Books & People

back Books & People Overview

Books, People


Book Reviews


Book Review: Windows and Mirrors

Book | Authors | Review

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – February 17, 2004

This review takes a personal look at Jay David Bolter's and Diane Gromala's book Windows and Mirrors: Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of Transparency.



Cover of Windows and Mirrors     

Jay David Bolter & Diane Gromala
Windows and Mirrors: Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of Transparency
The MIT Press, 2003
ISBN: 0-262-02545-0 (hardcover)

Design: General



Jay David Bolter is Wesley Professor of New Media and Director, Center of New Media Research and Education, Diane Gromala is Associate Professor, both in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at Georgia Tech University. (From book cover)



Throughout their book Windows and Mirrors: Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of Transparency, Jay David Bolter and Diane Gromala oppose a position that they call "Structuralist." Being themselves in the position of the "artist-designer" – a term that was used by Crampton Smith and Tabor (1997) – they represent the Structuralists' position prominently through statements from two "bigwigs" in the HCI community, Donald Norman and Jakob Nielsen (who are both – accident or not – in the same consulting firm, the Norman Nielsen group). In essence, Norman and Nielsen stand for the whole HCI profession, or at least for the dominant fraction of it. In this respect, the book picks up the – at times even polemic – debate between the two professions of graphic designers and HCI professionals. The authors definitely promote their own position as Designers in the book, but they also make an offer to the HCI community: the invitation to profit from the contributions of digital art to digital design, which they regard as an "extreme experiment" in exploring the possibilities of digital media. Their book's intention is to show what digital art has to offer the vast community of digital designers and technologists in general – Web designers, interface designers, HCI experts, and "anyone interested in the cultural implications of the digital revolution."


In the introduction of the book, the authors set the stage: They characterize the Structuralists' and the Designers' positions and contrast them using the Worldwide Web as a parable: The Structuralists (demand to) use HTML in a structured manner for the dissemination of information; the Designers, on the other hand, "tweak" HTML at their will and in ways not originally intended in pursuit of creating of creating "meaningful user experiences" – as popularized by the designer David Siegel in his book Creating Killer Websites. Exhibits from the art gallery of the SIGGRAPH 2000 conference provide the dramaturgy of the subsequent chapters: The authors pick exemplary works of digital art from the gallery and use them to illustrate and elaborate facets of the conflict between the two positions.

The book's central theme is the continuous contrast between the metaphors "window" and "mirror" for the user interface, and of the corresponding attributes "transparent" (or disappearing, invisible) as opposed to "reflective" (or not disappearing, visible). The Structuralists plead for a transparent window that gets "out of the users' way," while the Designers focus on the interface's mirror aspect that reflects the users and their contexts. In their tour d'horizon through the facets of the two opposing positions, the authors cover topics, such as:

  • How the computer became a medium – in contrast to the view that computers are calculating or symbol-processing machines
  • The "myth" of transparency, that is, of the disappearance of the computer (as Don Norman and others predict) – as opposed to the "visible" computer
  • The fundamental difference between the design goals of transparency and reflectivity, or of the interface acting as a window versus the interface acting as a mirror that reflects the user
  • Remediation, that is, the reformulation of experiences in new media, and the diversity of the new media – in contrast to a convergence of media as some Structuralists predict
  • The materiality of the new media – in contrast to the disembodiment as promoted by, for example, proponents of virtual reality
  • The role of context for design – in contrast to context-free (or generic) design

I put together a small table summarizing the facets of the positions according to the authors' view (see below). I found it an interesting exercise, and I would encourage other readers of the book to do the same.

Web (Starter) Web as information channel (distribution of information) Web as newspaper or magazine and as a form of visual communication (medium, experience)
Computer Computer as a symbol processor (artificial brain)
-> Artificial Intelligence, number crunching
Computer as a medium, communication device
-> Hypertext, Web, Communication networks
Information vs. Media Information (symbols, content, thinking, ...) Media in many forms (new, old)
-> Digital media forms stage experiences for us
-> Remediation = (re)presents objects in new media forms new presentation in new media
Evolution, Technology... Uniformity, convergence Diversity
Interface Computers will become invisible
The product is an "information" appliance
Computer is visible (and will remain visible)
The interface is the product (Crampton Smith/Tabor)
Interface Metaphor Window – transparent
The interface should disappear, not intervene...
Mirror – reflective
-> Necessary for breakdowns, emergencies
Form vs. Content Form and content can and shall be separated
-> Cascading stylesheets, Content management systems, ...
Form and content cannot be separated (a Web page is an experience, the designer wants complete control over it)
-> The medium is the message (McLuhan)
-> Experience design (Shedrov, Crampton Smith/Tabor)
Function vs. Aesthetics Function and aesthetics are divisible Function and aesthetics are indivisible
Mind-Body Problem Platon: Substance is separate from/privileged over appearance Separation not possible
Embodiment Virtual reality
-> Disembodiment
Augmented reality
-> Experience (bodily, sensory)
Role of Context (cultural, social, historic, ...) Context-free design Contextual design

Table 1: Comparison of the Structuralists' and Designers' positions

The book closes with a re-inspection of the current positions of Nielsen and Norman (the former supports the formerly "banned" Macromedia Flash, the latter researches and writes on emotional design), and an overview of further works from the gallery and of relevant artists and their contributions to digital design. In the colophon, the authors add a comment about the digital typeface Excretia that is used for the chapter headings in the book. According to them, Excretia is a good example of a digital design that is both transparent and reflective.


Like the authors, I am partial – however, on the opposing side, namely, the HCI profession. Therefore, it is tempting to use this review as a tirade against the authors' position. Such a behavior is, however, neither helpful nor does it contribute to the mutual understanding of both positions. I will allow myself to make just one remark: Based on my own experience, both positions are oversubscribed in the book, and it would be better to regard them as end points on a continuous scale. In my daily work, I often find myself somewhere in the middle between both positions – sometimes tending more to the one end, and sometimes toward the other.

There are some statements in the book that I would like to preserve and present to the community in this review as food for thought:

  • (Interface designers) are trying to make their designs simple, clear, transparent – in other words, "usable."
  • The strategy of transparency is never sufficient to dictate the design of the whole interface or artifact – there is a conflict between simplicity (or transparency) and functionality.
  • Transparency can be the wrong design strategy ... if it lulls the user into thinking that the system is foolproof ... The interface will mask the operation of the system exactly when the user needs to see and understand what the system is doing. ... In general, the user wants (and needs) to be aware of the interface whenever something goes wrong because bugs and failures in a system break the illusion of transparency.
  • Although both HCI experts and designers acknowledge the diversity of the Web, few in either camp seem willing to accept the consequences of diversity. They still want to articulate a set of design rules that are universal, even though the universe of the Web is too varied to fit comfortably into one scheme. Their mistake is to assume a single kind of users with a single goal.
  • The discipline of human-computer-interaction was a great leap forward in thinking about context. ... HCI experts kept expanding the contexts that they were willing to consider in digital design. ... Today the Worldwide Web makes designers aware of the need to consider cultural as well as work contexts. ... To design a good Website or any digital application, the designer should try to understand as many of the contextual levels as possible: from the psychology of the individual user to the constraints imposed by the user's language, system, of beliefs, and popular cultural knowledge. ... Cultural awareness should inform the design process from the beginning.

As CHI 2003 showed, the HCI community now acknowledges the relevance of emotions and of cultural and social contexts and has proclaimed them as future trends. The differences between the two professions of HCI professionals and designers may be vanishing earlier than expected.

The book stimulated a plethora of thoughts on my side, particularly the introduction and chapter 7 that deals with design in context. In my opinion, some chapters tend to reiterate the basic theme too mechanically without giving enough useful design guidance. All in all, I recommend this book to the intended audience as a refreshing experience and source of inspiration for challenging the traditional concepts and barriers of digital design in general and of software design specifically.



  • Terry Winograd (Ed.) (1996). Bringing Design to Software. Addison-Wesley (Review)
  • Gillian Crampton Smith & Philip Tabor (1996). The Role of the Artist Designer. In: Winograd, Terry (Ed.) (1996). Bringing Design to Software. Addison-Wesley
  • David Siegel (1997). Creating Killer Web Sites, Second Edition. MacMillan Publishing Company
  • CHI 2003 – New Horizons, But What Are They?


top top