In recent iterations of iOS — Apple’s mobile operating system for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad — and in recent versions of OS X on the desktop, you will undoubtedly have noticed a move towards visual elements that mimic real-life objects. The ruled, yellow notepaper for the Notes app, the torn-paper effect at the top of the stitched, leather-bound Calendar app, and more are examples of this.
These software design elements mimicking real world objects have introduced a new word into our vocabularies: skeuomorphism. Such effects have, however, divided opinion, and it is just possible that we will see Apple shift away from these elements in future.
What, Exactly, is Skeuomorphism?
Skeuomorphism is commonly understood to be, according to Wikipedia, the “design element of a product that imitates design elements that were functionally necessary in the original product design”, and here comes the important bit, “but which have become ornamental in the new design.”
That is significant. Skeuomorphs are merely eye-candy. And a lot of people dislike design elements that are not necessary to the function, not just you (perhaps?) and I. If you have been reading the Apple press, lately, it is widely reported that Sir Jonathan Ive similarly dislikes skeuomorphism.
How has Skeuomorphism Become so Divisive in the Apple World?
If you have ever wondered why your Mac Book Pro, iMac, Mac Mini or Mac Pro was the epitome of cool — with its sleek, minimalist, brushed aluminium surfaces — yet the software it runs is a mishmash of stitched leather, torn paper, linen textures and green baize, then you are certainly not alone.
Skeuomorphism seems to be one of those ‘Marmite’ phenomena: you either love it or you hate it!
The designer of your Apple hardware, Sir Jonathan Ive, is reportedly against skeuomorphism. His industrial design language, that draws inspiration from the function-determining-form minimalist approach of Braun’s Dieter Rams, certainly seems to suggest so.
Your software – OS X, on the other hand, has in recent years been drawing inspiration from Apple’s handheld devices that run iOS. Scott Forstall, until recently in charge of iOS, is said to be a huge proponent of skeuomorphism. Indeed, Steve Jobs himself has also been reported to favour such design elements.
This makes sense, in a way, since Apple continues to welcome an ever increasing number of Mac owners whom had their introduction to Apple devices through an iPhone, iPad or iPod. It makes OS X friendlier, familiar too, to those transitioning from Windows on PCs. Hence the convergence of ideas from mobile to desktop.
For long time Mac owners, however, these unnecessary design flourishes detract from the understated, functional and thoroughly-thought-through design for which Apple is highly regarded. For some such detractions becomes distractions that jar.
Skeuomorphism Can Help Computer Operators
Well, yes and no.
It is certainly the case that replicating real life objects can help the computer operator make sense of the interface.
Take settings, for example, where the user interface design of software might use switches to toggle between on and off. This is quickly and easily understood and, when employed correctly, is a sensible approach.
Remember, though, that skeuomorphs are the visual design elements that are superfluous to the function. They are a design indulgence that adds no more to the function of the software interface. They have no use and little purpose. They have gone to far. Skeuomorphism is just gilding the lily.
In essence, visual metaphors are good. Skeuomorphs, less so.
What Next for the Future of The OS X Human Interface Design?
With the recent board-level shake-up at Apple, Scott Forstall (pro-skeuomorphism) has gone and Jonathan Ive (anti-skeuomorphism) is now to be overseeing software, as well as hardware, design.
With this change it is now widely thought that the increasingly indulgent design direction of OS X software will be reversed and be brought into line with Apple’s approach to its hardware.
This has to be a good thing. Whilst the Notes app mimics a pad of ruled paper, the stitched leather of Address Book and Calendar and the torn-paper effect is not necessary for functionality. By the time we get to the dark wood and green baize of Game Centre (I presume to be reminiscent of gaming tables) then the visual assault is so severe as to render the application functionally confusing and counter intuitive.
To continue on a skeuomorphic approach to interface design inherently means a confused approach with inconsistencies in function and expectation across all apps within OS X.
The omission of skeuomorphism, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily mean bland human interface designs. Look no further than Mac apps such as Tweetie that introduced a design that was clean and elements that were functional.
Sure, when Twitter bought Tweetie to become their official Mac client they did screw up much of the app, but Tweetie itself was influential. The developers of Sparrow, originally a Mac app for Gmail email, drew very heavily on Tweetie for inspiration. So much so, in fact, that they approached Tweetie’s developer beforehand.
That pull-to-refresh element that is prevalent in many apps, including Apple’s own Mail.app, …yep, that came from the developer of Tweetie, too.
As we have discovered, skeuomorphs are design elements that mimic real world objects but contribute nothing to the function. They are ornamental, merely a designer’s indulgence. We have also seen that human interface design elements that draw on real world objects can be useful metaphors that help the computer operator to understand the interface.
Moving towards a cleaner, functional human interface should mean less confusion, greater consistency across different apps which, in turn, aids understanding and efficiency of use. Perhaps Apple was in danger of developing bloatware full of eye-candy and, whatever the reasons for Scott Forstall’s departure, Apple can turn the tide of crass interface designs for something that is truly befitting of the design masterpieces that are the Macs that you and I use day to day.