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Digital Patina

As an interesting companion to my post on the weight (or lack thereof) of digital goods, you should check out Mark Boulton’s article on Digital Patina…

The problem with digital products — our websites, applications, phone applications etc — is they don’t age the same way as some physical things. They either don’t age at all: locked in a permanent state whilst the world changes around them. Or they age in the same way plastic does: slowly decaying into tiny chunks that float about for eternity. Always there. Never to be used. Of little significant value. You see, producing digital products is not a sustainable practice.

How can we impart a digital patina on the things we use. What is the flavour of an application? Iteration? Code? UX?

It’s the kind of post that, for me anyways, raises more questions than it answers. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Leave a comment or contact me on Twitter at @ChrisFerdinandi.

Paul Hebert

Doesn’t anything with a date tag automatically convey “patina” – wikis, blogs, etc?

Chris Ferdinandi

Not necessarily, Paul. I don’t think patina is the same as age. Patina is more of an aesthetic quality that can come with age.

For example, my grandmother’s 60 year old bedframe has patina. The wood has taken a soft, smooth quality. Certain spots have more wear than others, giving it an interesting color pattern. My IKEA bedframe, by comparison, is just starting to look worn-out after 5 years, because it’s glued together saw dust. It doesn’t patina. It simply ages.

And because digital goods exist only as pixels, they can show age, but they don’t really patina the way physical goods do.

Paul Hebert

I understand the definition of patina – what I don’t understand is the “need” to apply it in the digital realm. Why does it have to have patina? What value does having patina have? As you say – the desire for a patina is in the eye of the beholder. You call it patina – I call it age.

Time creates patina (unless you’re looking at a forgery) – and don’t website “age” with each passing year. Take google’s home page – their logo – or the windows interface… each of those is held in time and can be viewed as history. The current iteration of windows may have some hold overs from the Windows 3.0 – maybe not – but every iteration of software (unless it’s a complete rewrite with a new foundation – think mobile) shows it’s “patina” in some way, shape or form. As mentioned in the article.

The poster also talks about the “sustainability” of producing digital products. Sustainability of what? When you think of sustainability of something refers to the idea of waste – negative waste in my mind – reuse, recycle and all that. Not having something sitting around taking up space.

Digital products don’t take up space (hard drive space – but we’re talking bits not atoms). Is there a need for sustainability when it comes to digital?

I think the thesis is wrong… there is no “problem” with not having a patina. It’s just what it is.

Chris Ferdinandi


First, I want to thank you for forcing me to think more deeply about this topic. Your question is a really important one: Why does having a patina matter at all for digital goods?

To me, it’s not just about the patina. It’s about the experience of interacting with digital vs. physical goods. Physical goods have weight and presence. They’re tangible. And if they’re well made, they often look better with age (that patina thing again).

That’s not really the case with digital goods. They’re ethereal and intangible. They don’t often inspire an emotional connection the way a physical good can. They’re always separated from us by panes of glass and circuit boards.

And when they age, one of two things happens – they’re “remodeled” to look like the “new big thing,” or they’re left as is, and begin to look like wood paneling and shag carpet of the digital age.

As a designer of digital goods, I’m interested in how to create things that have meaning and impact, that create an emotional experience, and that get better with age. I believe it can be done, but the old metaphors and models don’t necessarily work.

That is, I think, a far more difficult aspect of web design than the technical requirements of the job.

Paul Hebert

I think the disconnect in my mind is summed up when you said…”the old metaphors and models don’t necessarily work.”

The “products” of the digital age need a new lexicon. Maybe we should say “classic” versus old or “neo” for new…

There is still appreciation for the “classic” stuff – the stuff that we built upon. I submit:

That is digital patina…

Paul Hebert

nothing on the web ages – and it never dies.

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