Interface and Interpretation, in Graphesis

Drucker, Johanna. “Interface and Interpretation.” Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2014. 138–179. Print.

By Nathalie Down

The chapter “Interface and Interpretation” from Johanna Drucker’s latest book, Graphesis, provides an exceptional and much-needed critique of the graphical user interface (GUI), the dominant feature of screens on most modern computational devices. Although the value of the chapter tends be overshadowed by the book’s more prominent knowledge contribution – the groundwork for an essentially new field of graphic-based semiotics – the insights presented within are of critical import to scholars across disciplines, to designers and engineers, and indeed to anyone who interacts with computational technologies on a regular basis.

Unfortunately for some, however, the insights presented in rhetoric available only to those well versed in critical academic discourses, create an accessibility barrier. Even advanced scholars may encounter novel words, such as ‘palimpsest’, strewn about seamlessly. The complexity of her language – palimpsest is a surface on which etchings have been erased, replaced by new etchings, yet traces of the original markings can still be deciphered – nods to Drucker’s impressive academic career in the field of information studies. Those who do make the effort will be rewarded with an opportunity to step back, deconstruct, and rethink deeply ingrained assumptions about the supposed neutrality of interface design.

Drucker sets the stage with a historical overview of graphical interfaces, which she defines as “the spatially distributed set of graphical codes”(139). Tracing the origins of digital interfaces to the mechanistic, goal-oriented engineering sensibilities dominant within human-computer interaction (HCI) circles, she exposes the fact that these interfaces emerged within a highly specific value-laden context. Accordingly, Drucker reveals that digital interfaces are “located and used as instruments, consciously or not, of institutionalized relations of power”(147).

Mundane choices on a screen that may appear either neutral or insignificant are actually highly constructed and of profound influence, Drucker argues. The choices available are not only embedded with distinct cultural values and designed with affordances and constraints that make each interaction a subjective experience, they also embody conceptual frameworks with the cumulative power to shape and transform systems of cultural knowledge transmission.

Recognizing that “our subjectivity is as much an effect of what we cannot say, what cannot be done, the constraints on behavior and imagination, as of what we do and can perform directly”(150), acts of interpreting digital interfaces are also, in effect, constitutive acts where our subjectivities are both produced and evaluated. As such, Drucker suggests that replacing the common term ‘user’ with the term ‘subject’ would be a much more accurate description of human-interface interactions.

While the shift from viewing interfaces as static, neutral “things” to dynamic “space[s] of provocation in which performative event[s] take place” is the core insight of the chapter, significant time is dedicated to nuances of graphical interpretation in a digital context, under-explored potentials of digital formatting, and biographical influences on digital graphical design standards. Though well-researched and thought-provoking, these sections can be skimmed over to allocate more time to the final section in which Drucker urgently calls for a ‘humanistic design’ approach for digital graphical interfaces.

Humanistic design, Drucker explains, means a fundamental merger of critical theory into the interface design community. It means recognizing an interface as “structuring space whose relations create value through position, hierarchy, juxtaposition, and other features in an act of interpretation”(177). And it means “taking critical insight from literacy, cultural, and gender studies…as well as cross cultural perspectives”(177) to invigorate current interface design practice and shape future trends.

Drucker’s chapter touches on incredibly critical interface design issues as they are happening, issues seldom discussed or even recognized among relevant communities, issues perhaps still in need of a name. However, as the web continues to rapidly evolve, looking to find its next billion users, most of whom will come from diverse cultural backgrounds and thus have diverse graphical understanding, the issues Drucker so eloquently raises will become increasingly important.

The profound insights found throughout Graphesis, and indeed the very groundwork for an emerging discipline, demonstrate the power of critical interdisciplinary scholarly inquiry at its finest. The “Interface and Interpretation” chapter is but one of the gems found within, albeit one that will only increase in value as years progress.

Click here to read the author’s related position paper: The Production of Interspace: Imagining a Feminist GUI Design Process.

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