Last November web design luminary Frank Chimero published a talk – turned – article about web design and user experience called “What Screens Want“. It’s a compelling and thought provoking piece on how we think of screens as design surfaces and how we need to break from the confines and rigid frames of traditional print design to reach the full potential of screen-targeted design and give screens what they want. If you work with screens and especially if you work under the broad umbrella called “web design” you’d be well served to read the article and use it as a starting point to reevaluate how you think of screens.
Sitting in my couch last night I felt compelled to take out my Moleskine and a pencil and sketch out what was directly in front of me. If you’re a regular follower of this site you may have noticed I’ve started hand illustrating my articles. This is a feeble effort on my part to rediscover the skill of drawing, something I like most others pretty much abandoned after secondary school. But the drawing you see above is is not nor was it ever meant to be an illustration for an article. It was more than anything the physical manifestation of a sudden realization I had about what screens actually want.
Screens want attention.
From my vantage point I had four live screens: A TV (out of frame), my old laptop (left), my smartphone (on top) and my new laptop (right). All on, all displaying different information, all screaming for my attention. Though this is not a normal scenario for me (I usually only have one laptop in front of me at a time) it made me realize my exposure to screens is bordering on permanence. When I wake up in the morning I check my phone for emails. When I eat breakfast I watch news on TV. When I work I stare at a screen. When I’m done work I read up on articles and interact with social connections through one of several screens. Then for some relaxation in the evening I watch TV or a movie, again on a screen.
The crazy thing is that it doesn’t end there: In my car there is a screen telling me if it’s currently using electric or gasoline power. Most bars and restaurants have screens showing some sort of sporting event. At the mall there are screens running ads. There are screens on the backs of every seat on most planes. The supermarket cashier has been replaced by a screen. I touch a screen to buy a ticket to use public transit, a screen tells me what classes are currently available at the gym, there is even a tiny screen inside the viewfinder of my camera.
The screens that surround us are attention vampires. When a screen is within your field of vision you can’t help but let your eyes drift towards it, even when what it displays is irrelevant or uninteresting to you. And once it has your attention it feeds off your focus, draining you. Their bold colors, quick movements, and hyper-realism trigger something in the primitive parts of our brains that make us pay attention.
As a web designer I am relying on this effect and I’ve learned to exploit it. I know how to make something appear on a screen in such a way that you just have to look at it. And I know that others are far better at it than I am. So good they can make you look at a screen and not notice what is happening around you in real life. So good they can make you believe in their reality and doubt your own experience. So good they can alter our perceptions of ourselves, of others, of our world.
When I was a kid my parents limited me to one hour of TV per day. “Watching too much TV makes you a fool” my mom would say. And she was right. TV does make you stupid unless you are very careful about what you watch and ask a lot of critical questions. But it’s not just the TV any more. All these other screens, there to give us information and enlighten us, have the same ability to make us dumb and disinterested and desensitized through information overload.
So maybe in addition to asking what screens want we should also ask “what do we want from screens”.