Among other things, I think human beings enjoy making “connections.” That applies to interpersonal connections. It also applies to connections in our own heads. “Oh, you’re the new friend I’ve been hearing so much about.” “Oh! That’s why my omelettes always stick!” “Oh, I can move immediately after I hit the ball! I don’t have to wait and see where my opponent hits it.” In other words, we like to learn. We like to see relationships that we didn’t see before.
I think this is why I find “Echoes” a very beautiful property in architecture, in music, in poetry, and in natural beauty. Echoes need not be perfect duplications. In most cases, it’s better if that’s not overdone. Perfect duplications at the same scale are more evocative of machinery or mass production that natural beauty.
At this point, I am sorely tempted to tangent off on why, when you yell into a canyon, what comes back is not a perfect duplication or the original sound waves you sent out. But I will resist.
When nature, or a designer, puts subtle echoes, it’s delightful because it allows us to make a connection that is “across” or “different from” the main show. For example, in poetry, one typically reads from start to finish. It is a linear experience. At the same time, there are often rhyme schemes so that words “echo” other words in an auditory sense. Poetry often uses metaphor which becomes a kind of “color scheme” for the room that particular poem created.
In social interaction, if it is done skillfully, there are also echoes. Things are hinted at, shown only partially, or suggested. Slowly, a listener may become hooked on an attractive lure and end up swallowing, as they say, hook, line and sinker! If someone came right out and said up front, “Now look, I’d like to become dictator and what I need from you is to send me lots of money and thirdly, swallow any bull-crap I spew and actually, come to think of it, you might have to kill your granny and or your kids. On board?” No. Very few would take that on. Instead, it is hinted, intimated, insinuated that: “Everything that’s bad in your life — that’s not your fault! I know who is to blame and I can help right all those wrongs!”
Echoes aren’t always bad in human interactions. Far from it. One of the most amazing things to observe is how a two or three person team in trivial pursuit or Who Wants to be a Millionaire throw twenty miscellaneous and various possible answers — all wrong!! — into the air and after several minutes of being nowhere close to the answer, someone shouts: “The Mad Hatter!” And that is exactly right.
In music, there are harmonies, themes, motifs, recapitulations, etc. In some musical settings such as cathedrals, the music may produce literal echoes. Regardless, themes are repeated, varied, morphed into something different and so on.
So too, in architecture. If we try to imagine how buildings first came to be, it would be quite natural for them to have “echoes” because the entire building would be constructed of local materials. Stones, reeds, skins, bricks, logs, caves, etc. naturally lead to echoes because it’s all the same “stuff.” In modern skyscrapers however, it’s quite possible to design something with no echoes at all. The only point of the skyscraper is to be as efficient as humanly possible to make as much money as possible. What would be the point of “echoes”? Would it generate more profit? Sure, it might be an interesting experience for those who looked at our building. To which, a likely answer might be: “Who cares?”
Isn’t it interesting that back when most people had next to nothing, they bothered to make cathedrals as beautiful as they knew how. But now that we have much, much more, we can’t spare the cash. (“We may be rich, but we are not yet the richest.”)
Nature is rife with echoes. Here’s one I have the privilege to witness almost every night. As the sun goes down, the light in the garden turns yellow. This means that flowers, trees, and so on will appear in higher contrast and in more golden light. A close up of white roses will look golden in the setting sun and so too will tree branches in the background.
If you walk (or run, bike, etc.) through a garden or a forest, the experience will typically be full of echoes because you will walk by many individual oaks, beeches, roses, mayapples etc. each of which echoes to an extent all the others. In the same way that a poet puts rhyme, allusions, and other figures of speech to cause echoes both within the poem and with your memories, so too, a walk in nature will remind you of other previous experiences and of other plants and animals that you see earlier in the walk. The actions of walking themselves (or of wheeling, running, biking or cross-country skiing) are a kind of echo in much the same way that a steady rhythm in a poem causes echoes among all the stressed syllables and among all the unstressed syllables.
Where do echoes occur in user interfaces? One of the few things that I think of are that logos associated with various pieces of software appear in different places and at different scales. For example, I recognize the small version of the Safari logo on my tool bar. To the right are open file locations in that browser. There is a small image of the landing page of each website, but each little icon also has a teeny version of the Safari logo. If I go to the Safari website, I’ll no doubt see other sizes of Safari logos.
To the extent that developers use a common style guide, that also causes a kind of echo effect. I might see something to the right of my writing pane and say to myself: “Ah, under ‘font’ I see a common widget next to ‘11pt’ — a widget consisting of an up and down arrow. I’ve see that before! I’ll bet I can change the font size with it. Clicking on the up arrow will make for larger font; clicking on the down arrow will make a smaller font.”
To the extent that the use of various conventions causes correct patterns to be accessed out of my memory, those echoes seem mildly aesthetic and quite useful. Where else do you see “echoes” in user experience or in user interfaces?