I like visual chrome in UI…and I’m betting many designers secretly do too ;-) In the current (circa 2012) mood of anti-chrome dogma (i.e., skeuomorphism hate, fueled in part by recent “lust of the new” infatuation over Windows 8’s informationally ascetic aesthetic–which, BTW is still unproven among users) this may seem like a radically outdated statement. After all, a UI that’s so rich you “want to lick it” is just so 2001, right? Well, not so fast folks…

“Chrome” (not the Google browser ;-) unfortunately has taken on a negative tone of something that’s overdone, gaudy, mawkish, anachronistically applied visual flourishes for gratuity’s sake, not applicable to (and perhaps even interfering with) a digital product’s functionality. And just flat out “tacky” to some. I mean, who wants that??

Well, if done improperly in such silly ways (which is NOT new…remember Kai Power Tools, anyone born before 1980?) then YES, visual chrome can lead to just that effect of ostentatiously getting in the way. After all, design should always be invisible, right? Except when it shouldn’t be. 

What about visual affordances that offers clues as to the existence of and potential use for a feature, like a page curl revealing layers of functionality or (gasp) a button or (face palm ) a menu? Pulling in learned knowledge from physical metaphors into the digital space is not a sin. It helps with discovery, understanding, learning, and adds (if done well with subtlety and sensitivity) delight to digital austerity. Ascetism is great for monks. Not so much for complex products armed with layers, spaces and modalities of capability to be found and used. Especially when we have devices loaded with 30+ apps all trying to be cute with gestures and no basis to come back to. 

Chrome provides an anchor, a framing element to the space, actions, and content, with clear lines of demarcation, so you’re not tapping all over the place wondering what’s “active”. Nicely done headers and footers and sidebars, etc. can house primary controls, navigational aids/cues, and of course branding, thus creating a distinct space of meaningful value. A oft-stated concern with Windows 8 style is getting lost in a floaty, never-ending space of content, losing where you are within a seamless, unfolding infographic. Seams can actually be useful, not shunned.

Chrome enables place-sensing: where the hell am I? and how do I get out? what do I do next? And with animations and subtle touch/swipe gestures we can do even more compelling and useful anticipatory digital actions like peek, reveal, depth effects, etc. Thereby adding joyful moments, and balanced utility, creating a product that’s more than a Swiss poster infographic–as fetishized as we elite designers like to make them out to be. Posters are useful, but we’re talking about full-blown digital products and services, often within multifunctional mobile devices.

Some say this all contradicts the notion of “being authentically digital”. I say chrome enhances and augments what the digital space can be, bringing vitality and utility together, if done well. So instead of being gratuitous distraction, visual chrome can add value to an interface; simply a matter of finding that “sweet spot” of balance between affordance, content, functionality, discoverability…and delight. 

(Side note: there’s an underlying issue of “taste” here. Of course, certain textures, styles, treatments simply rankle folks the wrong way and become annoying. The faux leather in iOS Contacts and Calendar apps come to mind. I agree that could be done much better ;-) But it’s important to discern personal taste preference from functional intent to augment the interface’s capabilities, tackiness notwithstanding.)

Repeat after me: Visual affordances are a good thing. Subtlety is poetry. Nuance is elegance. Let’s make digital interfaces more than authentic but awe-inspiring. Chrome can help and shouldn’t be dismissed because we’re suddenly tired of it thanks to a new Window to stare at, or a few bad Apples…if you’ll pardon the puns ;-)