The Death of Skeuomorphism

This is the Calendar app you find on iPads and recent Macs. 

It comes complete with fake leather and torn bits of paper, resembling the real object it’s supposed to replace. This is an example of skeuomorphism, an approach to design that recreates functional elements in an ornamental way. It’s used in physical objects as well: your car might have fake, retro-looking hub caps on its rims, and the rivets on your jeans are most likely just fakes covering the real, functional rivets underneath. But Apple has made it famous by incorporating it in its graphical user interfaces.

Apple’s obsession with skeuomorphism reaches into the tiniest of details. If you have an iPhone with iOS 6, launch the Music app and take a look at the volume knob:

If you tilt the phone on its axis, left to right, you will see the reflection effect on the knob change, as if it were a physical one. The gyroscope inside the phone is used to detect the motion. It’s nearly impossible to spot, yet someone at Apple went out on a limb to program this into the interface. Steve Jobs was a fan of skeuomorphism and Scott Forstall, the Head of iOS design, was a strong supporter. But there’s been an ongoing debate about this inside the company for some time.

Yesterday, Apple fired Scott Forstall. He’s taking the blame for the iOS 6 Maps fiasco, but the implications on graphic design are interesting. Guess who’s been appointed to replace him on the non-business end of his responsibilities? Jony Ive, Apple’s chief of industrial design. Now he’ll be in charge of designing not just the products, but even the graphical elements of the software that runs on them. Ive’s design philosophy is one of purity and simplicity: «We try to develop products that seem somehow inevitable. That leave you with the sense that that’s the only possible solution that makes sense», he says.

Wether you like the design of Apple gadgets or not, you must agree that it’s one of the key factors to its dominance. And the credit is all Ive’s. Before he came around, phones looked radically different. Computers were unappealing beige boxes. His first iconic creation was the original iMac, which came in a variety of bright colors and had a curious handle on top:Walter Isaacson notes in his book that is was “more playful and semiotic than it was functional”, and quotes Jony Ive on its purpose: «Back then, people weren’t comfortable with technology. If you’re scared os something, then you won’t touch it. I could see my mum being scared to touch it. So I thought, if there’s this handle on it, it makes a relationship possible. It’s approachable. It’s intuitive. It gives you permission to touch.
It gives a sense of its deference to you».

The design principles established by Apple now dominate technology, to the point that most other players in the field are very happy to just be copycats. This is most apparent on hardware, but software isn’t immune. Here’s the telephone icon from iOS:

It’s nearly identical, with very minor variations, on every other smartphone operating system, including Android. Somehow, Apple has decided that the telephone function must be identified with a white phone handle on a green background, and everyone else has just followed suit. Interestingly, it’s skeuomorphic and it refers to an outdated design for telephone handles. But while you’d be hard pressed to come up with a sensible alternative, does iBooks really need to resemble a wooden bookshelf?

Doesn’t this sacrifice functionality in some way? And why are most icons for voice recording shaped like either a classic studio microphone or an old tape, items that most people, especially youngsters, might have never seen in their lives? Skeuomorphism made a lot of sense when computers first came around: it gave people a quick way to grasp the functionality of otherwise obscure buttons or applications.
But do we still need that?

Given Ive’s track record in influencing the design of everyday things, it’s reasonable to imagine that he might apply the same mojo to UI elements. In other words, we may be on the brink of the greatest revolution in interface design since the inception of computers. Microsoft has just launched a new version of Windows that radically does away with the past and contains little or no trace of skeuomorphism. If Apple does the same they might become copycats themselves, but the impact of such a decision could resonate even more greatly.

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2 thoughts on “The Death of Skeuomorphism

  1. Personally I can’t wait for the death of skeuomorphism – it just seems silly and unnecessary really. I love the fact that the ‘save’ icon in MS office is still a 3.5″ floppy disk, despite the fact that hardly anyone has used those for about 10 years!

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