Last October, Scott Forstall was famously let go from Apple Inc. This caused a shifting around in Apple’s department heads, ultimately landing Jony Ive, the famous designer of the original iPod, iPhone, Unibody MacBooks, and the iPad, as the Senior Vice President of Industrial Design. Suddenly, many Mac centered websites came out with articles regarding Ive as the Savior of iOS, the one who would take us away from Corinthian Leather and introduce a whole new iOS design. The problem is, they don’t get it. These designs make things simpler. And they really are more useful than everyone says they are.
Skeuomorphism – What Is It Exactly?
The horrible word that everyone apparently hates, yet doesn’t understand, is skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphism is “…a physical ornament or design on an object copied from a form of the object when made from another material or by other techniques”1. This isn’t limited to a way something looks, but also its feel and sound. Cars use skeuomorphic design in how their dashboards feel or their radios function, or how you may see a real horn on your steering wheel, an easy way to distinguish the function of it. Your DVD player uses skeuomorphism in how its buttons look, such as the eject button or the fast forward button.
But the fact is, skeuomorphism is a design that is from an existing object, such as a calendar, or an old turntable. It’s not something that is just textured or skinned. Saying the ‘fine linen’ on iOS’s notification center, or the glass on Windows 7 is skeuomorphism is like saying the fact that your plastic table that has wood texture on it is skeuomorphism. It isn’t, as there are no real-world counterparts to these designs, and they don’t function similar to these counterparts. It is just a simple way to make things look good to our eyes.
Skeuomorphism in OS design
Many think that because Jony Ive has taken over some of Forstall’s roles, that he is going to completely rewrite and redo all of the designs on iOS and OS X, making it look and feel more like a flat, modern, and aluminum interface. That he is going to rip out all that linen and leather, and keep it away from our poor, strained eyes.
There isn’t going to be a huge redesign of these two OSes because a guy got fired. The design of iOS is already familiar to the consumer. It’s simple to use, easy to understand, and has little to no learning curve. That is Apple’s goal: to not have a gesture based operating system that is confusing, like Windows 8 or Blackberry 10. Both of these OSes are heavily laden with gestures. Such as swiping from the edges to reveal menus, or to do things such as turn on and off the screen. Apple, rather, wants to make things easy for the consumer.
Apple, in its OS, relies on associating apps with real-world devices. When you’re in the compass app, your phone becomes a compass. When you are using the calendar, your phone becomes a pocket calendar. Although the calendars look vastly different on the iPad and iPhone, one using Apple’s iOS ‘blue’ interface, and the iPad calendar using a leather look, both are still skeuomorphic, despite their UI textures. That’s one of the main things not understood, because without skeumorphism, using a new device would be extremely hard to understand.
Where It’s Useful
Imagine using a Calendar that looked different than the normal month calendar we are all used to. Imagine using a music player that didn’t have the play button or pause button. For some apps, getting rid of old ‘legacy’ design and function has worked, but they have to provide tutorials to make sure the end user can use it right. Apple doesn’t want to, and in fact doesnt, supply a tutorial when you first use iOS or OS X.
When you set up an iOS or OS X device for the first time, after going through basic OS setup, it just opens to the home screen on the device, or desktop on the Mac. Then it shows us all something we are used to. Depth-filled icons that we can click or tap, that then open applications. Icons such as Safari, that make a reference to exploring with it’s compass design, or Mail, which shows an envelope or a stamp so we know what it actually does. It doesn’t take us through an intense tutorial showing us how to use it, because we already know how. That is Apple’s, and other OEM’s, end goal with so-called skeuomorphism. To make it easier on the user, and to make their product understandable to anyone.
Where It’s Not
Although skeuomorphism offers a nice look and feel to some applications, in others it limits the aspect and features of that application. It may be simpler in some aspects, to not have to press a certain button on a screen, such as play, pause, a camera shutter, or to even type, but it’s what we are used to. Some phones have started moving away from a camera touch button, rather just having you touch the whole screen. Playing and pausing on a device can be done the same way in cases.
It may not be appealing to some, but it’s just easier to use something you recognize. Something that is familiar. That is where skeuomorphism excels: when it makes things simpler to understand. That is why I enjoy it.
A great essay to read on skeuomorphism is “Flat Pixels”, by Sacha Greif.