Last October, Apple bid farewell to the long standing and very influential Senior Vice President of iOS Software, Scott Forstall. Scott, much like the late Steve Jobs was certainly a polarizing figure, in both business tactic and creative direction. So polarizing infact, that he couldn’t even participate in meetings with SVP of Industrial Design Johnny Ive without CEO Tim Cook present to moderate. Similar to Jobs, Scott preferred a pervasive design aesthetic that we’ll be discussing for the next ten to fifteen minutes called skeumorphism.
Despite it’s abundance today in software, skeumorphism is a concept not at all unique to the digital world. Literally defined, “a skeuomorph is a physical ornament or design on an object copied from a form of the object when made from another material or by other techniques.” Since the beginning of civilization, man has continued to carry vestiges of past form and function into new mediums to either communicate similar functionality or as simple embelishments.
For instance, take a look at your jeans today. A great many of them still have the ubiquitous “tiny pocket” nestled within the righthand pocket. *Does this pocket still serve a purpose?* Perhaps to a rare few. But this is a classic example of a skeumorph. Key to the classification of skeumorphs: at one point, this vestige was a necessary part of it’s original form.
The main reason skeumorphs are garnering so much attention now, is due in-part to the fact that we are at the dawn of a new medium, with limitless potential at replacing many former technologies. With tangible and accesible devices like tablets and smartphones, computers have evolved from tools to playthings and utilities. Generations born within the last decade are growing up using these devices first, so mimicing their analog counterparts serve no purpose.
Obvious examples include book and calendar applications which mimic page turning, music creation tools, notorious for picture perfect replicas of analog instruments, and icons of floppy disks, enevlopes, inboxes, and folders. However as we move forward in a paperless digital space, and dissect deeper, we need to ask ourselves the one question every designer should ask: why?
Why are pages white?
When writing this presentation, I started on a white background, with black text. But ask yourself: “why do so many coders prefer white on black.” It’s easier on the eyes. With digital screens, we’re able to do something never before possible. We can easily control our writing environment, and *better* the user experience with a few quick and simple changes.
Why do browsers have tabs?
Is this the best design aesthetic we could come up with?
How many kids growing up today will ever own or use a filing cabinet?
Now I fully admit that I’m by no means the average user when it comes to browsing the web. However as the tabs pile up, I can no longer even tell what the page title is. And I really don’t care or need to know how many I have open at any given time. Nine times out of ten I need to look at the favicon and guess which one I want to go back to.
And that’s the danger in skeumorphism. We start as users of an antiquated practice. We retrofit our current options into the digital space to save time. And we wake up ten years later out of touch with a generation that doesn’t get why a calendar, address book, and mail program are separate applications in the first place. Even in the digital space, our medium is evolving constantly, and departing from interfaces once constrained by a mouse and scroll wheel.
So with that in mind, who are the champions of change? And how well is it working? In my opinion the shocker of 2012 was the launch of Windows 8. With this release, Microsoft unapologetically shifted their target demographic and forced an entirely new UI aesthetic. If you’re a Windows 8 user, you’ve just been forced to learn a few new tricks. Windows 8 is pure digital. There are no curved buttons with rounded corners: because buttons are for the real world. Gone are icons, and in their place: tiles with up-to-date information, and photos.
In many ways, Windows accomplished the one thing Johnny Ive at Apple always aimed to do: remove any distractions between you and your content. Great design is invisible. You don’t need to ask why, becuase there’s nothing there that doesn’t need to be. But just because it’s minimal, doesn’t make it successful. Windows 8 borrows largely from the rebooted Windows Phone interface, and was released without even the slightest hint of transition. For an operating system that’s updated every few years, this is understandably difficult to do, but it was such an abrupt departure from their old convention that many users are still struggling.
So how do we find a design balance in the digital world? There are no “required” materials, and as a result assumptions abound on what the digital world should be.
Is it filled with clean, texture-free colors?
Are there shadows in the digital world?
How do elements animate in a world without gravity?
A world without embelishment creates an emotional vacuum. Just because an interface doesn’t need certain elements doesn’t mean they don’t serve a purpose. We’re still human. We decorate, we dress up, and we dress down. We have tattoos and piercings that serve no functional purpose, but they make us happy.
And with that I give you Don Norman.
Don is a relatively laid back guy. If you’ve ever caught one of his TED talks, you’ve likely heard of his entirely useless Louis Starck orange juicer. Don loves this thing so much, he purchased a gold one that actually comes with a disclaimer that you should not actually use it to make orange juice, since the acid will destroy the gold.
Don is a champion of *approachable design*: Design that doesn’t need an explanation, because it’s obvious, and most importantly, *design that’s fun*.
From Don’s perspective, successful design is approachable, and embelishments are just another tool in the chest. Sure our iconography will evolve, but that doesn’t make it wrong today. And we shouldn’t sacrifice usability today in hopes to aspire to a timeless design. Design *should* evolve, and it *can’t* be pefect forever.
In my opinion, Windows 8 tried too much, too fast. It may be the future, and it may be where we all end up within the next five years. But with it’s approach, Microsoft totally forgot about the most important piece of the puzzle: it’s customer today.
The beauty of a digital world, and it’s greatest opporutnity, is that it’s ours to define and redefine all of the time.
At it’s core, the content remains the focus, it can adapt to any size medium, or any new and trending design aesthetic. As designers we’re tasked with balancing absolute necessity, with fun and engagement. We need to target an audience that we can only try to predict.
So when we’re presented with a tool that’s entirely new, we need to make important decisions on what will help make that tool more familiar without sacrificing usability.
Take for example the “Find My Friends” app from Apple. Despite quick assumptions, this is actually not skeumorphic. It may be tacky, and unnecessary, but there’s no predecessor for a stalking application. And I’m pretty sure if such a device did exist, it wouldn’t be lined with leather stitching and buttons. And try as I might, I’ve yet to find a single mechanical button made out of leather.
But let’s stop for a moment because it’s easy to criticise and far more interesting to ask: why? and how could we do this better?
Forget for a second the leather interface.
What we really have here is a ton of space for improvement. We have an entire tab for both “Temporary contacts”, and “Me.” Beyond this one simple difference the interfaces are identical. Condensing this information into the list of contacts on the left would both make sense and give the map greater relevance. The “Requests” tab also gives you an entire screen to confirm or deny someone’s invitation. Something Facebook managed to fit into a pop-up.
So forgetting what this app is, what would you want an app like this to do? What are it’s shortcomings?
Currently you can’t tell where your friends are unless the app is open and you’ve logged in. Assuming these are your friends, it could alert you when they’re nearby, and maybe find places to get together. Maybe you’ve made plans to go out, what if you could list a number of places you frequent and let this app automatically check you in, alerting any friends nearby?
If the Find My Friends app was amazingly useful, intuitive and simple, any well executed design aesthetic could be implemented and the product would be a success. But the weakness in this app lies more in it’s lack of UX, and purpose. The aesthetic in this case does nothing to enhance either.
A great example of *actual* skeumorphism done *right* is the iOS Garageband application. Again we see a little bit of faux leather and metal bezels within the UI, but Apple did a very interesting thing here: They created two variations on every instrument. The skeumorph for the various instruments are predictably literal, and in a genral sense useless.
Nobody’s going to master playing guitar by picking away at fake strings on a touchscreen, and even with ten drumsticks at our disposal, there’s little point in trying to learn drums or perform a drum roll on this device. And as useless as they may be, they’re still undoubtedly fun. And had they stopped there, the app might have seemed less interesting.
But then Apple went one step further. For utility, this app also explores various “smart” instruments that re-imagine how to create new beats, create new chord progressions, and add new background strings to a musical composition. You can even hook up your guitar and use the iOS app as an amplifier. What skeumorphism does here, is it communicates fun. It’s not meant to be used on a stage as an actual instrument, it’s meant as a musical sketchpad, and having fun breeds creativity.
Done right, skeumorphs can add personality, fun, and ease-of-use to any application. However if they’re unnecessary and sacrifice usability in their digital counterparts, then ten times out of ten they will miss the mark.
So is this the end of skeumorphism for Apple? Will Johnny Ive sweep into our iPhones and destroy our icons, clear out the leather stitching and scrub the linen from our notifcations? Perhaps. But I think it will be a long time before we see an end to skeumorphism as a whole. We’ve come a long way since the dawn of digital UI design, and the learning curve may have passed for many of us power users. But Apple’s focus has always been the home user, and I think we’ll see a lot of micro evolutions well before we see a complete revolution, like Microsoft did with Windows 8.