The Desktop Metaphor

Your computer is an old writing desk. Or at least, that is its conceptual metaphor. When the first computers appeared in 1973 the primary goal of the interface was to make people familiar with their new online space. The desktop was originally designed to mirror digital content with its physical equivalent.

The desktop metaphor

Interface designers used metaphors to give meaning to their newly created environments. As Thomas D. Erickson describes (1995): "*Metaphors serve as natural models; they allow us to take our knowledge of familiar objects and events and use it to give structure to abstract, less well understood concepts." That’s why we throw our files from the desktop into a trashcan. These are all premises from physical times.

Apple was the king of giving this kind of meaning to our interfaces. It was the 1984 Apple Macintosh that first popularized the desktop to the grand public. Much later this was also the premise of skeuomorphism, a fancy word used by designers to describe that a digital concept mirrors a physical item.

Face to face with a 1973 invention

We are by now far past the introduction state of software. It is engrained in our life but does our computer match this? If you squint at the OS you might think different. This picture of Apple's OS more than thirty years apart says it all:

Somehow in 2022 we are still so close to 1973. For almost 50 years we've designed and iterated on largely the same foundation. Jason Yuan notes:

"And when we strip away all the chrome—all the Aero and Paper and Frosted Glass, all the evidence of the “design systems” we have poured billions into developing and maintaining—we come face to face with a skeleton of XEROX PARC’s 1973 invention."

Was XEROX PARC invention pure genius, or did we fail to develop our constructs further?


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