At a time when apps have been likened to drugs, and fake news abounds, it’s easy to pine for a simpler time–like the early days of Apple, when a mouse and graphical user interface changed the world with the landmark Macintosh.
Technology does not age well. But good design? That ages like a fine Bordeaux. It’s something that I remembered after taking a stroll down memory lane, trying out the classic Macintosh operating system, run through a web browser over on the Internet Archive. (Technically, it’s a software version from 1991, but you’ll still recognize the swollen trash can and all the normal Mac icons you know.)
Of course I appreciate the old OS as a computing artifact, but I didn’t expect to earnestly enjoy using it. I felt relaxed inside its rough pixels. It was low-fi without being staticky, minimal without being soulless. Quite simply, it felt like a salve for some of technology’s biggest problems in 2018–that it’s somehow distracting and addicting at the same time. Why?
It Was Beautifully Black And White
Glancing at my Macbook’s rainbow icon tray as I work, I can’t help but wonder: Do I need all this much color all the time? Or would I be more likely to shut down my computer, and take a walk outside, if the there weren’t a constant array of Skittles all over my screen?
The first Macs were black and white, not necessarily by choice, but by the limitations of their own hardware. Color requires a fancier display, and a lot more processing power to drive it. So designers like Susan Kare learned to do more with less, creating the Mac’s suite of folders and icons that had charm in a two-color bitmap. She made graphics you still remember, like the beloved trash can and smiling Mac computer icon. The interface was black and white, but, thanks to her handiwork, it didn’t feel dead.
Comparing her work to something like, say, the drooling, teeth-mashing app icon for Clash of Clans, the old Mac feels more like reading the Sunday newspaper than swallowing a bottle of uppers and rushing the battlefield.
It’s no coincidence that a small contingent of smartphone users have started turning their screens black and white. Suddenly, red notification bubbles lose their guttural zing, and pictures no longer appear in hyperreal hues that make reality look dull by comparison. Eye candy feels a lot more like eye vegetables.
I’ve tried it myself. Android and iOS both feel horrible in two colors, like your app icons are trapped in an episode of I Love Lucy. But black and white can feel great, if the OS is explicitly designed for it. Using an old Mac is pure zen.
The Animations Neither Surprise Nor Delight
Minimize a window on your Mac today, and, depending on your settings, you may watch it not just disappear but put on a whole show. In a split second, it pirouettes, collapses into itself, and is sucked away like a phantom in a Ghostbusters trap. It’s quite dramatic, given that all you wanted to do was hide a document!
Today, our interfaces whiz, zoom, and bounce. Sometimes they even make music–Facebook makes a “pop” when you like something, as if it’s mimicking the ’90s score of Seinfeld. Tinder riffs like a marching band xylophone player when you get a match.
So how does the old Mac OS work?
For starters, whenever you drag around a window, you aren’t dragging a window. Instead, you pull its wireframe (almost surely because it didn’t have the processing power to drag its full graphics in real time). Then when you close a window, its wireframe scales down and shoots to whenever place it first came from–be it the hard disk in the upper right corner, or some folder on the bottom left of your screen.
This minimal, wireframe effect is to animation what the Mac’s black and white approach is to color: It’s relaxing and informational. The animation reminds you where something came from, and that it’s been put back, neatly, into its box. It’s one-part navigational cue, one part Marie Kondo tidyism. Nothing more, nothing less.
Another key point: It’s an interface that is admitting it’s an interface. It’s not trying to mimic real-world physics, with the springy inertia of something like Twitter’s pull-to-refresh gesture. For a long time, the assumption in UI design has been that UI should mimic our real world, that objects should feel real. Google goes so far as to argue that interfaces should feel like paper or cloth materials, if they were imbued with super powers.
Of course, that approach got us where we are now–checking our phones hundreds of times a day, always playing with this unlimited roll of bubble tape in our pocket. I love these old wireframes, because I’m so perfectly bored by them.
Can It Be Replicated?
The idea of a black-and-white interface may be impractical, or downright silly, in the world of 2018–it just doesn’t make sense to watch YouTube shows, or browse baby photos on Facebook, without color. We didn’t have all of this rich digital media in 1985 when the Mac’s interface was first conceived. Instagram’s recent decision to ditch its own blue color scheme for a black-and-white interface might prove the idea of turning back the colors to the early Mac days is futile at best–who cares what color the nav bar is if the pictures still grab you?
Animations, too, simply need more flexibility in a world where you control a computer with touch-screen gestures rather than mouse clicks. If nothing else, swiping on Tinder is a means to avoid hitting the wrong “yes” or “no” button in a critical moment on a bumpy subway ride, and accidentally setting up a hookup you’d never want. Swiping is a great bit of UI, just like pulling to refresh your Twitter feed is a great bit of UI for a service that always, always, always has more to say. Why shouldn’t animations acknowledge our flicks and shakes?
But I do believe that the old Mac makes for a timely reminder that the digital age hasn’t always felt so frantic, or urgent, or overwhelming. And maybe, even if an old Mac interface isn’t the solution, we can view it as a subtle north star for its sensibilities, and how much it was able to accomplish with so little.