A former senior UI designer at Apple recently described to me the criticism he once received directly from Steve Jobs. In reaction to a redesigned feature he showed the late Apple CEO, the source says Jobs felt his design was too minimalist. "He was like, 'I want it to look like a Chiclet; I want to be able to lick it; I want it to be like glass on water,'" the designer recalls. "He wanted to create this feeling of a really beautiful, physical gem-like element."
For those paying attention to our recent articles on design at Apple and Microsoft, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Jobs’s approach to software design was inspired by the physical world. Many of the UI elements found in Apple’s software—such as Calendar’s leather-stitching or iBooks’ wooden shelves—are real-life visual metaphors designed to make on-screen applications more legible and intuitive. During my reporting for Fast Company's feature on design at Microsoft, which was part of our October design issue, I learned that many Apple veterans and industry experts find that approach distasteful and confusing. Others, meanwhile, believe it’s crucial to creating an accessible, inviting user experience. Today, a former key member of the iPad and iPhone UI teams defends the latter camp and Apple’s so-called skeuomorphic design philosophy.
Skeuomorphism, as wonky as it sounds, is a simple concept. It’s the idea that new designs retain ornamental elements of past iterations no longer necessary to the current objects’ functions. You see this often in Apple’s software: The Notes app is presented as a yellow legal pad, while Game Center is modeled after a Las Vegas-style casino table, with lacquered wood and green-felt cloth. Our recent piece on the subject, which featured insiders offering a harsh critique of Apple’s software, sparked widespread reaction and criticism—some responses vitriolic, others reasoned and calm. (Note to readers: It’s really not worth getting upset over something like skeuomorphism. Breathe before commenting. We encourage vigorous debate, but would prefer it remain constructive.) Today, a former top Apple designer defends Apple’s skeuomorphic approach.
What are your thoughts on skeuomorphism?
I think there are two parts of skeuomorphism. The first part is the way things look. Is it a certain texture, like glass or metal? For that kind of stuff, I think it just depends on the atmosphere you’re trying to create around your software. The other part of skeuomorphism is the way things behave. When you flip something on screen, does it slide with momentum or decelerate, or does it behave in a very computer-like, unnatural way?
With the way things behave, I think skeuomorphism is an unstoppable trend that seems to work really nicely on everything. But when it comes to the way things look, I think it’s more of a stylistic choice that really depends on the software that you’re creating.
Is the skeuomorphic design in Apple’s software a good thing?
I think it’s an important tool. The thing to remember is that UI design is like selling a restaurant, where you can’t just serve up good food in order to run a restaurant. You have to create an environment around the food that gets people in the mood to enjoy a really great meal: presenting the food really nicely, picking the right plates, the lighting on the table, the music that is playing. When you put all that together, it creates a much nicer experience than if you just were to serve up some good food.
In the same way with software, just serving up functionality usually isn’t enough to actually create a really good experience. You need to layer on some sort of environment to get people in the mood to use the software and do whatever task you’re allowing them to do. That will inspire them, and get them in the right frame of mind to use the software as best as possible. So just like when you walk into a library or something, it has a certain vibe and aesthetic that’s different than if you walk into a concert hall, say.
Some find the skeuomorphic designs in Apple’s software distasteful, such as the faux leather-stitching and wood veneers. What’s your take?
Again, it really depends on the environment you’re trying to create. A leather texture, for example, definitely creates a certain environment and state of mind when you’re using it. I don’t think there is right and wrong, or good and bad here.
Why does Apple seem to value skeuomorphic design?
Apple is always more in that direction because I think they are more concerned than any other company I know about making things really easy for new users to pick up and appreciate and understand. Obviously drawing on real-world metaphors that people have used all their lives really helps with that.
But critics argue that many new users haven’t seen some of these real-world metaphors. For example, younger users today are not likely to have used Rolodexes or leather-stitched calendars, so why would those metaphors help in the digital space?
Well, [look], they have probably seen leather-bound books or other leather objects. And things with stitching—that all adds up to a certain aesthetic, you know? When you’re building a calendar in the real world, for example, there’s no one style of calendar that you can build. You can build a really simple calendar with just white pieces of paper, and with Helvetica type in the corner. Or you could build fancier leather-bound calendars. I think it’s really what kind of vibe you’re trying to project to people.
At Apple, it ultimately comes down to the tastes of whoever is making decisions. At Apple, Steve [Jobs] and the management are from an older generation where that kind of stuff is more in people’s consciousness, and so that’s kind of the style that things went in. But I’m sure it will change over time.
Change away from skeuomorphism, you mean? Toward a flatter experience, like we’ve seen with Windows 8?
I guess I think it’ll move away from leather probably. I wouldn’t be surprised if next year the calendar was made of cloth or plastic or simple paper. When you’re designing stuff on screen, you really have to go out of your way to make it feel alive and to project an environment around the task that you’re doing. Otherwise it just feels really dead and computer-like compared to things that you are used to using outside of the real world.
Think of it as material. When you’re designing stuff digitally, you have a bunch of options for materials to use, just like when you’re creating something physically. When you are creating something physically, there is a default white plastic that you can use for everything if you wanted to. But that would be pretty boring, and wouldn’t project any ambiance while you’re using it.
For that reason, designers in the physical world will go source leather and cloth and metals and glass and all sorts of different materials—to try to pinpoint what they’re trying to say with the thing they’re designing. The same goes for the digital world. The default is just bright white pixels. And usually if you just go with that it’s not very nice. So adding some depth and texture, and playing with different materials can actually really help bring something to life. But it depends on how much you do it. There’s a huge spectrum, and you can obviously go overboard.
I think skeuomorphism is here to stay. Look, I’ve experimented with a bunch of it. If you just go flat, with solid-filled colors, it just almost always doesn’t feel as nice—even if you just bring a subtle gradient to give a sense that there is a light projecting on the surface, or small shadows that make it feel real.
Any downside to skeuomorphism?
It’s important to focus on how something behaves. That would be my main complaint with the Apple stuff. For example, the address book app looks like a leather-bound book, but it doesn’t behave like one. Or when you grab the corner of a page, it doesn’t really nicely curl like a real book would. You need to pair those two [experiences] together to make it feel really awesome.
Yves Behar has said that Apple’s bookshelf is cute but not particularly useful.
In terms of bookshelf example, well, the alternative can be found in lots of other e-reader apps. They tend to just be like a white list with black text on it. And little icons for the covers. Personally I just find it less inspiring. It doesn’t get me in the mood to read a book, like Apple’s bookshelf does. You have all these images that surround reading a book, like curling up next to a fire with a cup of tea, and reading a book next to a wooden bookshelf. These things are important to the experience of reading.
Software started off with people focused so much on just the functionality. So for the calendar, for example, you could just start with a white box with a grid on it. But it just doesn’t feel very inspiring to use something like that.
And I think another part of UI design in general is about marketing and communication—being able to show something to someone and have them understand what it is. That’s what happened on the the iPad. Lots of the apps ended up being these very realistic objects, like iBooks or the Calendar. I think that makes it easier to just show a single screenshot to people and have them understand what Apple is trying to do. Like, 'You know that old calendar you have on your desk? You don’t need that anymore. Now you can have this on your iPad.' Or with the bookshelf, 'You know that bookshelf you have at home? Now you can use this iPad in the exact same way.'
[Image: Last Brick via Shutterstock]