Less Is Not Always More: The Argument for Apple-style Skeuomorphism
When an obscure archaeological term like “skeuomorphism” starts to show up in the pages of the country’s leading newspapers, you know people must be talking about Apple again.
In technology circles, the biggest news this week wasn’t Superstorm Sandy, or the elections, or even the Disney-Lucasfilm deal and the prospect of another Star Wars trilogy. It was the management shakeup at Apple, in which Scott Forstall, the mastermind behind the iOS operating system in the iPhone and the iPad, was forced out, leaving hardware guru Jony Ive in charge of interface design across the company.
Forstall was known inside Apple as one of the biggest proponents (second only to late founder and CEO Steve Jobs) of adding lifelike touches to the design of the company’s mobile and desktop software. I’m talking about the faux leather and torn paper in the Notes and Calendar applications for the iPad and Mac OS X, or the spinning reel-to-reel tape player in the new Podcasts app, or the green felt tabletop in the Game Center app: little embellishments that, while not strictly necessary to the apps’ functions, lend them a certain comfortable familiarity. That’s skeuomorphism in a nutshell: the use of design elements that may once have been functional, but are now merely simulated or ornamental.
The practice has provoked ire from design mavens both inside and outside Apple, and Ive was reportedly unhappy about the trend. For bloggers and journalists, then, one of the big questions raised by the executive reshuffling was whether decorative elements in the company’s software will now be purged in favor of the cleaner, more functional designs that Ive is known for.
The question seemed all the more urgent this week in light of Microsoft’s release of Windows 8, whose top-level interface features a flat, utilitarian grid of colored tiles. The emerging storyline among the digerati is that Microsoft has finally acquired some design mojo; that Forstall’s vision for iOS has left Apple—the company famous for its obsession with design—in danger of looking goofy and old-fashioned; and that Ive now has the opportunity to put everything right again.
“You can be sure that the next generation of iOS and OS X will have Jony’s industrial design aesthetic all over them,” an anonymous Apple designer told New York Times reporters Nick Wingfield and Nick Bilton for an article that appeared Thursday. “Clean edges, flat surfaces will likely replace the textures that are all over the place right now.” In their article, Wingfield and Bilton spoke of the Jobs-Forstall touches as “visual tricks” and quoted designers who derided them as outdated, archaic, and larded with nostalgia. “Silly throwbacks to the past, plopped into advanced devices” was one phrase they used.
But is skeuomorphism really so terrible? Amidst the attacks on Forstall and the talk about a renewed horse race between Microsoft and Apple, I haven’t seen anyone offer a concrete list of the supposed demerits of Apple’s recent designs. The accepted wisdom seems to be skeuomorphism=bad, minimalism=good. Under this philosophy, digital things should look authentically digital, and shouldn’t be made to ape the real world. Form should always follow function, and we should all brush up on our Bauhaus.
Now, I’m a minimalist myself; there isn’t a stick of veneered particle board in my apartment that didn’t come from Ikea. And I certainly wouldn’t try to defend every Apple fancy—the simulated paper shredder in the new Passbook app is a bit over the top. But there must be something appealing about all that fake felt, leather, and linen in iOS-land, or people wouldn’t be buying iPhones and iPads faster than Apple can make them.
To me, the anti-Forstall , pro-Windows 8 rhetoric has the feeling of a passing shift in the winds of technology fashion. Simulated leather is so out this season—didn’t you hear?
I am not a designer, but like everyone else, I’m immersed in a world of designed objects. Speaking from my experience as a technology consumer, I’m pretty sure there’s a place for skeuomorphism in good design. To quote Paris-based design blogger Sacha Greif, there’s nothing wrong with skeuomorphism in itself. It’s just like any other tool. It can be misused or overused—but sometimes it’s exactly what you need.
Let me give you an example of good—nay, brilliant—skeuomorphism. It’s the LetterMPress app for the iPad, which I first wrote about in July 2011. The product of a successful Kickstarter campaign, the app recreates the experience of using a 1964 letterpress machine, from composing wood type to selecting paper and ink to cranking a carriage handle to roll the impression cylinder across the press. The app’s interface isn’t merely skeuomorphic—it’s photographic, drawn from actual letterpress equipment and type collected and scanned by the app’s creator, John Bonadies. There’s even an audio track that captures the whirring, clopping noise of the press as it churns out a “print” (in reality, a .PNG file).
LetterMPress users have created some stunning designs using the app. Yes, you could probably make stuff like this using a modern graphics program like Photoshop or Illustrator. Fussing around with wood type is no longer necessary, so from an efficiency perspective it qualifies as a “silly throwback to the past.” But in this case, bringing an obsolete technology back to life through the medium of a high-resolution touchscreen is the whole point. The skeuomorphism here isn’t merely ornamental: it’s deliberate and essential.
You could say the same thing about the musical instruments in the iOS version of Apple’s Garageband app, or about the classic pinball tables that Farsight Studios has recreated for the Xbox, the PlayStation, and the iPad. These are all cases where it’s clearly better to bulk up the interface than to strip it down; where waste is good, and all the surplus computing and graphics power at our disposal today is used to make the consumer’s experience a little more magical.
Now, there’s another class of applications—office and productivity apps, Web browsers, social media clients, and the like—where there is less to be gained by drawing from the visual vocabulary of the physical world. The fragments of torn paper visible in Apple’s Calendar app do not make it more useful. In fact, they may make it slightly less useful. The only cogent critique of Forstall-era skeuomorphism I’ve encountered is that such details are deceptive, and therefore confusing.
An interface that evokes an older referent, this argument goes, should actually deliver on the reference. You shouldn’t make the top-level screen of the iBooks app look like a wooden bookcase (to take another oft-cited example) unless you’re going to make it work like a real bookcase—meaning, I guess, that you should be able to move the books around. “My brain, which is used to the physical bookshelf, is confused because of the differences in usability,” complains Yves Béhar, the founder of a San Francisco- and New York-based industrial design firm called Fuseproject, in a recent Fast Company screed against Apple’s skeuomorphic tendencies. “It’s cute, but not particularly useful.”
Well, Mr. Béhar, I’m sorry about your brain, but I don’t feel confused. I feel comforted. Sure, I could still cope in a world where Swiss designers rule and every interface is boiled down to Windows 8-style “squares, images, and text,” as developer and blogger Ambrose Little puts it. But why should I have to? If a skeuomorphic element can make an app more usable or more delightful, then it’s silly to eschew it simply on theological grounds. (In fact, I challenge software designers to build a metaphor-free interface. As Little has pointed out, such a design would be unintelligible.)
It’s easy to take the fake stitched leather too far—and do I think it’s fair to blame Apple for unleashing an epidemic of bad skeuomorphism on the part of third-party developers. You can peruse numerous design disasters from the iOS App Store at the hilarious blog skeu.it. But compared to these examples, Apple’s own design offenses are, at worst, misdemeanors. And only in a petty, joyless, ruthlessly industrialized world would they be punished. Let’s give ornament and metaphor their due—and hope that the future isn’t too full of flat surfaces and clean edges.