Graphic Narrative and Space

Much of my work this year has been screen recording UX animations and turning them into still frames, image sequences, and short videos. I have focused on two interfaces–Mac OS and Google Maps. Making real time screen recordings might emphasize the narrative of interfaces in an obvious way, but interfaces are always constructing narratives from a predetermined set of values and possibilities. In Graphic Devices: Narration and Navigation, Johanna Drucker essentially makes this exact argument. The graphic language of format, presentation, and navigation do not just direct our consumption of content, but inform it and shape the perspective in which we view it. She concludes that it is not enough to point it out, and the larger task is to interpret how these navigational graphics construct subject positions.

In early March 2020, I spoke with graphic designer Paul Soulellis about interrupting the smoothness of design perfection as a queer methodology. Our discussion framed it as a critique and intervention in the values of productivity and success, values that are code for the patriarchal whiteness that permeate design. Smoothness is seductive and easy, but ultimately presents a system as closed and rigid. Open source collaboration and non-hierarchical approaches to organizing are messy, multivalent, and might not function in the anticipated way. Exploring other methods of structuring platforms is necessary work to change the hegemony of smoothness, but here I am interested in surfaces and the power of graphic narrative to shape experiences of space.

Mac OS

As Alan Cooper concisely described in Myth and Metaphor, the default Mac OS interface is made up of different metaphors and idioms to help us navigate it. The metaphors are obvious and already exist; trash cans, tabs, and folders. The idioms are specific to the interface; a red x to close or a circular arrow to refresh. The OS references an idea of a workspace, but is ultimately its own space with its own system of signification. It’s designed to look like a default container, but it is actually quite spectacular. Minimizing or expanding a window results in a flowing, suction-like animation. The drop shadows from layered windows gives a seductive illusion of depth. This subtle, spectacularity of smoothness becomes the baseline expectation, and is no longer as noticeable after some time. As a pleasing aesthetic experience, it convinces us to keep using the OS. It guides our reading paths and is the default narrative structure of this space.

Google Street View

The navigation of urban space is embedded in and extends through virtual space, and vice versa. Like the desktop space (and also a part of it), zooming into and out of Google Street View is another example of spectacular smoothness. Also like the desktop space, this smoothness was designed for a particular speed. Slowing it down opens it up and allows a clearer understanding. Google Maps is made up of two different kinds of images: the 360 street level photographs and aerial images taken by a satellite. Outlined in a Forbes article, moving between Street View and Satellite View is enabled by a collaboration between Google Maps and Google Earth. This emphasizes a dissonance, where the 2D image skews and morphs as it gradually fades into a 3D rendering of the space. The transition is disorienting and opposes the coherence of its normal speed. This would make sense. The “camera” is moving from one point perspective to aerial perspective in just a few seconds. What is the perspective of the inbetween? It’s blurry, split up, and missing parts. It could be the perspective of the algorithm that scours Google’s massive database to fill in what the 360 camera or satellite can’t yet capture. So what is the point? The perspective in which we experience the space is determined by the technological means to collect and present data about it. For Google, this stems from values around surveillance, legibility, and varying levels of access to privatized space.