Major management shake-up likely to end skeuomorphic imagery in Apple software

“Whether they realize it or not, all of those who swipe a finger down from the top of the iPhone’s screen to check for notifications are bearing witness to a big sore point within Apple,” Nick Wingfield and Nick Bilton report for The New York Times. “There, behind a list of text messages, missed phone calls and other updates, is a gray background with the unmistakable texture of fine linen.”

“Steven P. Jobs, the Apple chief executive who died a year ago, pushed the company’s software designers to use the linen texture liberally in the software for the company’s mobile devices,” Wingfield and Bilton report. “He did the same with many other virtual doodads that mimic the appearance and behavior of real-world things, like wooden shelves for organizing newspapers and the page-flipping motion of a book, according to people who worked with him but declined to be named to avoid Apple’s ire.”

“The management shake-up that Apple announced on Monday is likely to mean that Apple will shift away from such visual tricks, which many people within the company look down upon,” Wingfield and Bilton report. “As part of the changes, the company fired Scott Forstall, the leader of Apple’s mobile software development and a disciple of Mr. Jobs. While Mr. Forstall’s abrasive style and resistance to collaboration with other parts of the company were the main factors in his undoing, the change also represents the departure of the most vocal and high-ranking proponent of the visual design style favored by Mr. Jobs.”

Wingfield and Bilton report, “The executive who will now set the direction for the look of Apple’s software is Jonathan Ive, who has long been responsible for Apple’s minimalist hardware designs. Mr. Ive, despite his close relationship with Mr. Jobs, has made his distaste for the visual ornamentation in Apple’s mobile software known within the company, according to current and former Apple employees who asked not to be named discussing internal matters… Axel Roesler, associate professor and chairman of the interaction design program at the University of Washington, says Apple’s software designs had become larded with nostalgia, unnecessary visual references to the past that he compared to Greek columns in modern-day architecture. He said he would like to see Mr. Ive take a fresh approach. ‘Apple, as a design leader, is not only capable of doing this, they have a responsibility for doing it,’ he said. .People expect great things from them.'”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: Can’t happen soon enough.

In the early days of computers skeuomorphism often helped users. Steve had it right. He and his minion failed to adapt later on. Nowadays an OS X calendar doesn’t require a faux leather bindings and illusory ripped paper for users to feel comfortable using it. Nor do electronic books need to be housed on fake wooden bookshelves, etc.

The last thing Apple should ever be is wedded to the past.

Throw it all out, Jony!

As we wrote on October 10, 2012:

What does Apple’s chief hardware designer Jony Ive think about Scott Forstall’s faux paper shredders, stitched leather, green poker table felt and other skeuomorphic software designs?

“My focus is very much working with the other teams on the product ideas and then developing the hardware and so that’s our focus and that’s our responsibility. In terms of those elements you’re talking about, I’m not really connected to that.” – Sir Jonathan Ive, May 23, 2012

Very diplomatic, Jony!

“True ornament is not a matter of prettifying externals. It is organic with the structure it adorns…” – Frank Lloyd Wright

Related articles:
Analysts upbeat on Apple following Tim Cook’s major management shuffle – October 31, 2012
Tim Cook takes full control of Apple: John Browett and Scott Forstall out; Jony Ive, Bob Mansfield, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi get expanded responsibilities – October 29, 2012
Apple software designers sick of doing things Scott Forstall’s way; ‘civil war’ said breaking out – October 10, 2012


    1. I don’t like the Calendars on Contacts in Lion and Mtn. Lion, I prefer Addressbook and ical in 10.6.8

      STILL, if you looked over the last 5 years of MDN archives, there would be none, maybe one mention of Skeuomorphism.

      But this week when the Forstall ouster was announced I was stunned by the number of posts/posters who suddenly hated Skeuomorphism, and Forstall by extension. If you were new to MDN this week, you would think that the evil Skeuomorphism was the bane of all things Apple. Starting to wonder if some of the Fandroidtards were right about the worse than kool-aid drinking jump on the bandwagon (even when there isn’t one to jump on) mentality of some Mac fans. Thats just sad. 🙁

      1. No, what is sad is the judgmental attitude of some people here. I’m tired of hearing about lawsuits so I just skip those stories and move on to things that interest me.
        If you don’t it DON’T READ THE ARTICLES.

    2. … SOMETHING in the background. What’s wrong with “linen”? As for the faux bookshelves, that’s a two-fer! Not only is it “something in the background” – if a little busy for that – but it provides a mental structure to place the icons within. Would you rather have the items scattered about like the mess on your floor?
      You are, of course, right in saying it is wrong to be a slave to such concepts. Are you a slave to them?

    1. Yeah I’d like to see some of it toned down but not totally gone. The wooden bookshelves and linen background let you know instantly where you or someone else is in their iOS device. If he gets rid of all that, I hope he keeps some big visual differences in the apps. I wouldn’t want them all to be the same.

    2. I also don’t mind the bookshelf or linen background.

      But the page-turning straddles and crosses the limit in places. It hasn’t really bothered me anywhere except in Mac Calendar, where you had to sit through the full page-turn animation every time you went to the next/previous month. Want to look at a date 6 months from now? Used to be 6 rapid clicks (or cmd-rights). Now it’s almost 6 seconds, even with the “power user” keyboard shortcut, making it almost worth pulling up the dialog box to enter the date directly.

      Skeuomorphism gets bad when it interferes with efficient usage.

    1. I’m with you. Understated use of textures helps control space and hierarchy within user interfaces, and brings a level of polish to the apps.

      For me it’s the hit-you-over-the-head ornamentation that I hate. The stitching. The faux leather. Etc.

      I think MDN Take nails it.

      In the beginning it helped set iPhone apps apart from the underpowered and unsexy apps on the mobile phones of the day. It helped people feel comfortable with the technology. And it helped create obvious visual distinctions between all of these distinct mini apps (people were more used to using monolithic software suites).

      Now it’s all just getting in the way.

    1. I have to agree with this.

      I’m not a big fan of the bookshelf or the stitched leather, but the linen background is an example of successfully applying physical aesthetics. As MDN points out, there are also times where it was very helpful in the past, but people understand computers quite a bit more, even at the bottom end. However, keeping an icon that is instantly recognizable from the real world version is still useful.

      I also have to say I am fond of the faux reel-to-reel player that you can turn on in the iOS podcast app. That will probably go, but I will kind of miss it.

    2. I think this is the real point – to tone it down a bit. I agree the Address book & Calender went just that bit too far. Most everything else does add that extra bit of sophisticated, familiarity & recognition that makes – me at least – comfortable in this working environment. It doesn’t have to so much in-your-face. It is always a fine balance, but I think it would be completely wrong to “Throw it all out…”. It will be interesting to see how the final iTunes looks and this might give us a clue as to where Jony and his (new) crew are heading.

  1. I too like the page turning action. I think there is something inherently appealing about turning to the next page to see how the story advances. There is a reason books are bound on the side as opposed to across the top. This is true for languages where the reading is right to left and top down. So maybe it’s in out genes to approach the “unfolding” of a story in this way. Maybe that’s why the “unfolding” metaphor makes sense to us.

    But leather stitching on a calendar? Not for me. I always hated tearing pages off a real calendar. I couldn’t get them to tear straight and it left little pieces of paper on my desk or the floor.

    1. Page turning on the OSX Calendar got bad, though. Couldn’t bypass or speed it up. About as stupid as when Windows animated menu dropdowns *before* you selected something, instead of after like the Mac did. Worse, actually–at least on Windows you could easily turn menu animation off completely.

  2. Well I like my iBookshelves and page turning.

    I can do without the faux-linen or over-the-top leatherette though, so maybe there’s a halfway house out there that ought to keep us all happy.

  3. Take it from a switcher. I absolutely hate, hate Microsoft’s way of rendering objects as if they were discombobulated from reality. You need a visual anchor to relate what you’re doing on screen to what you want to achieve at the end of the day. In other words a calendar should look like a calendar and not a representation of a calendar.

    I love how Apple has interpreted on screen objects to relate to their real life counterparts. This is something that MS and Google do not get and hence using their apps is a soul destroying affair – there’s no art to it – just tech. And that in itself is not engaging enough for the viewer to get his arms around.

    I love how Apple designed the calendar, contacts, iBooks, mail, and reminders app on iOS and transferred that look to OS X Mountain Lion. By borrowing design elements from iOS, it has made OS X richer as a result, not poorer.

    1. I’m in complete agreement. I would be very disappointed if Apple removed all these without at least giving us the option under Preferences to use the existing look. Come to think of it, it is an option in iBooks to use a list view instead of the bookshelf view. I just never use it.

    2. I agree with this as well. I very much like and appreciate the “skumorphic” elements of Apple’s software. I shutter to think of how “plain and simple” the interface will become with Jony at the helm. The external machine is great with its utter simplicity…but the software inside comes alive and is approachable precisely because it both looked and functioned as someone would expect of it.

      Mail is boring as hell to look it. It sucks visually. Just plain awful. I hate to think that other software designed by Apple will eventually look as bland one day. I sure hope not.

      You can argue about whether the skumorphism was taken beyond what’s reasonable…but do not remove it entirely. I can pick up a copy of windows to look at ugly (but won’t)….I don’t want to see it in my Apple products.

      Shelves and pages in iBooks are great from my perspective, as is the calendar interface for example. The applications are easy to use….AND they are attractive. If we just end up with easy to use down the road….we lose out. Jony is amazing with the physical devices we love to use…I am a lot more skeptical that the same approach will work with the UI.

  4. Re: MDN take, I’ll respectfully disagree.


    Because skeuomorphism still helps users. It is visual metaphor. Let’s don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    What would you prefer, that every app that accesses multiple documents (like say iBooks) represent the files it holds like cells in a data base program?

    Now that’s practical and functional as all get out, but downright ugly as sin. It would be a “look” only a data processor could love.

    However, as a designer, I’ll say skeuomorphism can be (and often is) taken too far. I like the background look of iBooks when it is launched. It should look like a bookshelf.

    However, when you open a book, the resemblance should end. Backgrounds that resemble pages and covers, shadows and highlights that represent binding, etc., need to go away. Along with that idiotic “page-turn” effect… something I’ve detested since I first saw it years ago.

    And, yeah, stitching is pointless, too.

    My 2¢.

    1. Another thing I should have stated was that skeuomorphism is best when understated AND thematically consistent throughout the UI. As it exists now, in iOS and OS X, skeuomorphism is a visual mess. Too often, it distracts rather than enhances.

      That said, both are far better looking, overall, than the PC/tablet UI alternatives.

      1. Allow me to define in just a few words the design aesthetic Ive seems hopelessly STUCK in:

        Thinner, Metal, black, shiny glass.

        As long as we are slamming recent Apple driven vocabulary lessons, allow me:

        Why does Apple need a commercial with Ive waxing poetic about a damn CHAMFER? Tell me the man on the street is impressed with Ive’s designgasm spots.

        He states “only Apple” can do this. I think he must mean put a smug, pretentious british designer on TV to talk about the beveled edge of the phone. People are going to buy because it has a laser made bevel? WTF..

        Same your flaming responses, IVE gets no hero worship from me, if thats your prerogative, well good for you..

    1. Not eliminate, but use judiciously. I don’t want ornamentation or frivolous embellishment. Skeuomorphism should subtly blend with the function and purpose of the application, not distract or confuse the user.

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