A Former iPhone UI Designer Defends Apple's Fake-Leather Design Philosophy

In defending Apple’s use of skeuomorphism, a former Apple designer offers a wealth of smart insights about UI design.

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]

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  • Stokedincali

    That baby poop brown leather calendar and address book are out of place in the OS X UI. Maybe black leather would make it fit the UI a bit better?

  • Tyrone Gibson

    Go ahead and laugh but I've been designing on a MAC since 1994 when I was in college as a Design / Illustration student (think QuarkExpress). And whether it's teaching an old dog new tricks or not, I had a hard time with the update of the MAC UI to what, at the time, I called the "bubbles, bevels, and aquarium" look - unnecessary and superfluous Design in my mind at the time. Since then, I've of course gotten used to it and changed some of my opinions. But this article has made me rethink this change from what was a more functional, straightforward UI. I liked it because was kind of like a good museum or good photo book - it allowed the presentation of the art take a leading role. The "old" UI put the design I was working on in more focus - not surrounded by a UI full of graphic intensity. I realize things are different now with apps and other stuff but I feel a little nostalgic when I think of a simpler UI that didn't demand so much attention.

  • Rene

    Skeuomorphic Design: Not being able to concentrate on Tolstoi's "War and Peace" unless the book provides an illustration on every page. 1000 Pages full of Words! That's far too abstract. We need to present the text really nicely, maybe the pages should come in different colors and how about some background Music? That would create "a much nicer experience" than if you just were to serve up some good text. And the book, of course, must be bound in leather.

  • applestalks

    It shocks me that so many people are queueing up to defend this stuff. how the hell are we going to evolve the (currently unknown) interfaces of the future if we keep throwing up cowhide?

    digital retrieval contans so many new requirements that looking at the realworld is a disaster. reminds me of cycling through gigabytes of songs on an ipod one with my thumb....

  • Sabrina

    considering that 41 billion innocent animals are exploited & slaughtered every year on planet Earth for fur, leather, consumption & recreational sporting, and that China does not enforce non-animal testing policies & eats dogs & cats for breakfast, as well as working as slaves to crank out our precious Iphones, I am nothing but thankful that more innocent beautiful animals will not die cruel deaths to satisfy  ignorant human need  

  • Barrie Robinson

    It's not all bad. But there is enough that is. Sure, skeuomorphic design has it's place, but I believe we're now seeing an over-usage in Apple's case. Apple does an incredible job refining their physical product experience, but their UI isn't quite on par. Just like the bevelled edge of an iPhone, it is possible to create the same emotional / tactile experience that people will find familiar, and that people will build bonds upon, through subtle design touches in UI. Striking this balance is incredibly hard, but hugely beneficial. Apple needs to find a UI Jonathan Ive.

  • Peter Hamer

    One might consider so many other apparently skeuomorphic occurrences readily identifiable in, for instance, automotive design and fashion. Automotive design, regardless of the intended demographic, still offers "hand-stitched" leather, or simulated leather, to its customers, when the practical requirement no longer exists. The same goes for "wood grain" plastics meant to represent on older bespoke design criteria from earlier horesless carriage days, as someone else mentions here.
    Appart from encompassing an obviously successful business concept, Jobs' Apple and Macintosh products also pursued a strict design philosophy, which I for one do not believe was fundamentally "dollar driven".
    The implied and sometimes actual tactile response from these skeuomorphic designs and applications far outweigh their archaic anachronism.

  • sculptingman

    The Windows 8 look is not gonna survive well... because it is not really engaging.

    Sure, it looks stylish... today... because it fits in with the current trends in graphic design... but those trends change like all fashions... and there isn't anything inherently informative about that flat, boxy style.
    I look as the iOS and it has depth. it doesn't present as a spread in a magazine, it presents as a window into a world that is real, that is tactile and that I can fall into.
    It can become a magazine spread... if some 3rd party developer chooses that look, or it can become even more immersive.

    But the reason why all computers today look and feel something like the Mac did in 1984, why most phones today look like the iPhone and why most tablets looks like the iPad is because Relatablility is key to comprehension.

    How information is presented affects how readily it is assimilated and how effortlessly we interact with information.

    Skeuomorphism is perfectly explained by studies that show analog clocks, speedometers, gas gauges, and other readouts are far more effective at imparting critical informaiton.

    A digital clock tells you what time it is.
    An analog clock is a tacit calculator for time.

  • Geoff Matheson

    Apple's success is unarguable. If skeuomorphism was hurting the company, don't you believe they would have stopped? Apple uses it so consistently that it is part of their branding. And seeing how Apple is the most valuable brand in the world, why is the value of skeuomorphism being debated?

  • macrumpton

    "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?"

    If the target audience has no experience with the elements you are using to evoke something then you evoke nothing, or you evoke the sense that this is something that I have not connection to, like the reel to reel tape recorder graphic in the podcast app. Not only were podcasts never done with reel to reel recorders, but most people in Apple's target audience have never seen one outside of a movie.

  • Mike

     I'm in the target audience, and I've had experiences with all of those things you've described in my life. Just because reel to reels aren't used anymore doesn't mean they don't exist. Think about it, these things are still around collecting dust today. We know what they are. I've even seen a rotary phone recently.

  • Dude

    They saw it in a movie. That's good enough. They'll know what it is and it will give a deeper sense of using a 'thing' than just some rectangular UI elements. Thank you for illustrating this point! :)

  • Daredevil Creative

    Great read – interesting points from both sides! I've been an apple fan for a while. No one mentioned the linear app icon screens. They're so boring, yes – functional, but not very exciting. Surely there is a more exciting way to display these with a little more magic?

  • Philip Coates

    Here's why skeuomorphism is generally a good design idea:

    1. It allows you to instantly recognize what app you are in.  (green felt table...oh, i'm in some sort of games app).
    2. It makes the options and things to swipe or press more clear (I'm currently looking at the calendar - I can see where to select day/month/year and if I'm in month which one to selec.  Reason:  3D or "high relief" is closer to physical reality and the real world than "flat".
    3. Finally, think of the skeumorphic "jukebox" apps.  If it's done skillfully and tastefully [yes, I would have a minor objection to leather stitching but it's incredibly minor], it's just more FUN to interact with a jukebox.
    4.  If it's done clumsily and "tackily", then it's a bad idea...but, hey, that's true of ANYTHING, isn't it?

  • Philiposhiro

    Historically, a new thing often resembles what it replaces. For example, the first automobile was called a "Horseless Carriage" and for all intents and purposes, resembled a horse drawn carriage without the horse. In more recent times, the tools and terminologies used in graphic design software resembled or echoed the task or process it replaced, i.e. "cut", "paste", "leading", "point size", etc.  To me, it just seems like an easier transition for people. Show them something new with visual clues as to what it is and how it works. The visual presentation seems fairly subjective but if I consider how easy-to-use Apple products are, then I have to assume that for those moments the products were released to the public, for the most part, they seem to have made good decisions.

  • Andy

    Sorry. It's just really, really ugly and looks like something that made Windows 95 a poor alternative to Apple all those years ago. I'd rather back my iphone with patterned wallpaper like I did my textbooks at school.

    Please stop ASAP Apple. It's putting me off using your software for fear of my eyes melting.

  • Mike

    You will love Windows phone then. See? Apple doesn't need to stop, there are alternatives to suit your taste.