Lo-Fi Design Is Conquering the World of Tech

Bing treasure map

One of the things that excites people most about technology is that it is seen as a gateway to the future. So how does that explain the recent glut of lo-fi adverts, software, and user interfaces that seem to be being spewed out by so-called hi-tech companies? Case in point is the recent ad for Google Chrome, released a couple of months after OK Go's sublime take on Rube Goldberg, but tech companies are not merely saluting the art of lo-fi in their advertising campaigns, but in their products too.

Last week, Microsoft unveiled a pair of very sharp designs for their Bing Destination Maps. As well as classic American- and European-style cartography, you can also display your maps in either a Treasure version, or Back-of-a-Napkin—although its official title is Sketchy. (In order to use it, you'll need to download Microsoft Silverlight.) You might think it odd that Microsoft is at the forefront of thoughtful design, but remember its now-shelved Courier project? It's UI was pure Etsy.

A lesser-known firm that's tapped into the lo-fi aesthetic is Balsamiq, whose Mockups software allows designers to create their own user interface as if they are sketching it on paper. As well as their own examples, there are a bunch of user-created versions for a whole host of different products. The iPhone apps are particularly fun—and it makes one think immediately of DoodleJump, the games app that last week launched a soccer version just in time for the World Cup.


The high priest of lo-tech sensibility is, without doubt, Michel Gondry, whose devotion to the handmade and hand-drawn knows no bounds—don't forget, he directed a episode of Flight of the Conchords, starring the ultimate amateurs, Bret and Jermaine. Gael Garcia Bernal's character Stephane in The Science of Sleep, whose set design was part Rube, part craftsy, says this: "I think people empathize with what I do, because it comes from here [my heart]." Gondry's 2008 movie Be Kind Rewind explores the whole hand-made theme. A viral for the Tomorrow Awards, a competition that celebrates technological excellence in advertising is pure Gondry.

And this is perhaps why the nabobs of technology are going homespun. In the age of uniformity, where one desktop software is interchangeable with another, where all tablets ape the iPad, where Bing and Google search engines throw up the same results, the marketing departments of the various megacorps know that a little individuality and quirkiness is needed to differentiate each of them from their competitors. Everywhere you look you can find brilliantly quirky accessories to hide your gadgets in, and now this quirkiness is being used to hide the hi-tech. Until the cycle goes round and futurism is cool once again.

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  • Destroyer

    I believe this is a response to state of the art technology reaching a threshold of complexity where it is nearly incomprehensible to anyone but a specialist. We are peeling back the layers of complexity which are hidden (software and micro scale hardware) to more easily understandable and transparent tech. Our technology has become mind bogglingly complex and will only continue to become more specialized. The people who use it are only becoming marginally more sophisticated.

  • sean krankel

    Wow - I am so glad you guys are identifying this as well. It's an aesthetic I've gravitated to for years, most likely because I am an interactive and videogame creative director with super crappy art skills.

    There's a great psychological effect behind a user feeling that they could have built what they are interacting with. See "Little Big Planet" for one of the only successful examples of this in the games space. http://bit.ly/aUV0xq

    The other strength of this approach is that it distills a concept to its purest form. You learn pretty quickly if your idea holds weight under some self-imposed limitations. Some guys made an internet game of this last year, where the community collectively recreates their favorite film. Have you guys seen the "Star Wars: Uncut"? So awesome: http://bit.ly/bsfUVu

    sean krankel