The Medium Is the Metaphor

In a post on the basic design conflicts between notebook computers and tablet computers

Laptop displays are generally at least 11.5 inches, and the 16:9 aspect ratio is almost an industry convention. That long rectangle gives us room to manipulate a windowed environment. Anything smaller requires voodoo to conjure a good experience out of the machine.

Tablet displays more or less max out at 10 inches, and the industry-leading iPad opts for a 4:3 aspect ratio. That lends itself to books, magazines, and Web pages.

With the Surface, Microsoft hedged its bet, and went with a 10.6-inch, 16:9 display.

That strikes the best balance we’ve seen yet between physical and digital usability, but it’s still far from perfect. Oversized tablets with a 16:9 aspect ratio feel awkward. Perhaps people have been conditioned to believe that words are best consumed in a space that feels like a standard, letter-sized paper page.

Aric Cheston, executive creative director at Frog Design, acknowledges an inherent tension.

“There’s a certain reality to be embraced about the legacy proportions,” he says. “You have to find a smart way of accommodating those.”

Adrian Covert doesn’t quite arrive at the most fundamental problem. The best metaphor for a consumer of written matter, the book, isn’t the the best metaphor for the producer of written matter, the scribe’s desk. Aric Cheston is wrong in dismissing these designs as “legacy proportions”. The different metaphors aren’t just what we’re accustomed to. They’re ergonomically optimum designs proven in the forge of thousands of years of experience.

A consumer’s needs are different from those of a producer. One size does not fit all.

2 comments… add one

  • TastyBits

    I have always found 16:9 to be awkward for movies and monitors. I prefer 16:10 monitors, but they are hard to find and expensive. The Nook HD has a 16:10 aspect ratio and a 7″ screen. It is the same size as a paperback book. I think 4:3 would be closer to a magazine.

    I think your point is valid for most human choices.

  • PD Shaw

    The notion that people might be conditioned to the letter-sized page is a bit dismissive of the work of book design. In particular, there are optimal ranges for the number of characters/words per line that facilitate readability and comfort. I don’t think that’s merely a matter of learning; if the lines are too long, the eye has difficulty time finding the beginning the next line and it interferes with pacing and comprehension. I like the 4:3 ratio screen on my work computer, where I deal almost entirely in text, but I think its a disappearing option for desktops.

    But yes, computers for reading versus computers for seeing, never the twain shall meet unless we devalue one for the other.

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