Realistic textures in user interfaces

There’s been a lot of discussion about the realistic style of user interfaces that is so popular right now. Many of the design-conscious crowd advocate simpler, flat interfaces, with clean typography. But there are reasons why textures in general are so popular, and realistic textures in particular.

Why are user interfaces textured?

Textures hide imperfections of the physical display. Even though displays are getting better and better, they are far from perfect. Maybe the backlight illumination isn’t completely constant. Maybe the difference in the viewing angle leads to subtle color variations from top to bottom of the screen. If a user interface contains a lot of solid colors, these imperfections will stick out. The more visible those imperfections are, the more you will be aware of the physical device you are using. But modern user interfaces try to immerse the user. You should have the feeling of touching the app you are using, not a screen. A texture can help. It hides dust and fingerprints. The more details are displayed on the screen, the less visible all the physical imperfections become.

But there’s an even more important reason to use textures; it has to do with the way our eyes work. Our eyes do not simply transmit an image from the retina to the brain. On the contrary, the cells in our retina already perform moderately complex computations before transmitting information over the optic nerve. One of these computations is motion detection. That’s why we can spot moving objects instantly. But this motion detection depends on tiny details in the texture of the moving object. If we observe a moving object with no texture, it doesn’t feel like it is moving. Now if we see a featureless colored rectangle move across the screen, those motion detection cells won’t fire. Even worse, they might respond to the subtle texture of the display itself. Our brain will still use other clues to determine the rectangle is moving, but the retina will say it’s standing still. The conflicting signals will break the immersion; and we will become aware we are looking at a screen. But if the moving rectangle is textured, it will appear as a real, solid, moving object.

Now textures aren’t totally necessary for immersion. You can become totally immersed in an 8 bit video game just like you can become totally immersed in a book when the story is good; but immersion is a lot faster and easier when you don’t have contradicting input from your senses. That’s why user interfaces are textured.

Why do user interfaces use realistic textures?

A lot of the discussion about skeuomorphic design centered on the use of textures resembling materials in the real world, like leather or paper. I’ve explained why textures are important, but my arguments would allow for any texture. And indeed, any texture can be used for the described effects. For example, Apple uses a subtle noise texture in OS X window title bars that doesn’t resemble a real world texture. But why do so many apps use fake leather, or wood, or paper?

One reason is that materials from the real world carry a meaning. Paper in the real world is printed on, or meant for writing on. This makes a paper texture perfectly suited for a content area in a digital user interface. Leather on the other hand is not usually written on, so a leather texture is more fitting for decorative elements. By using appropriate textures, designers can give subtle clues to the user.

But a much simpler explanation for the use of real world textures is that we are used to them. People like familiar textures. Take a look at the furniture people buy. Most of it is made from chipboard now, covered with a printed texture. By far the most popular texture is some variation of wood grain. Why? When you could print any conceivable pattern on furniture? It’s because an artificial pattern would stick out. When you see it you would stop to inspect it more closely. People don’t want a piece of furniture to attract attention, they want it to be part of the room. It’s the same in a digital user interface. The designer wants to use some kind of texture, and decides to go with a natural texture. The natural texture will not distract, because everyone knows this texture already. Nobody will pay attention to inspect a simple wood texture more closely, because we are already familiar with wood grain.

Conclusion

Modern user interfaces, especially on touch screens, aim to immerse the user; to let you feel as if you were manipulating objects in an app directly. Textures facilitate this immersion. While arbitrary artificial textures could be used, realistic textures are less obtrusive. A completely flat user interface might be considered more pleasing from an aesthetic point of view, but it can never feel as natural as an interface with realistic textures.

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