Jason VanLue)

Streamlining vs. Cleanlining

DATE: 10.24.12 • READING TIME: 3min

In today's web world, in the country of design, in the state of the UI designer, a battle is brewing between skeuomorphic design and flat design. Which one is better, for users, for designers, for the web? This essay is the first in what will probably be a few posts on this topic.

This first post will be simple, as I borrow from Henry Dreyfuss, one of America's foremost Industrial Designers in the mid 1900's. He talks about the trend in the 1950's where industrial designers sought to streamline every product just for the sake of streamlining. To strip out anything and everything deemed "obtuse".

"Needless streamlining was made even more ridiculous when high-speed photography revealed that the teardrop form was an optical illusion, that falling drops of water assume all kinds of impractical, air-resisting shapes as they tumble through space."

pencil image

Dreyfuss is referring to the trend to make everything look like a drop of water falling through the sky. School buses, blimps, even pencil sharpeners were molded in this form because, at the time, designers thought this was the jam. I suppose it was the 1950's version of the page curl…

But not only did Dreyfuss show this was an optical illusion — that there was really no perfect teardrop form — he also showed it was kind of ridiculous. He realized that streamlining for streamlining's sake is just a spin of the wheels.

"But out of the era of so-called streamlining, the designer learned a great deal about clean, graceful, unencumbered design. He learned to junk useless protuberances and ugly corners that not only spoiled good honest lines but interfered with efficient operation."

Some good did come out of this — as Dreyfuss mentions, the unnecessary streamlining did cause designers to start thinking about optimizing their design. They realized that a successful product is an efficient product that functions optimally for the user — thus, a successful design removes all encumbrances on that goal.

"The designer was in the right stable but on the wrong horse. Call it cleanlining instead of streamlining, and you have an ideal that the designer today still tries to achieve."

Dreyfuss discovered the important distinction. It wasn't about streamlining, which essentially threw the baby out with the bath water. It was about cleanlining, or optimizing a product's design for proper function and user happiness.

I think this applies beautifully to today's argument between skeuo design and flat design. The folks at Layer App recently posted an insightful article in which they describe their streamlining approach, perhaps even a cleanlining approach. They resisted skeuo design, opting instead for a simplistically simple, bare-bones design.

Where am I going with this? Well, if you've seen any of my work, or played any courses on Code School you'll realize quickly that I actually incorporate a lot of skeuo design. I'll go into more detail on why later. But my main point is this:

Whether you opt for a flat design, a skeuo design, or something in between, let's take Dreyfuss' words to heart. Let's not find ourselves in the right stable, but on the wrong horse. Let's make sure that in our quest to design optimized, functional, pleasant experiences for our users that we are effectually cleanlining and not just streamlining.

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