A Public Display of Interface

Graphic Design from the Collection, May 14–October 23, 2016, SFMOMA, Floor 6

The last time I visited SFMOMA was 3 years ago, just before they closed for a major expansion of the museum. I worked on an interface that had just won an interaction design award several months prior to my visit and was on a designer’s high, daydreaming as I walked through the museum, wondering, would a modern art museum, like SFMOMA ever feature the design of something like an interface? Maybe I could be part of that history, contributing to an innovative interface or at least one little icon. 

Amused by the idea that one day there could be an exhibition detailing the mode of interface style throughout the years, I imagined the possible exhibits celebrating a functional, digital aesthetic.

Consenting Affordances: Web vs. Desktop and their Lovechild, Mobile

Wistful Analog: Skeuomorphism and the Rise of Flatland

Extravagant Limitations: Evolution of the Application Icon

Window Shopping: The Armors of Netscape, Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome

Could something like a 16×16 icon be on display in a modern art museum? Would something so tiny and digital be considered too silly and insignificant to rest under the same roof as a Rauschenberg, O’Keefe, or Warhol?
With the awakening of a new SFMOMA, the interface daydreaming stopped and revealed a new reality: the recognition of an artform whose infancy rivals that of Pop Art but until now has yet to be collected, to tell a new story, found on floor 6 in the exhibit: Typeface to Interface.

Typeface to Interface.

I was reunited with those interface exhibition dreams during the opening of the overwhelmingly airy and far-too-much-to-see-in-a-day new SFMOMA. The 170,000 square feet of exhibition space turns the museum into one of the largest art museums in the United States (larger than the New York MOMA and The Getty Center in Los Angeles) making SFMOMA one of the largest museums in the world specifically focusing on modern and contemporary art. 

The exhibit takes selected work from the museum’s permanent graphic design collection (spanning as far back as 1950) and joins it with examples of graphic design that has shaped the development of the interface – our modern day means of visual communication. Posters, visual communication systems, and annual reports are interwoven with a variety of technology platforms: the desktop interface, the stylus, and the mobile touchscreen – the tools and methods we’ve used to communicate via the interface. Underlying all of this are the foundations of visual design and as a result an understanding of human behavior.

Adapting to the grid.

Design sophistication was once primarily measured in the designer’s ability to visually communicate an idea in print – the science of applying a single black dot among other dots, forming the atomic base of an ephemera based communication system. The mass distribution of knowledge through typography, the negative space it created and the supporting graphical systems of color and shape are evident in the environmental graphics designed by Massimo Vignelli’s iconic New York subway guide.  

Massimo Vignelli, New York City Subway Guide, 1972

Massimo Vignelli, New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual, 1972

The fundamentals of art and design that shaped mid-century typography can be seen in the grid systems and wit of Jacqueline Casey’s MIT posters.

Jacqueline Casey, The Moon Show, 1969

Using graph paper to simulate the pixel structure of a 1980’s computer screen, the notebooks of Susan Kare‘s first sketches of what would be the Apple Macintosh’s most iconic 1 bit, #000000 icons. 

Susan Kare, Sketches of Graphic User Icons, 1982 

Kare launched a new strand of graphic design that focused on the user interface, genetically shifting visual communication into the form of a single bit of black square, the pixel

Building on her study of Pop-Art and her experience using grids to make mosaics and needlepoint, Kare launched a new strand of graphic design that focused on the user interface, genetically shifting visual communication into the form of a single bit of black square, the pixel – formed within rules dictated by a grid, constantly recycling their positions on and off shaping how we would interact with information.

Susan Kare, Apple Macintosh Icons, 1984

Keeping the bits that make us human. 

The human form can be witnessed in the letterforms carved into Stefan Sagmeister‘s body in an AIGA Detroit lecture poster. This work emphasized the human scale of interpersonal communication through physical handwriting and created a statement about his resistance to the digitization of graphic design.

Stefan Sagmeister, Poster for AIGA Detroit lecture, 1999  |  Palm Inc, Graffiti, 1997

In juxtaposition, I cannot help but smirk when I see our digital reach for humanity expressed in the neography of Graffiti, the single stroke handwriting recognition language written by Palm Inc. and developed by Jeff Hawkins for the Palm OS. Since the user could not typically see the characters as they were drawn due to the user’s hand (which was needed to hold a small stylus over a relatively small screen), the complexity of cross-strokes were removed to allow users to draw blindly. 

Back to the future of 1984. 

One of the more shocking exhibits and a harbinger of things to come is the display of Apple’s prototype of a touchscreen tablet designed by Hartmut Esslinger. He was tasked to design a unified look and feel for the Macintosh, his aesthetic was based on actual use cases and “the original iPad” was built in… wait for it… 1984.

Hartmut Esslingler, Prototype for Apple Macintosh Touchscreen Tablet, 1984

Through the interface is the shape of social media and how we communicate with one another. Evidence that the interface has become a conduit of the human condition. 

Once viewed through the lens of the original Macintosh and for a moment, Google Glass is the reflection of our relationship with the interface. In this repeatable and shareable point of view, a common language of socially acceptable (and unacceptable) norms are being created.

Jürg Lehni, Jenny Hirons, A taxonomy of Communication, 2016 

Note the “Who wants a Stylus?” in Graffiti. A quote from Steve Jobs dismissing any stylus-based PDA or smartphone during the introduction of the iPhone at MacWorld in 2007.

As a testament to our screen time, when the digital aesthetic of a redesigned application icon can in turn influence new art #myinstagramlogo, it is evident the interface could not be of more relevance to modern art. 

In those 3 years since my last visit to SFMOMA, questioning the importance of the interface with that of art, I am reminded of the concept that Warhol promoted through the repetition of an image: elevating and equating brand with celebrity.

Warhol, meet the celebrity of the interface.

Jayson McCauliff
Jayson McCauliff
Principal Visual Designer, Designit San Francisco

Jayson McCauliff is a Principal Visual Designer at Designit San Francisco. By day, he designs interfaces, identities, and visual systems for companies such as Practice Fusion, Boston Scientific, Amgen, Pwc, and Intel. Outside of work, he spends his time painting, photographing, and adding color to the visual landscape of San Francisco.

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