A full-out ideological war broke out in Apple’s design department after Steve Job’s death. On one side were the old-school designers, lead by Job’s disciple Scott Forstall, who felt the company should adhere to Job’s skeuomorphic design vision. On the other side were designers who believed in simpler, “flat style” imagery. When the dust settled, Forstall was fired (although to be fair, other factors may have led to his dismissal) and Craig Federighi, lead designer of the new iOS 7 introduced the new operating system’s simple, flat imagery with the quip “no virtual cows were harmed in the making of this one.”
Skeuomorphism and Virtual Cows
Skeuomorphism describes a design which uses imagery to represent real objects. The name comes from the Greek word skeuros (tool) and morphê (shape). Skeuomorphism abounds in both real life and virtual design. The fake wood appearance of a laminate floor is an example of skeuomorphism, as are electric bulbs designed to look like flickering candles. In virtual design, skeuomorphism uses images of real-world objects to make interfaces more accessible to users. For instance, your trash icon looks like a garbage bin. Virtual file folders look like their real-life equivalents and the tabs on a web browser resemble filing tabs. The “save” button in most applications is a floppy disk – an object many younger people have never even seen! (You feel old now, don’t you?) Apple took the concept to extremes. Jobs’ vision was one where anyone could boot up a computer and intuitively use its functions. To this end he made heavy use of skeuomorphism. Some say he went too far. The “virtual cow” comment, for instance, was a reference to the Corinthian leather texture used in the calendar app for the iPad. Critics note few people actually own leather-bound calendars anymore, so the imagery was pointless.
The choice of a fake leather texture for the iPad calendar highlights a potential failing of skeuomorphism. Images used to promote intuitive user experiences become unfamiliar over time. A classic case is the Apple podcast app for mobile devices, which until recently resembled a reel-to-reel tape machine. Unless you’re over the age of 45 or an avid steampunk aficionado, chances are you’ve never seen a reel-to-reel tape player. Even an interface resembling a cassette player would be anachronistic and unfamiliar to many of today’s users.
Complicating and Cluttering Interfaces
Critics of skeuomorphic design have other complaints. They point out, with reason, skeuomorphic interfaces require more screen space, and take up more of an operating system’s resources, than simpler interface designs. Forcing an app to conform to a real world equivalent — especially one as dated as a reel-to-reel tape deck — often results in a loss of operating quality. The design prevents the fine-tuning of, say, one where you can input numerical values. The appearance of skeuomorphic interfaces and applications often disrupts the consistency of the OS interface design while breaking the consistency of design from one app to another.
Microsoft 8 and Flat Style Design
While Apple focused on skeuomorphic design under Jobs, Microsoft increasingly looked to flat-style design. Say what you will about Windows and Microsoft Office, the company managed to incorporate software into a consistent, simple design. With Windows 8, Microsoft may indeed have gone too far in the opposite direction. The simple, bold tile sheets of the new OS have been dismissed as sterile and unengaging by many critics. Some say that things have become so simplistic that they’ve become hard to understand – you shouldn’t need to enter degree programs just to decode a couple buttons! When the new OS launched without a Start button, user response was so negative the company returned the Start button with the Windows 8.1 update. The Start button is, itself, a skeuomorphic element, representing an easy access gateway to the operating system’s functions. The button has become so iconic it’s become part of our culture, making it very difficult to remove from future operating systems.
Apple and iOS 7
Apple seems determined to purge its operating systems of skeuomorphic design, as can be seen with the new, simple, flat surfaces and interfaces of iOS 7. Although they lag behind Microsoft in the development of simplified design, Apple’s rejection of skeuomorphism will have a more significant influence on design trends. Why should this be? In part, it’s because the shift from skeuomorphic to flat-style design in Apple has been so dramatic, while Microsoft has been slowly drifting away from skeuomorphic images for years. More importantly, however, Apple as a company has always been design-driven. The company defines itself by its design choices, and those choices influence how people think about digital devices and design much more than Microsoft. Apple’s adoption of simplified design has lead pundits to declare the event the “death of skeuomorphism.” While skeuomorphism has lost ground as a design choice, it’s unlikely to completely disappear. Some design choices still benefit from skeuomorphism. The iconic Mac recycling bin, for instance, has survived the purge. It’s may soon stand as a silent tribute to a past era of design, a lonely anachronism kept only because, at the final analysis, we’ll always need a few real-world signposts to help us through our virtual travels.
Aaron Walker works in the design and development fields as well as writing freelance on the side. If you want to see more of his work, check out his blog SocialVex.