Why Jony Ive shouldn’t kill off Apple’s skeuomorphic interfaces

“Earlier this week Apple fired Scott Forstall, the architect of its iOS platform, and handed his duties over to the company’s chief industrial designer, Jonathan Ive. Ive and Forstall had an infamously chilly working relationship, and one of their biggest disagreements was over the role of so-called ‘skeuomorphic’ design in Apple’s products,” John Pavlus writes for Technology Review.

“Forstall, like his mentor Steve Jobs, favored it; Ive disliked it,” Pavlus writes. “To many observers, Forstall’s forced exit looks like a vindication of Ive’s stance. But if he wants to continue Apple’s enviable trend of innovation, he’d be a fool to throw the baby of skeuomorphism out with Forstall’s bathwater.”

Pavlus writes, “It makes sense that Ive would hate skeuomorphism. It’s not a useful solution for any design problem he’s ever faced at Apple before… Skeuomorphic nostalgia is antithetical to Ive’s industrial-design ethos, with good reason. But digital interface design is a whole different animal. Apple’s genius has always been in creating innovative UIs that look and feel like something much better than the future: the familiar, comfortable, comprehensible present. How? Skeuomorphism.”

Read more in the full article here.

54 Comments

  1. I think there’s a balance to be struck. Sure, lose the leather-stitched calendar, but some depth and texture and sense of place is needed. Windows 8 is terrible IMO because it has no sense of texture or place which you 100% need in an OS. It’s the reason we fell in love with the Mac in the first place.

    1. I like texture and small embellishments to bring out meaning in my software. Little things like shadows and highlights help to cue me as to function. When it comes to a hand stitched leather day timer, I am not aided by that detail and it looks amateurish to me. The brushed metallic look is preferable as long as it doesn’t take up valuable screen area.

    2. Agreed. Macs are better than PC’s for 3 reasons:

      1) Better quality hardware testing in the design phase.
      2) Consistent interfaces from program to program which reduce the learning curve.
      3) Elegance in hardware and user experience.

      Skeuomorphic interfaces help in providing the elegance component.

      just my $0.02

        1. I did like the calendar of several years ago before the leather was added. But just because it’s new and shiny doesn’t mean that it’s comfortable either. I don’t think change just for the sake of change is always a good idea. There’s nothing wrong with feeling comfortable or nostalgic about something you use all the time. If you like it you like it. Jobs and Forstall understood this. As a designer, Ive may not. You certainly need to strike a balance between modern and comfortable. We’ll see within the next year how this works out.

            1. This would be nice, but Apple has shown they are not interested in providing users with any way to customized their visual UI experience. Remember Mac OS themes that Apple announced for OS 8… then abruptly and without explanation dropped?

              Pavlus is spot on with his commentary.

              I wonder if the anti-skeuomorphic crowd realizes that dropping all skeuomorphic cues would leave users without any idea of how an app is supposed to function. Every app would have to come with an instruction manual.

              Besides, skeuomorphism is simply an intermediary step. It isn’t going to happen overnight, but eventually UI design will get us to a pure “form follows function” future where skeuomorphism no longer exists because it is no longer necessary.

            2. At last some common sense in support of the concept. When things become familiar they can breed contempt but the whole user interface is a complex series of compromises that at their best never reveal that inevitability to the user as windows oes instantly. There’s room for change but it has to be for the better.

    3. Excellent point.

      Ive is a true creative designer, and I do not think he will ditch everything that is useful just as a reaction to skeuomorphism I think he is both intelligent enough and skilled as a creative to actually make things – better.

      Jobs’ creative skills are what made Apple what it is, telling the engineers what to do – NOT letting salesmen and engineers make the decisions that end up destroying the product.

    1. Exactly. I like skeuomorphism as well. That approach that helped Apple gain a stranglehold on the whole idea of “ease of use”. It is what’s responsible for taking the whole intimidation factor out of technology, and I think it would be a HUGE mistake to do away with it.

    2. Generally speaking, if something is more familiar with one thing then another, they will go with what they know.
      A frame of reference is required. There can be a lot of shifting colors and lines and planes, but what are you supposed to do? Make it look like a book on a bookshelf, and the person KNOWS exactly what you can do, what is possible. It leverages a lifetime of experience.
      The, oh you move “things” to the green cloud to keep and to the red cloud to remove, is based on NOTHING.
      You want to be “inside” the web/internet, a la Snow Crash or Ghost in the Shell? Snow Crash was pretty much all skeuomorphism. One verrry long street. (could really use the “Earth” program)
      What did it look like when the Major dropped in on people having a discussion? Well, everyone had their avatar, there was a round conference table, with people “sitting” around it, and there were rings of benches around all of that for people to sit and watch.
      It’s the simple way to use what works, and not make up a bunch of artificial B.S. based on someones’ opinion.

  2. Very few are saying skeuo should be thrown out entirely. Just scaled back in places where it makes no sense, especially if it interferes with user’s ability to get things done. Especially experienced/power users. Imagine if Apple removed command-key shortcuts from all menu items, since there’s no analogue in real life (or touchscreen-based navigation)

    The page-turning animation in OSX’s Calendar is my main example. They at least wised up slightly so the Mountain Lion version skips the animation if you use shortcut keys. They also learned that lesson after the volume wheel fiasco in the Quicktime 4 Player, looks like they’re having to learn it again.

    1. The brown leather look in iOS Pages is horrible. I can sort of live with it for an address book, and even for a calender, but there is absolutely no past experience that would make a leather look plausible in a word processor/layout program.

  3. I’d love to see the podcasts app interface go. In addition to being buggy as hell, the interface is harder to read and use.

    As far as reel to reel tapes. How many users have actually seen, much less used one. At least for consumer usage I remember cassette tape being in use by late 70s.

    1. Pappy, I completely agree. A reel to reel tape player as a background is a dumb as having a horse and buggy as the background for Maps.

      Plus, like you said the Podcast app is a bitch to read especially in the car with normal outside light streaming in the windows. To make matters worse Apple included more speed options on Podcasts (1x, 1.5x, 2x, 3x, and 0.5x), but the only way to go from 1.5x back to one is to go through all the other speeds. Whose bonehead idea was that!

      Hopefully, Ive will bring back KISS to software and app interface design.

      1. Aw, man. I like the reel-to-reel.

        Not like I will really care when it goes, but I thought it feel into the neat little Easter egg category (since it is hidden by default) than the “why can’t I turn this off” crappiness of iCal.

        I think this is a relevant point. The reel-to-reel is an extreme example and some will like it, some will hate it. That’s true of all design, but I think more so with elements such as this.

      1. You may want to rethink that somewhat.

        Skeuomorphism is visual metaphor. It exists in every app to some degree. Without it, you probably wouldn’t be able to intuitively figure out (as you can now) how to use most apps.

        1. I find the new look of the iCal app to be confusing not intuitive. And I do not like the way the faux covering looks against the black and silver of my iMac. It looks cheap.

    1. Why would they dress interface of transcendent technology with the look of the very outmoded forms, forms which Apple’s products have superseded? Don’t make things look like something they are not. Is there anything more bogus than woodgrain formica?

      Personally I dislike even real wood in an automobile, which is a machine of functional modern materials. Leather seats are good because they are still the best material for the function.

      Good design makes a positive, honest experience from the functional technology.

  4. The calculator is the ultimate skuomorphic application. Make to look and function just like a physical calculator, it pales as a UI and in efficiency next to something that throws it all away and starts over, like Soulver.

    Imagine if iTunes had a turntable metaphor (place your cursor on the toner arm, lift it up and place it on the “record” which represents the song”)…

    If Apple stands for anything, it’s for throwing out the legacy stuff when the legacy stuff gets in the way, even at the cost of making customers uncomfortable (at first). It’s what’s made them leaders. Keep going, Apple…independents can always create alternative applications for people who want the stitching and page-turns!

    1. Soulver is a rather simple app that’s just little more than a one-trick pony… so it might be able to get away with what it is doing, but I doubt it because even it requires a video on the Soulver website to show you how it works. It’s not intuitive.

      Which kind of proves my point.

      You can’t tell how to use Soulver just by looking at it… unlike the calculator. The exception for calculator being those who do not know how to use one.

      Without the visual metaphor that is skuomorphism (to some degree or another), most apps would be unusable. No one, except the developers, would know how they work.

      Which is not say I’m for more stitching and page turn effects.

  5. Calendar used to be much better. I think that forcing the app into a leatherbound book created some design functionality compromises, and I, for one, am looking forward to a more intuitive experience.
    The linen, the glossy buttons… Fine- I love the beautiful replication of real materials, but keep it clean and obvious.

  6. There’s something to be said for a bit of visual flourish that reminds of the physical equivalent and perhaps serves as a prompt to the function, but a lot of them – address book – most noticeably have taken it to a ridiculous extreme. The address book functionality doesn’t even correspond to the faux reality it’s trying to convey.

  7. I really do not like the new Address book.. I don’t need it to look like an old address book in a desk drawer to use it… it’s a computer, an Apple computer, not some antique… it’s 2012, let’s move on..

  8. Have you noticed that when you upgraded your iOS to the latest version the little gears in the Settings icon turned (at least in the settings window). Skeuomorphism. Totally useless, and completely clever and endearing. Page turns on iPads? Same. I agree – there’s places and ways it just gets in the way, but for the most part, when applied with a delicate touch, it improves the experience, and differentiates it from other OSes.

  9. some skeuomorphic items work quite nicely – like the linen background in iOS which is subtle and actually pleasing and not obviously any real world reference. Calendar on the other hand is way over the top. Maybe its more about texture than actual objects. Ives certain gets physical textures – screen based visual texture equivalents make a lot of sense as well.

  10. Longintooth
    All these clever people advising Sir Jonathon
    Ive on which course he should take and which designs he should or should not alter.
    My take is that, Sir Jonathon has done a tremendous job since joining Apple, he is an icon in the design field. Please leave him to it, he’s more than capable as his record shows. Now he’s unfettered and free to roam. Watch Him Go!!!!

    1. quitchurbitchin at the ‘clever people advising’ Ive. These, we, I am a real life Apple customer, expressing my preferences on what I like to, and will use, what I don’t like and will NOT use.

      Example, I’m on 10.6.8 by choice. Why? iCal, Mail, and Address Book are far and away better for me than the new replacement in Lion and Mtn. Lion. Address Book especially has been dumbed down to dysfunctional.

      Apple wants my OS, hardware business and $$$$ OK, they will get it when my 2011 MBP dies, or much sooner with a simple change to the above mentioned apps.

      a certain amont of skeuomorphism needs to be there in the OS and Apps. Other places, not so much. If Ive freaks out, changes everything to remove all humanity, and we end up with an OS that looks like old versions of Kai’s Power Goo, we are all in trouble.

  11. What’s funny is 99% of most user just use the software, not critiquing every aspect of its design….it is intuitive to flip the pages of calendar….99% of users feel no need to read a manual to use address book…. It is intuitive… I kind of think that was Steve’s vision for his products …Power users are what Microsoft designs for and look at the mess that is Windows 8…. I personally hope that some pundits are not correct about Steve’s loss will end what made Apple the so successful and mating intuitive hardware design with equally intuitive software design…. At this point I am just not sure….time will tell…but I have got to hope that the powers that be can do what Steve did REALLY well ….which is to filter out all the noise from media,forums like this one,bloggers and analysts and stick to what got them here…beautifully designed hardware mated with software that is both powerfully, feature rich and so easy an intuitive a child can use it.

    1. Um, Windows 8 is for “power users”? Power users everywhere are saying it hampers them, and many consumers are slagging it too.

      Don’t design just for power users, but don’t exclude them either. Put another way: make it intuitive and easy so a child can use it, but don’t make it so ONLY a child would want to use it.

      Imagine not having keyboard shortcuts in OSX, and having to go to the menu for every command. For a beginner (or those who don’t want to learn more than the basics) that’s fine, for a more experienced user that’s a second or three wasted every time they need to go into the menu.

  12. A little bit is OK, but if you think about design as being more than ornimentation, more than UI (“Design is how it works!”–S.J.), then the stylus is the ultimate skuomorph.

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