The art of subversion
Issue 117: Breaking paradigms to create new ones
I recently re-watched the movie Pollock, the biopic of artist Jackson Pollock played by the legendary Ed Harris. The man who once portrayed General Francis X Hummel in The Rock takes a crack at playing the abstract expressionist painter. I honestly can’t tell you if the movie is accurate, though found it entertaining. One moment I loved in the film is when they conveyed the moment Pollock discovered inspiration for his iconic splatter paint style. As the artist was going to reload his brush and make a stroke, he spilled pain on the canvas positioned on the floor. This gave him a moment of inspiration to take a subversive painting approach—splatters instead of strokes with the brush. Whether it actually happened like this or not in real life, it was a great scene.
Before this publication as called Proof of Concept, I considered many different names. For the early readers, you might recall I changed the name, which lasted about a week. The name was so unmemorable that I had to look it up. However, one of the contenders I strongly considered was Subversion. However, I didn't want people to think this was a newsletter about version control software.
Subversion: The undermining of the power and authority of an established system or institution.
Subverting is one of the most powerful acts in the world. It challenges dogma and standards to innovate and invent. On every design team, there is that one person who will point out all things in your design that don't adhere to Apple's Human Interface Guidelines or Google Material Design. It's their sacred text. I know this because I used to be that person. Guidelines and starts are important. Where it becomes problematic is if you follow them blindly without question. They foster consistency, and consistency doesn't innovate. I'd argue it's not supposed to.
Subversion isa way to take a step back and explore new directions by breaking things—very difficult to do in established systems. This is why interface studies are so important to invest in. You may not realize when you need to subvert something, but you might find a spark.
Moments in subversion
There could be an entire book written about when subversion led to standardization (someone please write it). Let's look at a few of my favorite examples of when someone subverted a pattern that created a new industry standard.
Marching ants in MacPaint
What is this, a graphical user interface for ants?! This design pattern was made popular in Photoshop but originated in MacPaint. Bill Atkinson invented this to use motion as a way to create indication around a selected area. The story goes that Atkinson found this inspiration at a pub in Los Gatos, where he saw an animated waterfall as part of an electric Hamm’s Beer sign. Incredible.
Pull-to-refresh by Tweetie
People may not realize that a pattern so familiar today was created by software engineer Loren Brichter building a niche Twitter client called Tweetie. I’ve actually wondered if the reason Twitter acquired Tweetie was to get the patent for the interaction—imagine being acquired for an interaction! Part of the magic of scrolling in the early iOS day was the momentum of scrolling and the rubber band effect when you hit the end. Today, pull-to-refresh at the top and infinite scroll at the bottom have replaced the rubber band effect.
Button interaction on Path
Path was a social network focused on the relationship of close friends—keeping the friend count to a limit. Even power users of it may not realize that the first version of it left much desired. It wasn’t until the re-design that brought a lot of traction to the app. The refreshed UI introduced a button interaction many haven’t seen before—the expansion of more button options in a radial interface to post text, images, video, and other types. I'm not 100% sure about this though believe this interaction predates Google's Floating Action Button (FAB) in Material Design. Did you know that the tweet button on Twitter iOS does this today? Press and hold—wait and see.
Beware of the trap of being overly clever
Subversion has a cost to it, and be mindful of when you break dogma and paradigm. Most of the time you need to use common UI patterns. Do not fall into the trap of trying to delight when someone wants to achieve something with ease. Light switches work great because it's obvious. Being overly fancy can cause confusion for users and doesn't solve their problems.
Subversion leads to invention
Nobody wakes up and says, "I'm going to invent new interaction paradigms," it takes time. The majority of your attempts will fail, and it's worth investing time to do so.
When you combine subversion with purpose, you get invention and impact. Pull-to-refresh is the standard now, enabling more possibilities in software. Find your way of splatter painting with a canvas on the floor. Make time to explore subversion techniques. Tell the world, "I'm going to break this and find a new way." Detach that component (but not in the production file!) to explore, turn off auto-layout, get messy, and see what comes from the mess.
Thank you, Front Utah
Huge thanks to Ben Peck the folks at Front Utah for inviting me to do a workshop at the conference. Salt Lake City is truly indeed Silicon Slopes and excited to visit again.
Webflow Conf week
I am so excited about the annual conference next week. It's going to be incredible to see all the hard work everyone on our product design team has poured into this effort. I know our customers are going to be blown away!
Invites to The Profile
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Making Computers Better: A great re-read of Adam Wiggins’ blog series