Chanel. The Golden Gate Bridge. Ferrari. When I think about great designs, it’s easy to think of iconic examples from an array of disciplines. Whether it’s graphical, industrial, fashion, or architectural design (among others), each industry has beloved pieces that are studied and adored for years to come. But with software design, there simply aren’t any designs that are worshipped and adored long after their creation.
Great Design Throughout History
It doesn’t take long to think of inspiring examples from design history. From the iconic furniture designed by Charles and Ray Eames, to the timeless buildings by Zaha Hadid that so many adore. Great designs last long after the time of their inception and can awe people for generations to come. just looking at an Eames chair makes me feel good. Every time.
In graphic design, we see a similar picture. Ever seen the I ❤ NY logo? Milton Glaser designed it in 1976 to promote tourism in New York. I have seen that logo on every possible piece of merchandise out there: t-shirts, mugs, scarves, you name it. It is so iconic and widely used that it almost feels like nobody designed it. It was just there since the beginning of coffee mugs…
Technology & Design
But we have so many fewer lasting examples in the world of software. Is it because technology is inherently cold and inhuman? No. Hardware has seen great and lasting design. Whether we are talking about Dieter Rams’ iconic ET 66 Calculator or Jonathan Ive’s iPhone, technological objects can be greatly designed. The timeless work of the legendary industrial designers shows us that technology does not inherently pose a barrier to great design. No matter how much of a utility or ubiquitously spread out a technological object is, it can create a great emotional connection with the people that use it.
But what about software? No matter how great an app seems to be, it usually doesn’t stick in people’s minds, or in some cases, cross people’s minds in the first place. When I first saw Google Maps on the original iPhone, I was completely blown away. The pinch gesture made the impossible task of viewing maps on a phone intuitive and very easy.
A few years later, Google Maps and other great apps of the time seemed commonplace. All apps look similar and have very similar interfaces. A quick look through the shots at Dribbble (a popular community for digital designers) shows me almost identically looking apps being designed every day. Where is the promised inspiring, lasting, and meaningful software design?
Software is ever changing
It is very hard to make lasting software designs. Unlike many other design mediums, software changes constantly. A product is never fully finished. The Android Gmail app might look one way today, but slightly different tomorrow. Who knows, in a few years it might not even have a visual interface. This constant molding and shaping of software interfaces makes each of their iterations invisible to history. One can never keep the Adobe Illustrator app of 2010 for 10 years. It won’t be supported and will not be useful. Old makes way for the new, and the designs of today are easily forgotten for the “better” designs of tomorrow.
Software is easy to replicate
With just a single click, we download an app. We don’t have to go out, make a selection in a store and then bring it home. Buying a stylish vase creates so much more emotional connection than downloading a piece of software. The simplicity makes software amazingly efficient and cheap to scale. But it also makes the product more impersonal. In part, it’s the effort of buying something and creating a space for it in our home that creates our emotional connection to the object. With software, we are just one “update” click away from moving on.
Software is hard to showcase
Beautiful cathedrals stand tall for hundreds of years. Museums house great pieces of graphic, fashion, and industrial design. But what about software? There simply isn’t an easy way to see the great software designs of the past. We only keep software on websites and app stores. That is until the next version comes out or the developer takes them down. Having no natural places to live, old software designs are hard to find, which makes them easier to be forgotten.
Great Software Design
All that being said, there are some software designs that are considered important milestones and have achieved a somewhat iconic status. Apple’s original OS X and iOS operating systems certainly count as such cases. Google’s minimalist search engine interface is another. Though these examples exist, I feel that there are many many others that are so simply forgotten; so simply erased. Perhaps it’s the nature of software that makes it prone to this fate. But can we, as designers, make software designs that last past their time? Should we care?