By Jim Karpen on Sat, 11/03/2012
Until the recent shakeup at Apple, with longtime exec Scott Forstall being shown the door, I'd never heard of skeuomorphic design. Forstall, who headed iOS development, greatly favored this approach to design. As did Steve Jobs. But the new top iOS guy, legendary designer Jony Ive, dislikes it. That may mean that iOS will lose skeuomorphism in the future. So what exactly might we be losing? The tendency of Apple's apps to resemble real-world objects. Think of the bookshelf in iBooks. Or the notepad metaphor in the Notes app. Or the leather-bound book appearance of Contacts. And on and on. The original Macintosh graphical user interface was built on a desktop metaphor, with files and folders -- and a trash can.
Some of Apple's designs are totally retro. If you slide up the cover art in the Podcasts app, you'll see a full-screen image of a reel-to-reel tape player as your podcast plays. This is positively retro. I liked it when I first saw it. But some have scorned it. And in this age of digital music players, you have to realize that there's a whole generation of users for whom this is an unfamiliar image.
News reports about the demise of Forstall -- and, potentially, skeuomorphism -- at Apple tend to say that most designers are critical of this approach to design. They feel that it sometimes unnecessarily constrains functionality. An example is the book-like approach to Contacts. An earlier iteration, Address Book, lost some of its functionality when shoehorned into skeuomorphic design.
Personally, I like it. It makes new things look more familiar. And it's been fundamental in Apple's success in making interfaces intuitive. Take, for example, the Calendar app. In month view it looks like the sort of desk calendar of old, the type that lies flat and has a leather border. You tore off the page with each passing month. If you look closely at the top of the app, you'll even see where the pages have been torn off. And if you look at the bottom of the page, you'll see the edges of the pages underneath. When you go to the next month, you see the page actually appear to flip up.
In the single day view, the metaphor switches to a leather-bound book, just like the personal planners that were so popular before everything went digital. It's again quite possible that the digital generation has never seen one of these planners. Even the list view adopts the convention of personal planners, with a spiral-bound list on the left and desktop calendar on the right.
I love these touches in the Calendar app. In my mind, it makes the app so much warmer. And it gives it personality. Connecting apps with real-world objects, I feel, helps to make them feel different from one another. If design is open-ended, what would keep apps discrete?
If you want to quickly get a good idea how skeuomorphic design compares to the alternative, Cult of Mac has a great post titled "8 Tacky Design Crimes That Jonathan Ive Should Set Right In iOS 7." In the post they show the design of 8 Apple apps, each next to a popular third-party app that performs the same function.
Personally, I like the Apple approach better. This and the other comparisons on that page give me the impression that Apple's apps simply have more personality. The other apps seem cold and clinical, even though nicely designed.
The classic bestselling book Megatrends said that for high tech to succeed it needs to be accompanied by high touch: the cold and clinical design needs to be made more warm and fuzzy. Otherwise it will alienate us.
Tastes vary, of course, and in the end I'll probably end up liking whatever Apple does. But keep in mind that founder Steve Jobs liked skeuomorphic, and he was right on so many things.