A study in clarity

The interfaces of Sherlock

Television and movies have a somewhat baffling disregard for their technology and their viewers knowledge of it. Phones, computers, and all manner of devices appear to run on media-OS, an operating system that is definitively no recognisable system, but is similar to all. Media-OS is often characterised by over-sized typography, giant buttons and custom web-browsers. Most bear little-to-no resemblance to every day device usage. Accessmaincomputerfile contains a wealth of examples, many of them fascinating.

This is not to say that every example is bad. Sci-Fi settings provide the perfect circumstance for creative interpretations of what interfaces may look like in the future. How current computer experiences inform predictions of the future or often riveting, and packed with information about the environment and world they reside in. Some are well designed, and show a considerable amount of thought, but unfortunately, these are the exception rather than the rule.

Tron: Legacy terminal
Interface from Tron: Legacy via work.gmunk.com

In the war of clarity vs. authenticity, the proliferation of foe-interfaces prompts the question of how much time and effort is spent on these creations that ultimately confuse rather than inform. Hyperbole aside, some constructed interfaces genuinely do perform their intended function of information delivery. It is obvious that a generic Windows or OS X interface will not always communicate the desired information rapidly enough to a casual viewer. A closeup on a computer or phone screen takes the character out of context, and may feel jarring or ruin a directors carefully constructed scene. Interfaces with large text, overly-obvious interface elements, and computers that beep every time a button is hit. For devices such as phones, the use of caller-id has always seemed woefully under appreciated. A large picture of the caller, large text displaying the contact’s name, and an obvious hang up / answer button has always struck as an easy way to accomplish the afore-mentioned goals.

The BBC’s Sherlock, returning for it’s second season, takes a fresh approach to conveying it’s information. This is usually in the form of text messages the characters receive, or details the characters notice. The method bypasses the need for viewers to stare at a proffered phone to gain the same knowledge as the characters. The scene is allowed more context, while the information is displayed, allowing immediate reactions, rather than many quick cuts from character, to device, to character.

Sherlock: Multiple text messages

While this method is certainly effective, it could easily have been far less arresting, if not for its typographical details. Information displayed on a phone is set in AF Generation Z Medium (as seen in the picture above (season 1), however the font changes in seasons two (below), and web-pages in Arial/Helvetica with smatterings of serifs. While this information may not mean much to an average viewer, it subtly reinforces the information’s source, and the scene, it’s context.

Sherlock: List of text messages
Sherlock: Phone interface used to indicate files

While Sherlock’s typography makes for a certain slickness that matches the cinematography and direction, the real magic is in the type’s animation. Messages pop up, conversations scroll, and text is typed. This all gives a wonderful sense of motion, and it is all too easy to imagine the text whizzing by infront of the characters eyes.

This is by no means the definitive way of communicating information, and it’s not the dawn of a new age in realistic interfaces, but it certainly strikes an interesting balance between clarity and authenticity.