The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Digital Patina

– May 30th, 2012 –

The opening scene in Jaws still gives me goose-bumps.

It’s a dark, moonlit night and a group of increasingly drunk teenagers are sat in the dunes playing guitar and listening to the crackle of a camp fire. You can almost smell the smoke and pheromones.

Chrissie, and her would-be admirer, take off for a swim. Where she is promptly attacked, and eaten, by the star of the film. That first scene is horrific. Mostly because it seems so real. The actress is crying, screaming and writhing in completely believable pain. That’s because — according to some — she was. The frame that was holding her was attached to the sea floor and then two ropes were taken up to the beach where teams of men pulled them back and forth. Apparently, she broke ribs in that scene.

It’s over an hour before we see the fish in Jaws. And that was accidental. Everything broke. ‘Bruce’ — the name of the fish — just broke down all the time. The film we see, when we watch Jaws, is not how it was intended. Instead, the music was the fish.

Jaws is coming up for thirty years old. Over that time, Jaws has aged well. What I find interesting is that the ‘Patina’ of the film didn’t rely on fancy technology. Accidently, it relied on being honest with the materials it used: sound, light and great acting.

We talk about Patina as sheen — a thing that changes appearance over time. That change can be damaging, or it can give an object more value. It does this by demonstrating what it’s been through. In the case of a pair of jeans, it’s the little rip, the pen mark, the small hole that’s been repaired in the pocket.

In chinese cooking, a wok is seasoned to make it non-stick. A well seasoned pan will go beyond simply making the pan non-stick. It will impart flavour to the food in what the Chinese call ‘wok hey’, or ‘breath of wok’. You see, to me, Patina is more than surface level sheen, or the aging of something. It’s the flavour. It’s an individual ‘taste’ that can only come from that thing. Not all woks are alike. This one is mine. And all that.

Working with this definition of flavour as a Patina — which is imparted over time — got me thinking about digital products. The problem with digital products — our websites, applications, phone applications etc — is they don’t age the same way as some physical things. They either don’t age at all: locked in a permanent state whilst the world changes around them. Or they age in the same way plastic does: slowly decaying into tiny chunks that float about for eternity. Always there. Never to be used. Of little significant value. You see, producing digital products is not a sustainable practice.

How can we impart a digital patina on the things we use. What is the flavour of an application? Iteration? Code? UX?

I believe digital patina can be achieved in products that are designed to last. Built honestly, using the true materials of the web and minimal on cliched skeuomorphic concepts. Being true to our materials will produce better, more sustainable stuff. Stuff that will age well. Stuff that will become more useful and more beautiful with age. How can we impart flavour to our work?

Let’s stop designing things that turn into little bits that float about. Always decaying.

That’s a sad story.

Filed in: design.

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