“Truth to Materials” Why “i” Apps that Replicate Physical Objects aren’t All Bad

by Joseph Flaherty on March 28, 2010

On my first day of art school I met an alumni who was dropping his daughter off at the same dorm. He was a successful entrepreneur and we talked about the industrial design. He had started his career when the future was just one word, plastics, and had strong opinions on the matter.

“American designers were using plastics to replicate knotty pine and brushed aluminum, but the Italians understood what “truth to materials” meant for plastic. It had capabilities no other materials did, translucence and organic shapes,  which enabled new kinds of design. Designers should let the material speak rather than try to replicate something else” He shared, sagely. His recollection is verified watching The progression of consumer electronics starting with 1950’s era Bakelite devices and culminating with the Bondi Blue 1st gen iMac.

Marco Arment, of Tumblr and InstaPaper fame, kicked off an interesting discussion regarding the tendency for designers making apps for the iPhone/iPad to slavishly recreate the “Interface Metaphor” and physical appearance of a physical object. e.g. the calculator and compass apps.


His argument was basically “Truth to Materials” via pixels. Digital products should take advantage of their dynamic nature and not constrain functionality merely to replicate the appearance of a digital metaphor. He puts forward the app “Soulver” which combines a calculator with a multi-row form that provides greatly enhanced functionality.


I agree with his thesis that app creators should let the digital materials speak, but don’t think that attachment to metaphor is the real problem.

The super literal interface metaphor is a symptom of people responding positively to highly polished aesthetics. For years designers have had to work in the handcuffs of cross browser compliance, small file sizes, and as a result most sites look boring.

Along comes the iPhone with little app confections that are:

1. Replicating physical objects: so the metaphors generally make sense to a wide swath of users opposed to digital contrivances like tag clouds.

2. Single purpose: so they don’t need cluttered navigation and “Just Work” really well

3. Made by Mac enthusiasts: Who tend to make really nice looking stuff

I think #3 is a far bigger culprit than #1. The success of TapTapTap’s “Convert” app shows that a polished look on a well thought out app that takes advantage of the pixel’s inherent flexibility can succeed.

I think if the Delicious Monster/Panic/Icon Factory/Omni Group teams got a hold of Soulver it would be far more popular. Soulver has impressive functionally and Marco is right that we shouldn’t be beholden to old technical constraints, but it is just a boring from a UI/Eye candy POV which is important in the retail-esqe world of the App Store.

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  • Chris Miller

    Many early software databases on client server systems often replicated the traditional paper form that the users once filled out prior to having a desktop computer. This made it very easy for someone who was intimated by computers and barely knew how to point and click to acclimate themselves to the world of computers. At that time I found it very aggravating to see an expensive and, at that time, powerful machine being used for a simple data entry task. The widespread adoption of Lotus 123 represented the breakthrough I longed for; Albeit, the man-machine interface has not progressed as quickly as I once thought it would. Now, more than 25 years later I see compasses on an iPhone and I have to laugh. I agree with you partly because I don't think it is for the same reason early desktops replaced paper forms. Many people who use this app have probably never actually owned a compass. It is the advance graphics and programming physics that replicate the compass, which make it so novel. What makes it cool is the not the functionality, but how well it replicates something “retro”. A new kind of compass that takes advantage of the iPhone technology to present advanced information will not emerge until the novelty of cool and useless apps die. This is for two reasons that are almost one in the same: a) there is no reason for out of the box thinking until people get bored with what's available and b) we cannot think outside the box when traditional ways of doing things are considered cool.

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