Ditching the Frame

user interface and the blurring of digital boundaries

by Lisa Borst

Illustration by Pierie Korostoff

published April 11, 2014

Art has always favored the rectangle. Since humans began moving our paintings off of cave walls and onto formal and constructed surfaces—essentially, since we began framing our art—we have, by and large, framed it in rectangles. A Romanian study from 1999 analyzed several hundred of the West’s most famous paintings, from Caravaggio to Cézanne, and found that the bulk of paintings made since the Renaissance have aspect ratios between 1:1.1 and 1:1.5. Your camera, whether it’s your mom’s old Nikon or built into your iPhone, likely makes photographs of similar proportions.

     There’s a material reason for this. Canvas, like many fabrics, is woven from warp and weft threads at right angles; stretching a blank canvas onto a rectangular frame, therefore, puts equal tension on all of the threads. But there’s also the fact that the rectangle feels like an aesthetically natural way to frame images. Windows, by and large, have always been rectangular; computer, television, and cell phone screens have followed suit. Some scholars argue that images whose sides conform to the Golden Ratio—the 1:1.618 proportion that can be found anywhere from seashells to credit cards—are naturally pleasing to look at.

     In light of the historical predominance of the rectangle, there is little that feels natural about images framed in circles. Circular images have maintained a limited role throughout the history of art: Botticelli was famous for his tondi—round paintings that can first be found on ancient Greco-Roman vases and wine glasses—and domed ceilings have long been a surface for framing pictures in non-rectangular modes. In the 1960s, several New York-based artists, including Frank Stella and Richard Tuttle, began experimenting with alternative canvas shapes. Walk through any art museum, though, and count the number of round picture frames: it won’t be high.

     But share pictures of your museum visit through platforms like Instagram, Facebook Messenger, or even a group text on an iPhone, and you’ll notice an entirely different landscape of shapes: on an increasing number of social media platforms, our profile pictures are framed in circles.

In September 2013, shortly after Apple released iOS 7, Instagram responded with a large-scale redesign, updating its graphics to appear more in keeping with iOS 7’s flat, clean aesthetic. Updates included larger images and higher resolutions, but perhaps the most jarring change was the app’s introduction of the circular profile picture—the purpose of which, according to a statement on the app’s blog, was to make Instagram “feel more at home on your phone.”

     iOS 7 certainly seems to emphasize the circle, replacing squares on its lock screens, contacts pages, and numerous other places around the iPhone with sleek round icons. The icon at the top of your screen that signifies cellular strength signal, formerly a tiny escalator of rectangles, has been replaced by a slick row of circles; so have the grid on Apple’s built-in calendar and the formerly pseudo-three-dimensional buttons on its calculator and lock screen. In keeping with this Apple-led trend, numerous social media platforms have introduced circular profile pictures since iOS 7’s inception half a year ago. Along with Instagram, Facebook Messenger and Tinder have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, and Google+, with its assertively sleek—if slow to catch on—emphasis on “circles” of friends and acquaintances, is phasing in round profile pictures as well.

The use of round imagery in graphic design is nothing new, but recent years have seen an explosion in the use of circles in deliberately minimalistic logo redesigns (USA Today, Pitchfork, even the Indy), ad campaigns (the circle-framed sunrise of Obama 2012), and especially album artwork (a selection of 2013’s circle-heavy artwork, among countless others: Yeezus, Reflektor, Chvrches’ The Bones of What You Believe; Tycho’s Awake, released just a few weeks ago, has on its cover a single circle, filled in with a gradient reminiscent of iOS 7’s bright color scheme).

     In his 2013 novel The Circle, Dave Eggers uses the titular shape to signify a utopian inclusivity through his descriptions of a sinister Facebook-like social media corporation called—pretty directly—The Circle. In eerie parallel to the novel’s futuristic tech-campus setting, Apple’s new real-life Cupertino headquarters, scheduled for completion in 2016, is an enormous ring of glass and brushed metal; nearly every recent news article on the circular building’s construction has described it with the epithet “space-age.” The circle allows information to be presented as efficiently as possible, with no wasted pixel space or extraneous content at its corners. It feels sleek, modern, forward-thinking: an efficient departure from traditional ways of seeing and framing.

     We can read the rise of the circle, in fact, as representative of a larger trend in user interface design away from the long-perceived need to frame content at all. A square or a rectangle shows us an image in grid-like context; by framing information—picture the metallic windows that likely enclose your desktop web browser or music library—rectangles imitate and reiterate the right-angled boundaries of our screens and picture frames. Circles simply float, frameless, imitating nothing. As technology becomes increasingly mobile and integrated into our physical world, circles are becoming more ubiquitous across our devices in the same instant at which the boundaries of those devices seem to be disintegrating.

The shift away from graphics that replicate analog reality is not limited to the smoothing of rectangles into circles. In the past year and a half, new operating systems like iOS 7 and Windows 8 have largely ditched the design trend known as skeuomorphism, a term that refers to the mimicry of real-life, physical experiences by digital technologies: iOS 6-era icons made to look three-dimensional through the casting of pixilated shadows and reflections, for example, are skeuomorphic, as are the simulated shutter sounds made by your phone when you snap a picture and the notepad aesthetic and faux-handwriting fonts that characterize many note-taking apps.

     Skeuomorphism was for a long time heralded as a convenient means of introducing new technologies to the uninitiated. If you had never used Apple’s Game Center before, the traditional thinking dictated, its skeuomorphic faux-leather graphics, mimicking the aesthetic of a real casino, would put you at ease with the unfamiliar technology.

     Since 2012, however, when Microsoft introduced its flat, colorful new Windows 8 operating system, skeuomorphism has largely fallen out of fashion—a trend that became fully apparent with Apple’s unveiling of iOS 7 last September. Across both competing companies’ new operating systems, skeuomorphic aesthetics have been replaced by flatter, cleaner, less realistic graphics. Text messages and icons are no longer rendered reflectively three-dimensional; gone are the faux-leather stitching of the digital calendar and the Game Center’s imitation pool-table felt. Even the corny faux-handwriting font on the iPhone’s Notes app has (mercifully) been replaced with a more approachable sans-serif.

     The shift away from skeuomorphism is framed by a rhetoric of “intuition,” of clarity and cleanliness and technologies that feel natural. “Simplicity is often equated with minimalism,” says a statement on Apple’s website about the introduction of iOS 7. “Yet true simplicity is so much more than just the absence of clutter or the removal of decoration. It’s about offering up the right things, in the right place, right when you need them. And it’s about making something that always seems to ‘just work.’ When you pick something up for the first time and already know how to do the things you want to do, that’s simplicity.”

     The recent move toward this new “simplicity” poses questions about the nature of intuition and digital accessibility. Has our culture grown more knowledgeable and tech-savvy since the inception of technologies like the smartphone, such that we no longer need to call upon reality as a visual metaphor to translate the digital? Was that ever, in fact, necessary? Does a distinction between the “real” and the “digital” really hold up in an era in which the mechanical minutiae of daily life are increasingly mediated and made virtual? Is this a concern shared by other people, and why, with my iPhone at my fingertips, does it still feel so hard to tell?

     Finally, and in sum: is what we consider “intuition” in the technological sphere—that is, the ability to use a piece of technology for the first time and “already know how to do the things you want to do”—a shared, natural, or universal power, or is it the privileged product of several years of initiation into the world of Apple’s products—an initiation that was necessarily grounded in skeuomorphism?

Skeuomorphism, as aesthetically backwards as it could appear, had at its roots a politics of inclusion, of making technology accessible for new and unfamiliar users. With its decline, trends in user interface design need to balance the sleek and modern aesthetics that seasoned users have come to expect with a maintenance of accessibility for new users (and there are a lot of them: as of December 2013, one in five people in the world owns a smartphone—a number that is growing rapidly).

     In late March, Facebook rolled out a minor redesign of their desktop newsfeed, decreasing the size of posts and photos. In doing so, the company effectively negated many of the changes introduced with last year’s drastic redesign, which, when unveiled in March 2013, was hailed as “clean,” “beautiful,” and “intuitive.” Viewing the new newsfeed on a MacBook, the redesign feels like a bit of an aesthetic downgrade. But in a blog post written two weeks ago, Julie Zhou, Facebook’s Product Design Director, discussed the politics of inclusion inherent in the redesign. “It turns out, while I (and maybe you as well) have sharp, stunning super high-resolution 27-inch monitors, many more people in the world do not,” she wrote, her text set beneath a circle-framed photo of herself. “Low-res, small screens are more common across the world than hi-res Apple or Dell monitors. And the old design we tested didn’t work very well on a 10-inch Netbook. A single story might not even fit on the viewport. Not to mention, many people who access the website every day only use Facebook through their PC—no mobile phones or tablets.”

     Zhou’s post reveals a continued concern among many behemoths of social media for accessibility, for context valued over content. If the way in which information is framed by hardware—be it a sleek new iPad or a “10-inch Netbook”—precludes its ability to be read and accessed by users, it’s the content, not the context, that can be more readily adjusted, even at the expense of a degree of sleekness in user interface design. Still, it is difficult to compare Facebook—free, universally accessible—with Apple, whose products, it goes without saying, are not everywhere as ubiquitous as they may seem on campuses or elsewhere in the US. Both companies have discussed at length the ways in which their newest products are accessible, easy to use, intuitive, but of the two, only Facebook seems to be addressing the obvious question: intuitive for whom?

On Tuesday, Microsoft announced the end of the company’s support for its Windows XP operating system. The thirteen-year-old operating system will no longer receive security updates or technical assistance from Microsoft, as Microsoft pushes users to adopt Windows 8—the flat, bright aesthetic of which was seen by many as the impetus for Apple’s leap away from skeuomorphism a year later.

     This announcement has proved controversial, with much media attention being directed at the numerous businesses and consumers around the world who still use XP and who are now, in the absence of support, faced with security threats and increased risk of crashing. If a PC is more than five years old, said an NPR piece published on Monday, “chances are it’s running XP.” This accounts for roughly 30 percent of computers worldwide, a statistic that points to the expenses inherent in moving to a new operating system—especially when enacted on a large scale, such as by companies or school systems.

     Unlike Facebook, Microsoft is systemically ignoring the many users who can’t afford to replace their hardware in order to support the company’s sleek new software. Like Apple’s rhetoric of intuition and simplicity, this move signifies the company’s value of content over context: an assumption that the information on our screens is more important—or perhaps detached from—the screens that frame it.

     For many, with the widespread proliferation of screens across our pockets, vehicles, even eyeglasses, it is easy to feel as if the distinction between onscreen and off is blurring. Hence the recent popularity of the circle as a way of framing information within the boundaries of those screens: circles, unlike rectangles or squares, feel untethered to the geometric edges of computers and phones. If you’re using a new and up-to-date piece of technology, an interface that privileges the circle will fully “feel at home on your phone,” as Instagram suggests. It’s the people who aren’t, though, for whom the recent rise of the circle may not quite translate.

LISA BORST B’17 floats, frameless, imitating nothing.