I have spent considerable time over the last few months ‘learning to code’. Lame! My anxiety about the slim job prospects of my Chinese degree has forced me to be darkly familiar with the Chrome console, which I used to open solely by accident. What am I, a human woman who has never seen a single Marvel film, doing in this embarrassing labyrinth of ones and zeroes?
‘Learning to code’, as it turns out, entails spending virtual time with more experienced developers – watching YouTube tutorials and blindly following in an adjacent window, reading their Medium articles, studying their work. This traumatising experience has, I believe, brought me closer to Silicon Valley’s aesthetic truth.
We live our lives on the Blob Web. We visit and interact with Blob Websites made for Blob People, who do not quite exist. Every niche of blank space is filled with some Blob Diversion: perhaps an illustration of these rounded, ethnically-ambiguous human-approximations in their spherical utopia, or a markedly non-threatening Blob Message (Oopsie! We couldn’t find that page!).
Above is a prime example of Blob Web Design, lifted straight from the front page of travel website Culture Trip. This world of smooth-edged diversity could almost be a parody of its own origins. An interesting side note: apart from the woman in the foreground looking down at her blushing child, these interchangeable symbols of love and tolerance do not have faces. They are like mouthless Sanrio characters for politically active adults, here to create some approximation of warmth or quirk in an attempt to sell a product:
But unlike this line of imagery, the Blob Web could never be considered cute. Intentional or unintentional, these flat illustrations project isolation and eeriness, an idyllic world where everyone is secretly melancholy. The long shadows and limited colour palettes utilised in so many of these graphics remind me of sparse, lonely Western cinematography – take this shot from Once Upon a Time in the West:
These Blob People, their faces hidden, could easily be about to whip out their guns and engage in bloody warfare. These illustrations are supposed to look peaceful and harmonious, but their intentional simplicity makes them instead appear hostile and surreal. This is interesting to consider against the background of tokenistic corporate diversity characterising many big tech companies.
This rotund alternate world is not, of course, simply confined to illustrative squares. It permeates its way throughout the internet, identifying itself in the fonts we read, the gently sloping edges of buttons and the small icons we are made to click. I am typing this very essay on Google Docs, because Chromebooks are cheap: in the corner of my screen sits a picture of a ‘doc’, a rounded blue sheet of paper with rounded white lines of text. In some parallel universe, my Blob Self is sitting in her Blob Bed and writing a Blob Essay, which looks just like that and probably reads like this:
‘I am grateful for this beautiful, accessible, open-source web. It is light, fast, and simple.’
Perhaps she will hand it in to a Blob Professor at Blob University, where students frolic on too-green lawns, reading book-patterned pads and riding their friendly bicycles.
Blob Culture has few obvious real-world predecessors. Little is explicitly referenced as we are lifted out of our human history and dumped into a worldbuilding exercise created presumably from scratch. We part from a visual language developed through centuries of art, literature and film – the largest Blob People send us straight back to the bottom-heavy fertility figures of Paleolithic times.
Perhaps their maternal curves, gentle gradients and definite occupational iconography project something significant about the louts in their silicon chamber – something Oedipal. On discovery of his accidental incest, Tech Bro takes a pickaxe to his own depth perception, but cannot avoid living the remainder of his life pressed against the bosoms of blurry, melancholy women. The websites he designs are merely cries for help.
This whole globular construction was no accident, and there are numerous contributing factors – in 2014, Google introduced a standard ‘visual language’ and named it Material Design. It turns out that this bland name – blobby in itself – is actually supposed to carry meaning. Material Design, the website explains, is inspired by the physical world and its textures, including how they reflect light and cast shadows. Material surfaces reimagine the mediums of paper and ink. But this scheme is little more than a hellish appropriation of the physical world. It is as if our tech overlords are gloating – ‘We have given you such a debilitating dopamine addiction that you may never again experience interest in the natural world! Take this poor, boring approximation – something that will spark neither inspiration nor awe – instead of genuine beauty! It is not enough to be stuck inside reading inane content we’ve tricked you into being interested in – every website you visit, every app you download, must look the same!’
Google describe their Material Design icon library, a new Wingdings of glossy tech iconography, as ‘simple, modern, friendly, and sometimes quirky’ – but nothing regulated for universal use by a multinational corporation could possibly be ‘quirky’. They also have the audacity to use the word ‘beautiful’ several times in their copy, something absurd to apply to such a patronising and monotonous scheme. One of their aims, claims the Material Design website again, is to ‘Unify – Develop a single underlying system that unifies the user experience across platforms, devices, and input methods.’ This sinister intention – an attempt at creating a ubiquitous nanny state of graphic design – should not go unnoticed. The internet is, and should be, a wild frontier of choice, open for aesthetic contributions from anyone with access – what right has Google, or any other entity, to dictate how it might look?
And if Material Design is supposed to be a ‘reimagining of paper and ink’, it is the paper and ink of a tiresome bureaucrat, or a teenager trying to make pretty notes at school. Real paper yellows with time, is ripped and stuck back onto itself, is emblazoned with creases and round marks from cups. Google’s style guide is nothing but an attempt to make online content timeless in its monotony. While it is easy for modern onlookers to be drawn in by the unaware Geocities-era of web design, these new schemes are too cold and calculated to contain any charm for viewers in decades to come.
Perhaps I am partially angry because I still believe, embarassingly, in the internet as a vehicle for change, rebellion and subculture formation. None of these things should happen in a sanitised, exclusively-Californian environment – the web should and could look like a Czech film poster, or a ransom note, or a madman’s desk, or a doll’s house. We are being gently nudged to spend more and more time online, and this should come with the agency to decide what our aesthetic experience is like.