Nov 12

The great skeuomorphism misunderstanding

No, I’m not quite ready to let the skeuomorphism thing die just yet. Humor me.

I was relieved that Tim Cook dismissed Scott Forstall and put Jony Ive in charge of Human Interface.

I was surprised when I read so many articles that seemed to misinterpret what had just happened.

I lost count of the articles proclaiming the death of skeuomorphism. Such as:

Skeuomorphism is (finally) dead: So what is Apple’s next move? and Jonathan Ive to rid skeumorphism in iOS and OS X.

News flash: skeuomorphism is not dead. What’s dead are cheesy, antiquated graphics — like the stitched leather look in Contacts and Calendar. These were aberrations in a world that had been built upon good taste.

Skeuomorphism is a good thing. It’s part of what made Apple what it is today — interface elements presented as real-world references to things we instantly understand. Things like documents, folders, trash cans, calculator, etc.

The leather stitching didn’t just stick out like a sore thumb. It was a skeuomorphic element tied to the wrong century. Rather than relate to something we’re familiar with, it related to something grandpa used to have on his desk.

Were you confused by Calendar before it became leather-bound? Of course not. The leather was an unnecessary visual element. It didn’t make us any more familiar with Calendar, it was just a “theme” being forced upon us. And it was a theme that turned off a great many.

If we’re to use a theme from the 50s to decorate Calendar, how about a typewriter theme to decorate Pages? Why not make the Reminders app look like the old reminder pad? Maybe the one that grandpa used to keep on that old desk calendar?

And what’s with Find My Friends? What’s its excuse for turning into leather?

This is exactly the point. Order was breaking down. Certain Apple interface elements were running off in one direction while others were going in another. It was skeuomorphism for its own sake, not for the sake of clarity.

Jony Ive isn’t going to banish skeuomorphism. He’s going to return it to a state of Apple elegance.

For me, Jony being put in charge of Human Interface is like the new sheriff coming to town to restore order.

The outlaws may not like it one bit. But as a law-abiding citizen, I really can’t wait.

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  • Dmitri

    Thanks Ken! I’ve been waiting for someone to talk sense on this issue. You nailed it.

  • sfmitch

    Great points.

  • CB

    Well, now that you’ve gotten that off your chest…..

  • dorkus_maximus

    When stone columns replaced bundles of reeds to hold up roofs, masons carved the columns to look like reeds. When iron columns replaced stone columns, fabricators cast them to look like stone columns. Eventually we stop making things based on what came before and begin to see the potential in the new way.

    That the folder and desktop metaphor has lasted as long as it has is something of an eddie in the flow of design history.

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  • darlaj

    If I never have to hear the word skeuomorphism again, it will be well worth Forstall’s head.

  • TomCross

    Kudos to Captain Cook. Scott must have signed up for the Navy afterall…

  • Stocklone

    Using modern elements we are familiar with? Ok let’s have iBooks have a digital version of an iPad in it and you can select your book from another iPad that’s inside that which also has another iPad inside it which has a Kindle in it. As our world becomes increasingly digital, skeuomorphism becomes more and more absurd. We have 1 year olds that will spend their entire life consuming digital content. They won’t need skeuomorphism. The digital world will be their real world. Let’s just kill it now and move on to a design philosophy that has a real future.

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  • WOW! stunning and very useful post! Thanks a lot )

  • skeuomorphism is a new word in my vocabulary :)

  • Thanks a lot for this article :)

  • “As our world becomes increasingly digital, skeuomorphism becomes more and more absurd.”

    Skeuomorphism serves a purpose. When it’s done well, it’s not consciously noticed so much as it provides continuity from something already well-known.

    Over time, as more and more of the already-well-known as been “digital” (as you put it), the skeuomorphic treatment may change, but unless a fundamental concept is brand new (say, Tweeting), those vestigial trappings will no longer speak back to physical versions.

    That’s nothing like being fated for The Absurd.

  • Nice post, I agree fully and was getting sick of the skeuomorphism posts as well… until I read this one.

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  • Thanks for finally clearing that up!

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  • Rick Kreuk

    And then we got iOS 7. You were so wrong…

  • ksegall

    I wonder what you see in iOS 7. I see envelopes, pens, pages, folders, cameras, trash cans, etc.. These are all skeuomorphic images that indicate function. What’s different now is that these images no longer attempt to literally recreate the textures or aesthetics of their real-world counterparts. The calendar, for example, still looks like a calendar — but it’s no longer clad in stitched leather.

    The point of my article was that, contrary to what some were predicting at the time, Jony Ive would not strip iOS 7 of skeuomorphism. He would do what Jony Ive does best: minimize. Thus, we now have an iOS 7 that still incorporates skeuomorphic images — without the unnecessary frills and gimmicks.

  • Rick Kreuk

    iOS 7 is an unusable mess. It’s just ugly. Some of the realism was over the top, like the Find my Friends app. But some realism made sense: buttons that look like buttons are instantly recognised, while buttons that look like text can be mistaken for a title.
    When I see iOS 7 I see the stripped down version of a beautiful OS millions of people loved. Jony Ive took the joy out of using iOS. I don’t see leather, paper and linen as unnecessary frills or gimmicks, I see them as a beautiful way to give apps personality.

    Minimising the hardware is necessary to prevent distraction, but the UI should be rich and usable. I was never distracted from my content before as there was a clear separation between content and UI (shadow, difference in colour etc.). Now everything just blends together.

    And then the colours of everything: it’s bland white coupled with way too bright colours. I cannot look at my screen without sunglasses.

    I would rather have leather in my apps than this disaster. Unfortunately, because Apple is so confident this catastrophe will be loved by everyone, they don’t allow downgrades.

  • ksegall

    The opinion I expressed in the article was that skeuomorphism would live in iOS 7 despite the rumors that it was dead. Since you said nothing more than “I was wrong,” I assumed you meant that this did not come to be.

    What you’re really saying is that you hate the look of iOS 7 — the lack of buttons, the color scheme, the way in which skeuomorphic elements have been minimized. So we’re not really talking about the same thing.

    You’re entitled to your opinion, but I don’t think it’s the majority opinion. Personally, I vastly prefer the new interface to one that tries so hard to replicate real-life objects. I find that cartoony, unnecessary and outdated.

    I do agree that the color scheme needs fixing and that in certain places the lack of buttons is a problem. A simple rectangle around the word would help. I think we should be able to turn of the flying icons just as we can turn off the Genie effect in OS X.

    So I’m not blindly defending Apple. I’ll be disappointed if the interface doesn’t evolve. But overall, I’m a lot happier with iOS 7 than I was with iOS 6.

  • Rick Kreuk

    Fortunately taste varies, as the world would be a pretty boring place if we all liked the same things.

    I should have been more specific than simply saying “You were wrong”. I agree with most of the article: skeumorphism didn’t die, realism did. I should have said that I think you’re wrong on the skeumorphism being reduced to a state of Apple elegance. In my opinion, iOS 7 can be called many things but elegant certainly isn’t one of them.

    I wouldn’t have been devastated if the leather textures were replaced with the standard UI elements. I would have loved to see iOS become a little more like Mac OS X: simple, elegant gradients and mildly skeuomorphic buttons would have modernised the UI, without negatively impacting usability.

    Shadows and distinguishable buttons are a great way to get around one of the biggest shortcomings of an iPhone or iPad: the display is flat. Humans need a threedimensional context to prevent confusion, which only effects like shadows can provide. iOS 7 tries to do this with the parallax effect, but fails tremendously. I don’t know about you, but I’m not moving around my iPhone very much while using it. Parallax is more gimmicky than the realism in iOS 6.

    I guess there wouldn’t be a problem if Apple would just allow downgrades, gs.apple.com (the signing server) deserves its own article ;-)

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  • Vincent Le Brun

    Interesting article. But Apple should today consider that a new generation arrived only using flat design and that we would be happy to see real world authenticity and personality to the use, to be able to enjoy more the use of the devices and not spending days in front of a completely digital environment that is not made for human brains.
    Bringing back Art, Design choices and character to the UI.