The defining element of the desktop GUI is the icon, which, although it often has a name, is above all a picture that performs or receives an action. These actions give the icon its meaning. As elements in a true picture writing, icons do note merely remind the user of documents and programs, but function as documents and programs. Reorganizing files and activating programs is writing, just as putting alphabetic characters in a row is writing. Rather like the religious relics after which they are named, computer icons are energy units that focus the operative power of the machine into visible and manipulable symbols. Computer icons also remind us of the cultural functions of Hebrew letters in the Cabala or of alchemical and other signs invoked by such Renaissance magi as Giordano Bruno. Magic letters and signs were often objects of meditation, as they were in the logical diagrams of the medieval Raymond Llul, and they were also believed to have operational powers. As functioning representations in computer writing, electronic icons realize what magic signs in the past could only suggest.
Here’s something: a venerable analogue monosynth re-imagined for the 21st Century and the Nintendo DS, no less.
2 twin-ocillator synths and a 4-part drum machine pre-loaded with samples create by the DS-10 itself. A 6-track sequencer. Built-in FX and real-time sound control via the touch screen. Wireless communication allowing you to sync multiple units together and swap data. From this:
Fun. Amazing. Mind-blowing. And yet so musically limited (to put it mildly). A Toy.
What exactly is an interface anyway? In its simplest sense, the word refers to software that shapes the interaction between user and computer. The interface serves as a kind of translator, mediating between the two parties, making one sensible to the other. In other words, the relationship governed by the interface is a semantic one, characterized by meaning and expression rather than physical force. Digital computers are “literary machines,” as hypertext guru Ted Nelson calls them. They work with signs and symbols, although this language, in its most elemental form, is almost impossible to understand. A computer thinks—if thinking is the right word for it—in tiny pulses of electricity, representing either an “on” or an “off” state, a zero or a one. Humans think in words, concepts, images, sounds, associations. A computer that does nothing but manipulate sequences of zeros and ones is nothing but an but an exceptionally inefficient adding machine. For the magic of the digital revolution to take place, a computer must also represent itself to the user, in a language that the user understands.
Representing all that information is going to require a new visual language, as complex and meaningful as the great metropolitan narratives of the nineteenth-century novel.
Put simply, the importance of interface design revolves around this apparent paradox: we live in a society that is increasingly shaped by events in cyberspace, and yet cyberspace remains, for all practical purposes, invisible, outside our perceptual grasp. Our only access to this parallel universe of zeros and ones runs through the conduit of the computer interface, which means that the most dynamic and innovative region of the modern world reveals itself only through the anonymous middlemen of interface design.
[Quote adapted from Johnson, S. (1997) Interface Culture. Harper Collins (pp.14-19).]