sometimes it feels like the same designer worked on every site or application. What’s interesting is this isn’t a new problem. Although Kai pushed the limits of what was done in interface design, he ironically ended up creating another period of stagnant trends in design. The software he helped build was blamed for creating this string of “bad design.” When asked about this, he responded:

“[…] the camcorder is not a shortcut to Citizen Kane, it is an immensely beautiful and important tool to preserve memories. In that sense I do not like my tools to be approached as one-click-art short cuts to Mona Lisa, but as beautiful aids for playing with your own brain. As such, I’ll compare them to computer games any day.

The most unimaginative misuses are visible from ten yards away, while the subtle little glow and soft texture may be almost completely invisible. […] Surely the tools have a certain look and that can lead to sameness, but that’s actually more of a social problem than one of technology: conformity in style and flat emulations of the existing stuff are the common practice in 95 percent of all books or movies or records. Sad, yes. But I am always happy to see the best escape over the top.”3

Escaping Flatland

The story “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions,” is about a square living in a two-dimensional world. The square is visited by a three-dimensional sphere which he cannot comprehend until he is educated by the sphere of the existence of this other dimension called “Spaceland.” The square’s mind is then opened to new possibilities of other dimensions.

There will always be designers that latch on to a tool or technique and keep us in Flatland. The designers with a vision will break away from the rest of the pack because they are open to possibilities. Sure, they might push us straight into the next wave of sameness. We will certainly look back on today’s popular designs with the same disdain that we do on the “Web 2.0” styles. That’s guaranteed.

We can’t forget that all design is the result of a person, not a tool. Whether or not you admire or dislike the work of a designer like Kai, you have to respect them for moving us past the stagnant Flatland of design and showing us new possibilities.

1) UX Concepts – Rethinking the Button – Dax Pandhi
2) The Genie in the Machine – The Atlantic Online
3) Artist at Play – The Atlantic Online