While rumblings of discontent in the web design world do not usually make it into the mainstream media, a little-known design trend known as skeuomorphism has been getting much attention recently. The mighty Apple’s software design philosophy is getting a bashing from all quarters, including its own, which is probably why the mainstream has picked up on it.
Skeuomorphism might sound like some obscure medical condition, but it is something that affects all web or app users, particularly iPhone or iPad owners, on an everyday basis. The devices themselves continue to win rave reviews for their sleek, minimal style, but it is the user interface that is seen by many as backward and incongruous, particularly in terms of usability. We're all familiar with design elements that replicate real world items: wood, leather, paper, ribbons, and so on. When parts or textures related to these objects are used to embellish digital design, it is known as skeuomorphism. The inanimate and the natural inspiring the brave new digital world, which is perhaps one underlying reason for the critical assaults on such a venerable icon of fin de siècle design.
Several blogs on the subject have reported that much of this anti-skeuomorphist sentiment has emanated from Apple itself, specifically accusing Steve Jobs as the chief-skeuomorphist. According to a senior designer at Apple: "iCal’s leather-stitching was literally based on a texture in his Gulfstream jet. There was lots of internal email among UI designers at Apple saying this was just embarrassing, just terrible."
This sounds like a classic case of the changing of the guard. While Steve Jobs was a pioneer of design in an era of discovery and change, designers today feel it is their prerogative to improve on these user interfaces in the same way that Steve Jobs felt it was his destiny to reinvent the way technology looked and worked. The wheel always keeps turning.
The question we should really be asking is why? We design for our audiences, and the audience has changed. No longer are touchscreen devices new: we are used to tapping, pinching, flicking, scrolling, and so on. And do we need our iPad magazines and books to be displayed on a faux-bookshelf? Many of us don’t – we know that these are e-books, and not the real thing. We can appreciate both; we have real bookshelves at home, so we don’t need to be reminded that we are reading something traditionally made out of wood. Maybe herein lies the truth. Tech-savvy people don’t like being patronized, and perhaps skeuomorphism is just too literal and traditional. A sign of just how far Apple’s star has fallen because of its skeuomorphic tendency is the generally positive reaction to the Windows 8 UI. Yes, that’s right, the new Windows OS has received generous plaudits for its pared-down software design from an industry that has traditionally held little regard for it.
Digital designers generally like to be seen as progressive and innovative, not backward and imitative. This is not to say designers should ignore the past – there will always be elements of past communications in digital design, like the envelope for email – but this backlash against using traditional materials to aid digital design is entirely understandable. Designers are problem-solvers: how do we fit this content in here, set out this form in this column space, make the navigation more prominent? Therefore we must always seek to innovate and change, even if it means challenging one of the design Gods. So here’s to less skeuomorphism…