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Appreciation of old software design

Article Design Nostalgia
I love computers and video games since I was a little kid, and spend my time developing them or porting them to consoles.
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Something that I like a lot and that was quite common in the 90’s and 2000’s but has been completely lost since then is the way in which the interfaces of some games or software were designed. Back then it was common to use a style called Skeuomorphism, which basically consisted of using real life objects or elements inside the interfaces. They were much more complex and overloaded than today, but they have a certain appeal that I find very interesting. Here are some examples of programs I had that show what I mean.

Creative Writer #

The example that first comes to my mind is a software / game from the 90’s called Creative Writer from Microsoft. It basically consisted of a set of tools designed for writing all kinds of texts, sort of like Office but for kids. And what fascinated me is the fact that it wasn’t just a set of tools and that’s it, but that you were immersed in an imaginary world called Imaginopolis, with several characters that you could interact with, and that took place mainly in a building with all kinds of gadgets to help you write articles, stories, notes, etc.

This building has several floors, each with various things to do, and was also full of easter eggs that appeared depending on where on the screen you clicked. The main character is a purple-colored character named McZee, and he is the one who guides and helps you through the program. This was a character that appeared in several other games and interactive programs developed or published by Microsoft.

And this made my imagination run wild. I felt like I was really in that building and I was just another one working and doing creative things with my fictional partners. And along with Creative Writer there was another similar program called Fine Artist, which was more focused on art and drawing. And if you had both programs, you could link them together and easily go from one to the other, since Fine Artist runs in the building next door. I only had Creative Writer when I was growing up, and since I’ve always been more artistically inclined than literary, I would have liked Fine Artist better, but I still had a blast exploring and writing nonsense.

The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain #

Another game I liked a lot from the ones I had as a kid on PC is The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain, which is a puzzle game about a mad scientist (Dr. Brain) who lives in a castle and does weird experiments. One goes wrong, and he ends up crossing his mind with that of a rat and they both go catatonic. And it’s Dr. Brain’s niece, Elaina, who is in charge of guiding you and operating the machines that make you get inside Dr. Brain’s mind to solve puzzles and thus fix the whole mental mess.

Again, the menus are basically rooms with characters and full of gadgets that I find fascinating. There was a time when I was a kid when I dreamed of being an inventor, and I spent my days drawing all sorts of nonsensical machines, with their gears, wires, buttons, screws and Tesla coils. And it’s possible that this game was one of my main inspirations. I loved the idea of imagining myself tinkering with huge machines and doing experiments.

Mindmaze in Encarta 96 #

Encarta was a well-known encyclopedia from Microsoft that also included an educational game called Mindmaze that consisted of going through a medieval maze by answering questions about different topics, which you could then learn more about by reading the related article in the encyclopedia. I must say that as a kid I was much more fond of the game than the encyclopedia. I can’t imagine a current encyclopedia including something like this.

Introduction to IBM Aptiva #

Another thing that I found very interesting, even without being a game or being of the same style as the previous examples, was the introduction tutorial that came with my first PC, an IBM Aptiva from the year 96 or 97. That interactive tutorial was so flashy, colorful, full of animations and music, that I couldn’t avoid completing it many times for the simple fact of enjoying the effort that was put to make it. Being also my first contact with my first PC, I’m quite nostalgic about it.

Windows XP era #

Moving forward in time, entering the 2000’s, Windows XP was released with a new way of making interfaces: full of colors, gradients, and more plastic-like. We all know the famous green and blue aesthetics, although personally I used to have the olive green theme. And among all the programs that came with Windows XP, there was one that always caught my attention. A not so popular browser called MSN Explorer. Everyone was using Internet Explorer or an alternative like Firebird (before it was renamed Firefox), but MSN Explorer was also included with the operating system. However it required a subscription to MSN, which surprisingly still exists today. Internally it was really Internet Explorer, but they decided to make a more colorful interface based on the MSN aesthetic. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I’ve always felt it looked pretty nice.

But one thing we can’t forget is how that era was the pinnacle of customization. You could do everything to Windows XP, and there were third-party programs that allowed you to do even more. It doesn’t matter if you ended up with your eyes bleeding, anything went, and everyone could express their tastes by customizing Windows.

I have a screenshot of my desktop from 2007. In a way it’s like a time capsule where I can see what I had and what I was doing back then. I usually didn’t configure Windows with such outlandish themes as in the examples above. But I must say, I was quite a fan of the surreal wallpapers that were also in vogue back then.

And all this was not only limited to Windows, many programs that were configurable also ended up with all kinds of skins. Let’s not forget the legendary music player Winamp, which I used a lot for many years. While I was writing this article I found that there is the Winamp Skin Museum with a lot of themes for all tastes to download.

Kai Krause #

When I see the aforementioned MSN Explorer and some Windows XP interfaces, I can’t help but think of Kai Krause, a designer (among other things) who was very influential in this type of aesthetics and who many mimicked. His intention was to make software that was more user-friendly based on rounded and organic elements. He called this style Padded Cell Design, a design which you can’t hurt yourself with. Some of the best known programs he designed are Kai Power Tools and Bryce, used for photo editing and 3D respectively.

Final thoughts #

Graphic design today seeks to be as minimalist and simple as possible to communicate information in the most direct way and with the least amount of distractions. Obviously that has a handful of advantages to help you concentrate better on what you’re trying to do or make it easier to see for people who may have vision problems or other difficulties.

I’ve always been someone who values the sensations I get from imagining myself inside the world of a video game, a book, or an illustration. Exploring magical, weird or dreamy places is something I really enjoy. And this kind of designs that I have been mentioning makes my imagination fly. So, even though ironically I have studied graphic design and I have been taught to flee from the overloaded and superfluous, I find simple and minimalist design boring. Functional, yes, but that’s it. Maybe it would be nice to find a balance, a more modern skeumorphic aesthetic. But well, maybe that’s just me.