Co.Design

Will Apple's Tacky Software-Design Philosophy Cause A Revolt?

Fast Company's Austin Carr speaks with industry insiders and ex-Apple designers who have soured on the fake leather, glass, and wood that runs through OS X and iOS.

By now it’s almost inevitable given the company’s track record: No matter what Apple unveils tomorrow at the Yerba Buena Center (an iPad Mini? iPhone 5?), pundits will herald the company for its innovative thinking and bold hardware design. But the elephant in the room will be Apple’s software, which many inside the company believe has evolved for the worse in the last few years.

Despite consistently glowing reviews from critics and consumers alike, iOS and OS X, Apple’s operating systems which tie Macs and iPads and iPhones together, have rubbed some the wrong way in recent years with their design directions. During my reporting for Fast Company's feature on design at Microsoft, which was part of our October design issue, I spoke with a number of designers, Apple veterans, and industry insiders hostile towards Apple’s approach to software design. Equally eye opening was the number who genuinely praise Microsoft for its novel approach for Windows 8, the most radical redesign to date of the world’s most ubiquitous operating system. The criticism and controversy, much of it revolving around a trend called skeuomorphism, reveal chinks in Apple’s armor rarely visible to those outside One Infinite Loop.

"Visual Masturbation"

What’s skeuomorphism? If you’ve ever used an Apple product, you’ve experienced digital skeuomorphic design: calendars with faux leather-stitching, bookshelves with wood veneers, fake glass and paper and brushed chrome. Skeuomorphism is a catch-all term for when objects retain ornamental elements of past, derivative iterations--elements that are no longer necessary to the current objects’ functions.

In software, skeuomorphism can be traced back to the visual metaphors designers created to translate on-screen applications before users were accustomed to interacting with computer software: virtual folders to store your documents, virtual Rolodexes to store contacts. But over time, skeuomorphism has seeped into all areas of UI design, especially in Apple’s software, where text documents, for example, are made to look like yellow legal pads.

"It’s visual masturbation," says one former senior UI designer at Apple who worked closely with Steve Jobs. "It’s like the designers are flexing their muscles to show you how good of a visual rendering they can do of a physical object. Who cares?"

Inside Apple, tension has brewed for years over the issue. Apple iOS SVP Scott Forstall is said to push for skeuomorphic design, while industrial designer Jony Ive and other Apple higher-ups are said to oppose the direction. "You could tell who did the product based on how much glitz was in the UI," says one source intimately familiar with Apple’s design process.

But before Forstall, it was Steve Jobs who encouraged the skeuomorphic approach, some say. "iCal’s leather-stitching was literally based on a texture in his Gulfstream jet," says the former senior UI designer. "There was lots of internal email among UI designers at Apple saying this was just embarrassing, just terrible."

Perhaps the most infamous culprit of this design direction is Apple’s Game Center, the social-gaming app that’s dressed in a lacquered wood and green felt that lends it the feel of a casino. "Steve pushed very hard to have everything--the felt-cloth table, the game chips--look like they would in real life," says another former Apple designer. "Internally, a lot of people were shocked by the richness. Many think it’s gone too far."

Why is Skeuomorphism Bad?

Some may wonder why designers would harbor such harsh feelings toward seemingly minor flourishes in UI design. But at Apple, where pixel-perfect standards are the norm, many designers believe skeuomorphism has significantly degraded the user experience.

The issue is two-fold: first, that traditional visual metaphors no longer translate to modern users; and second, that excessive digital imitation of real-world objects creates confusion among users. "I’ve come to absolutely dislike this trend in user interface toward skeuomorphism," says designer Yves Béhar, the founder of fuseproject, which is best known for designing the Jawbone and original One Laptop Per Child PC. "Using reality as a visual metaphor for the user interface rather than make the UI function on its own terms is something that has irked me for quite a while."

Béhar cites the example of Apple’s wooden digital bookshelves. "The digital bookshelf doesn’t really work like a bookshelf," he says. "You’re throwing all this extraneous visual noise at me and it’s confusing. My brain, which is used to the physical bookshelf, is confused because of the differences in usability. It’s cute, but not particularly useful."

In addition to being unhelpfully ostentatious, the visual metaphors are also outmoded in the eyes of many. Designer Gadi Amit, whose firm, NewDealDesign, designed the Lytro camera and Fitbit, points to the common use of the digital Rolodex to denote where contacts are stored. "I’m old enough, sure, but some of the guys in my office have never seen a Rolodex in real life," Amit says. "So these metaphors that were, in the early days of the computing revolution, relevant to assisting people in bridging the gap between the physical and digital worlds, are no longer necessary. Our culture has changed. We don’t need translation of the digital medium in mechanical real-life terms. It’s an old-fashioned paradigm."

Says the former senior UI designer at Apple, "I feel like [Apple] has concentrated too much on mimicking the visual skeuomorphic approach rather than concentrating on the actual functionality." For example, in iOS 6, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system, Forstall recently demoed an animated paper shredder, which will be used to delete e-tickets and coupons. How many iPhone users have ever actually seen a paper shredder in real life? Is it necessary? Or just visual masturbation? "To me, it’s lipstick on a pig," says the source intimately familiar with Apple’s design process. "There’s no need to add glitter if the product can stand on its own."

And even in the mobile world, where touch-screen smartphones and tablets are relativity new compared to the PC interfaces we’ve become accustomed to, the source believes we’ve moved beyond skeuomorphism. "Things have changed since the widespread use of iPhones and Androids," the source says. "Years ago, you’d need a manual to know how to use a smartphone. Those days are long over."

What’s the Alternative?

It’s important to note that not all visual metaphors are bad. Rather, it’s the excessive UI adornments of these visual metaphors that many insiders I’ve spoken with find distasteful and inherently confusing.

It’s also why many industry leaders are excited for Windows 8. For the design of its new operating system, Microsoft took a surprisingly refreshing approach, distancing itself from skeuomorphism while emphasizing a flat user interface that’s minimalist to the core. Sure, real-life visual metaphors still exist in the UI--an envelope to represent the mail app, a camera to denote the photo app--but the icons are without embellishments: no bevel, no 3-D flourishes, no glossiness and no drop shadow. It’s Microsoft’s stripped-down UI that many find appealing--a welcome alternative to Apple’s approach to software design.

In our feature story on Microsoft, you’ll learn how design is changing Redmond for the better. And you’ll also learn why designers from Gadi Amit to Yves Béhar to former Apple insiders are praising the company’s newfound design DNA. As Dan Kraemer, creative director of design firm IA Collaborative, told me of Microsoft’s and Apple’s software design, "These are two different approaches to creating great experiences, and I can’t necessarily say one is better than the other."

But many of Kraemer’s colleagues, as you’ll soon read in our feature story, are not as diplomatic when describing Apple’s approach to software design. Stay tuned.

[Image: Jose AS Reyes/Shutterstock]

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681 Comments

  • The Agreeable Snowman

    Yea, this article totally got it wrong. I could tell you that since it's inception. If you noticed anything with the flat trend is that every single website looks almost the same now. There isn't variety anymore. You cannot apply industrial design standards (from which flat design takes its principles from) to digital design. There are infinitely more colors on a flat display than a piece of paper. Black and white on paper looks fine, but when you take a picture with a camera and import it into the computer, it's actually a darker white and a lighter black.

    This white background across all apps may work for Google, and that is because their services and content are universal. Apple's apps deal with specific functionality and have the privilege of being almost like little desserts wrapped in their own gift boxes. They can each be visually distinctive and have their own character to distinguish themselves. iOS is not the same beast as Google. There was no need to try to match it.

    People think Jony Ive's reasoning for iOS7 is from the thought processes of a design genius. The truth is it is the work of junior graphic designers I have worked with before. Using completely saturated colors. Inconsistent gradients. No drop shadows (lol). Icons that have completely different art direction. Using white everywhere to blind everyone. Not to mention all the performance issues that DID NOT exist in iOS6.

    Again, I think Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall really knew what they were doing when they created the look for OSX and ultimately iOS7. It took them more than ten years to create this design. If it weren't for them, everything would look like Windows XP still. When people think skeumorphism, they think gaudy gradients and over the top drop shadows. Apple's previous design found the right balance. No one, I repeat NO ONE, had an issue with iOS's aesthetics. Old people and young people knew how to use it. A testimony to its once great design.

    iOS7 is the biggest failure Apple has ever created. The shroud of Steve Job's influence which has continued for two years after his death is finally dissipating.

  • Robert Hildenbrand

    I agree, simplicity is the reflection of a empty mind. Sure clutter is bad, maybe a paper shredder is goin a bit far? That is wha the App Store should be used for. Sell the far out ideas, make profit.

    I wish they would empower we the costumer to make the themes and icons. Reward talent with the ability to sell these things in the apple store, and empower the costumer to choose between simplicity and skeuomorphism.

  • Larry McKoder

    EVERYTHING beautiful is skeuomorphic. The page turn in iBooks, page curl in maps, cover flow, the shred animation in passbook, the date picker in iOS 6, rotating settings gear (when updating iOS 6), the Time Machine interface in OS X, photo borders and shadows in iWorks documents, etc.
    This is not surprising, because our sense of beauty comes from the physical world.
    So what is the problem with skeuomorphism?
    Tech enthusiasts would like their phones to look like something from the future, not something from the past. But ordinary everyday people prefer for it to look like things they are familiar with, or can relate to.
    Tech enthusiasts worry that the skeuomorphism was getting totally out of hand, particularly where the UI metaphor started limiting functionality (e.g. an address database that’s limited to what a Rolodex can do, rather than exploiting what is possible with a computer). But this is not really true. For example, iBooks has instant search, something only possible with a computer.
    Some people point out that many skeuomorphic elements reference things that a large part of Apple’s audience hasn’t used in a long time, if ever. True, but here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter whether the user has ever seen a reel-to-reel tape. What matters is whether the visuals depict a physical object that the user can model in his mind. If it is too abstract (that’s the opposite of physical) then non-tech-enthusiasts will find it hard to intuit.
    Some people say skeuomorphism looks tacky. This is partly true. Skeuomorphism is hard to do. When done poorly it does look tacky. But when done well it looks very beautiful.
    By removing all skeuomorphism Apple is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  • NathanaelCulver

    "It’s Microsoft’s stripped-down UI that many find appealing"

    Interestingly, here we are a year on from this blog post, and it's precisely Microsoft's overly minimalistic UI that has created such a backlash that they've been forced to retreat. And still almost no one is buying anything -- save for desktops, where the customer has no choice -- with W8 on it.

    This blog post is indicative of the overreaching of the anti-skeuo movement. It's fashionable to hate on some of the excesses of Apple's skeuomorphic implementation, but doing so isn't a substitute for criticism of skeuomorphism itself.

    "The issue is two-fold: first, that traditional visual metaphors no
    longer translate to modern users; and second, that excessive digital
    imitation of real-world objects creates confusion among users."

    As to the first argument, just because some of the metaphors are "outdated" (and who says you have to have owned a Rolodex to understand the metaphor?), doesn't mean we no longer need skeuomorphism. It just means we need to update our metaphors. So what else is new?

    As to the second, I've seen others argue the same thing, but I've yet to see anyone provide a realworld example. So Béhar doesn't like Apple's bookshelves; they confuse him, he claims (though he doesn't say how). Once again, he's simply dissed the excessiveness; he's hardly demonstrated why it's bad to have a book app that looks like books (remember that an ebook is no more a "book" than iBooks is a bookshelf; so if it's bad to have books on a BOOKSHELF, then should it also not be bad to have BOOKS on a bookshelf?).

    Personally, I find having a calendar app that looks like a calendar utterly intuitive, and that frees me up to use the app, rather than wasting time and mental energy trying to figure out how to perform a function in a non-calendar-like app that I already know intuitively how to do on a RW calendar.

    Does that mean we need all the excessive ornamention of the iPad calendar app? Of course not. But admitting that is hardly admitting that skeuomorphism is Bad. I eagerly await the day when those on both sides of the discussion admit those on the other might have something valid to say.

    (As a counter-example, after finishing typing up these comments, I found myself looking around in confusion as to how to submit them. I realize putting a bevel and a drop shadow around the "Say It" below is utterly skeuomorphic, but would it really be so great a sin?)

  • Bill Page

    I tend to agree with Justin's previous comment below. While minimalist design is easy on the eyes, and can be aesthetically pleasing...we must keep in mind that this is only ONE side of the equation in software user experience. The other side is that it must be practical & simple to use for the customer/user.

    While the Windows 8 UI looks great, it is not functional at all. Tests continue to show again and again that a large majority of users simply do not know where to click, what to do, or where to go. There are no visual clues (or maybe not enough of them) for the user to know what to click or tap.

    That being said, I don't understand the overwhelming, seething hatred of some of the visual elements that Apple incorporates into its software. Some of it might possibly push the envelope a bit, but for the most part, the user doesn't have to think (which is our goal as UI/UX designers). That user simply knows where to go, what to do, what to click/tap. Say what you want, they aren't having the same testing issues as those who are using software on the Windows platform...

    I believe in a balanced approach and would suggest that this isn't a problem to be solved...rather a tension to be managed. The pendulum doesn't need to go too far to either side in this tension... We must balance visual aesthetics with guiding & leading the end-user to be able to do what they want to do.

    So, I'm not fully convinced that a total minimal approach is optimal when it comes to UI/UX design for software... 

    So can we stop the crude name-calling? THAT is what is most tacky here... :)

    Cheers!

  • Justin Lacy

    Minimalism is the masturbation of all modern designers. They chase after their abstract ideals of interface without thinking how people actually use the programs, or how it feels to stare at blank color tiles all day.

    I am not about to defend apple's bookshelf, or the paper tear lines on iCal - that's just tacky. But the bland featureless layouts of the new gmail, windows 8 metro, and even the chrome web browser disgust me.

    Its the result of arrogant designers gone mad and within the next few years I think we'll see a backlash against all this  minimalist nonsense.

  • Ben

    I don't really think it's arrogance.  Styles come and go, the current trend is toward minimalism.  I like the clean, simple look of the programs you describe for the most part, although recently the placement of certain functions in Google products has been a little strange and not intuitive.  I kind of like the "clean slate" look, and I think a simple design can help photos and more richly textured graphics stand out.  

    There's something to be said for all kinds of design, but I personally feel that the blankness of Gmail, Windows 8 and Chrome kind of lends itself to their being used by a wide variety of people -- kind of like saying: I'm just here to facilitate the things you want to do, not to impose a particular.  Especially with gmail and Chrome, I feel the focus is on keeping the UI "out of your way" mentally and physically, so it's useful but doesn't impose anything.

    What kind of design would you prefer, out of curiosity?

  • echodelta

    Ever try to explain an icon to somebody on the phone while troubleshooting when a single word was all that is necessary. Voice command will clear up this eye candy crap. We do not need to be entertained or diverted while learning or working. Acquired ADDADHD is rampant now because of all this eye candy and diversion. Games, woka woka woka :(=  Words only! Please! Especially in school! Shadows are bad lighting, enough of that bare bulb over the left shoulder. Always going forward never backward. Learn your language not something new. Windows gets the classic look with even that shading on the title bar stripped out. Icons are as small as can be and the text under is totally readable. Zero animation.

  • Greg Cutler

    It's software. It's soft. Each individual should be able to chose from a variety of skins that suit his/her taste. Put that in your pipes and smoke it.

  • Matteo

    They are losing the ability to make me dream. As simple as that. In the name of the hard to die religion of bad "minimalism".

    They have flatten all the complexity of a system able to evoke memories of your childhood, able to establish connection, to "quote" other things. It was it's complexity, it's richness. It was, in a certain way, it's poetry. Poetry means "to create" (from the Greek "poiein"). In the sense of empowering your imagination by giving you multiple levels of interpretation. A poetic figure is something that can be one thing, but at the same time something else. Moreover: all the form are now "arbitrary" (anti-rational). Why the game center icon is made of coloured bubbles and not pyramids, or cones, or cylinders? Before every single pixel had a specific meaning: everybody could say from where a specific form came from. And that was a good thing.The thing about the confusion deriving from a bookcase not working exactly as a bookcase is totally silly. (His brain would probably explode at the sight of a surrealistic painting...)When you lose the connection between form and reality you obtain a figurative system that has become sterile: incapable of further development, as happened to the Bauhaus. (As compared, for example, to the greek architecture, which was "quoting" the wooden shelters (every single aspect of his ornament may be defined as "skeuomorphic") and had so many "childrens" all of them somehow "quoting" their parents...)They are really missing Steve and his vision. His dreaming.Apple is going downhill.

  • Ben

    This seems a little over the top...  I mean, styles will always change.  The minimalism is just a current trend.

    UIs are not exactly art.  I've never felt that any of the versions of Windows (3.1 - 8) reminded me of anything or caused me to tear up with great emotion.  Neither does any version of MacOS or iOS.

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  • Mike

    It's silly to shape the discussion in such a binary way without understanding the overall necessities of creating a pioneering UI. Apple led the way to making the smartphone and tablet pervasive in popular culture. They had to create a user experience that was fun, accessible and a bit familiar. To consider that their interface decisions were frivolous or simply visual noise relegates the discussion to academic blathering. The visual user interface design that's in place is certainly part of a larger user-experience and product adoption strategy.

    Apple made a design stance that ignited curiosity, and encouraged new users to pick up their mobile products. When new users interacted with these devices, it appears that they liked the experience very much... that's why still Apple matters.

  • Robert Johnson

    Hooray! Flat digital text on flat colors! Oh, wait... What did you say? Windows 3? oh....
    Well, welcome to the 2013 then, and hooray for Bauhaus! Huh? That's from the 1920s? Discredited economic and social philosophies behind it? Resulting in some of the ugliest, least livable buildings ever designed because they were dedicated to living in the head, but not in the world? oh...
    OK then, onward to tech's pushing the design world forward! It is the 21st century after all and... what? This discussion happened elsewhere in the 1980s? People decided that they didn't want to live in Woody Allen's "Sleeper" world back then? oh...
    So this whole article is about designers getting bored and wanting to mess around on the company's time without actually caring what end users actually want & find useful? Who? Ayn Rand?
    Oh.... Now I get it!

  • Axe_lariat

     Why is your post completely made up of questions? Eh? Doesn't that strike you as a bit odd? Do I find it annoying? Do bears sh!t in the woods? What? Miley Cyrus? An Australian daytime soap opera?

  • Linda Mitchell

    I love Google minimalistic design on Android Jelly Bean and their apps. Microsoft design leaves nothing to desire.

  • 66eyold

    Agree with darkhaunter - wake up time!

    I do not agree with this witch-hunt on skeuomorphism. Why even record classical music instruments on a CD then, it's just a digital representation and no need for all the confusing distortion, echo, and all the imperfections of a traditional instrument. It confuses my brain? It's all skeuomorphism! Modelling real life.

    Shading, shadows and gloss adds depth, it makes everything stand out, easier to recognize, touchable. Game Center may be tacky, but oh so easily recognizable. In Win8 everything looks the same. Am I in the browser now? Or words? Or word perfect?

    Microsoft tried this path before: I remember Pocket PC in the 90's (former known as Windows CE). They claimed the flat and simple design would improve responsiveness. Totally bollocks. The ugliest UI ever.

  • Darkhaunter37583

    The flat Windows 8 style look is ATROCIOUS. Apple, do not go down this path.

    Granted, some of the current apple interfaces are a bit on the tacky side with the faux leather, and other strange backgrounds, but a knee-jerk reaction to get rid of all the beautiful icons, gradients, gloss and color that marks so much of the rest of the interfaces in favor of the new Windows 8 style atrocity is a HUGE mistake.

    This overly-uniform flat stuff is actually harder to use, since everything looks TOO similar. Same boring flat colors with boring white outline icons. The only way to quickly discern things with this horrible new design concept is to painstakingly read every bit of text on screen - no more easily recognizable gorgeous icons and appealing backgrounds.

    Enough is enough - wake up time.