Feeling “stuck in a rectangular world”?
The good folks at Research in Motion would have us believe we’re all living in that spatial hell.
Sure, they’ll concede the familiar rectangular screen on our mobile devices is “a great ergonomic design that drives content.”
But a recent entry on RIM’s corporate blog goes on to suggest the ubiquitous shape is “perhaps limiting innovations.”
Award yourself zero points for detecting a marketing angle (90 degrees or otherwise) in all this. To wit: the newest BlackBerry device, the Passport, has a 4.5-by-4.5-inch screen.
Citing academic research, RIM says the optimal number of characters on one line in a book is 66, versus roughly 40 on most (rectangular) smartphones.
The Passport will show 60 characters, “making it the ideal device for reading ebooks, viewing documents and browsing the web.”
The Passport “is like the Imax of productivity,” the company boasts.
RIM, in other words, wants us to think of the square as the new rectangle, much the way fashion magazines regularly declare, say, aubergine, to be the “new” black.
There are just a couple of problems with this.
Squares are rectangles. They all have four, right angles. Those with a taste for Euclidean plane geometry will also note that they’re quadrilaterals and parallelograms, as well.
You could say that squares aren’t oblong rectangles, but that’s not the sort of thing that trips lightly from the lips of marketers.
The other problem is that squares don’t exactly scream “innovation” so much as “retro.”
Think Instagram, the photo and video-sharing service that let’s you run photographs through digital filters and then share them via Facebook or other social networks. The name itself is a combination of instant camera and telegram.
Instagram’s whole appeal lies in the ensuing shape of those photographs: square. It’s as if you’d taken them using a Kodak Instamatic from the 1960s. Better yet, you can use those filters to give the picture a dated, faded look, something that obviously appeals to both users (30 million hipsters) and Facebook, which bought the two-year-old company in 2012 for $1 billion.
The square look is so fashionable, in fact, that the Black’s camera chain now has kiosks where you can log in to your Instagram account and select photos for printing — square, of course. The Guardian newspaper even has its own Instagram account and recently ran a story highlighting “Urban Instagram photographers you should follow.”
“It’s definitely sort of a throwback, a Polaroid look,” says graphic designer David Hayes, who crafted the familiar logos of Wellington and Junction breweries.
“I actually find squares hard to design for, because there’s nothing to hang off,” he says. “The square is the blankest slate.”
And yet squares are not just everywhere, but visual building blocks, like carbon or protein. A pixel itself is square, and the graphic interface icons on computer screens are almost invariably squares. Take a look at your iPhone. All the icons are either 120-by-120 pixels or 60-by-60.
Or check out the address line on your browser. If you’re visiting a site you look at regularly, there’ll be a 16-by-16-pixel icon on the left-hand side — a “favicon.”
None of which means that squares, or the Passport, can’t be “cool.” But their coolness lies in being retro. If Dan Draper were taking snapshots at daughter Sally’s birthday party, they’d be square.
And what show epitomizes ’60s television more than Hollywood Squares, with the likes of Paul Lynde, Rose Marie, Charley Weaver, Buddy Hackett and Jonathan Winters?
Each star sat in his or her own square — three rows of three squares stacked on top of one another. Host Peter Marshall would pose a question, and contestants playing a kind of tic-tac-toe would have to decide if the star had given the right or wrong answer to claim that square. The fun, naturally, came with the incorrect answers.
Question: “Jackie Gleason recently revealed that he firmly believes in them and has actually seen them on at least two occasions? What are they?”
Charley Weaver: “His feet.”
Which brings to mind a newsroom wag at the old Financial Post, back when it was an august (and outsized) weekly. Any invitation to a social gathering would conclude with a final exhortation: “Be there or be rectangular.”