Co.Design

Apple's iOS 7 Redefines Industrial Design Through "Evil" Skeuomorphism

In iOS 7, skeuomorphism has evolved from tacky wood paneling to a clever physics engine that combines hardware and software seamlessly.

Years ago, as Apple was preparing to launch a more polished version of iOS, the late Steve Jobs would frequently call in members of his human interface design team to go over the system's veneer.

"[Steve would have] these extensive reviews of materials just to see what would look best on the calendar or bookshelf apps," recalls Nitin Ganatra, Apple's former director of engineering for iOS applications. "It would be one image after another of leather and wood, and I remember the HI guys having a bad day every so often because textures that they worked so hard to create would come up, and Steve would just make a blech noise for every single one that went by."

It's a classic example of Jobsian perfection. But it's more than just a fascinating anecdote. The story shows not only how much time Apple dedicated to perfecting its much-maligned visuals, but also how much has changed since Jobs passed away and his protégé Scott Forstall, the executive said to be most carrying on the torch of skeuomorphism after his death, was reportedly fired.

Now, the latest iteration of Apple's mobile operating system, iOS 7 has finally been distanced from this visual skeuomorphism, a term often used (or co-opted) to describe the gaudy, three-dimensional renderings in Apple's software, from its reflective glass to its faux-leather stitching. But despite moving toward a flatter design in iOS 7, skeuomorphism still lives on in the software, as a slew of insiders told me during Fast Company's recent oral history of design at Apple. But it's not manifested in the form of silly textures. Rather, Apple's approach to skeuomorphism has evolved to bring more subtle, life-like physics to the OS, laying the foundation for a more harmonious and seamless meld of hardware and software.

Interestingly, this approach to skeuomorphism is not new; it actually gets back to the core of what Apple aimed to accomplish when it first began developing the iPhone. The concept of skeuomorphism didn't just come up regarding the look of the user interface. "A lot of the [talk of skeuomorphism] came in around the discussion of gestures," recalls Ganatra. "There was a lot of thought about natural metaphors. It started with your hand. If your finger is swiping back and forth, and you're moving the view accordingly, that in some ways is mimicking [real-life interactions with] physical objects." In other words, in order to educate users on how touch-screen interactions would work, the company had to develop intuitive gestures that translated on screen, such as pinching to zoom in on your pictures, or the inertial scrolling that allows you to glide naturally through your music library with the flick of a finger.

"It was definitely understood that as much as you could tie things to the physical world and give people clues in the digital presentation of how these things operate, they’ll be able to manipulate them more successfully," Ganatra explains. "I don’t remember a feeling of, 'Oh boy, here we go again, mimicking physical objects.' It was seen as a positive thing."

In the years after the iPhone came out, however, Apple drifted from that core idea toward a more traditional and visual approach to skeuomorphic design. These principles can be traced back to the desktop metaphors employed in early versions of Mac OS and Windows, when designers used, say, virtual rolodexes to help users understand how to navigate through their contacts. The aim was to create an aesthetic experience that was immediately familiar to the user—which translated to real-life visual metaphors: the iCal app, for instance, was designed to look like a leather office calendar, while the Podcasts app was modeled after a reel-to-reel tape player. This trend is best epitomized by Game Center, a social gaming app for the iPhone that took Jobs’s preference for visual metaphors to garish new extremes. With its green felt and lacquered wood, it had all the classiness of a Trump casino. Critics objected to this direction. "These [visual] 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," Gadi Amit, the founder of NewDealDesign, once told me. "Our culture has changed. We don’t need translation of the digital medium in mechanical real-life terms. It’s an old-fashioned paradigm."

It's the reason Apple design SVP Jony Ive has gone to such lengths to remake iOS 7. Ive, who sources say was very against the visual skeuomorphism in Apple's software, has pushed iOS 7 toward flatness, eschewing much of its original brushed chrome and glossiness, while placing a renewed focus on color, translucency, typography, animation, and simplified iconography. (When Craig Federighi, who replaced Forstall as the head of Apple's software engineering team, first introduced iOS 7, he was sure to publicly exorcise the company's past demons. “We just completely ran out of green felt and wood as well—this has got to be good for the environment," he quipped on stage.)

But Apple's visual metaphors have only been replaced by a different form skeuomorphism: a physics engine that mimics real-life interactions. "I have nitpicks with iOS 7, but I’m really happy they did something big. It’s more than just the veneer," says Loren Brichter, the former Apple designer who has had a major influence on mobile app design. "The way they’re reimplementing the UI framework with physics—it just feels natural. They’re mimicking the real world. So in a way, the skeuomorphism, which was previously going into visual design, is now going into interaction design."

Indeed, the most immediate example of this is iOS 7's Parallax feature, which provides motion effects to icons and alerts, based on your physical interactions with the phone. For instance, looking at the home screen, as you sway the phone gently from side to side, the background wallpaper appears to bend on screen, with the icons hovering above seemingly on a different dimensional plane. Through the iPhone 5s's embedded fingerprint sensor and its M7 motion coprocessor, which continuously tracks your motion data via the device's accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass, I would expect that Apple would push even more interaction designs that sync the digital and physical worlds.

This new level of skeuomorphism helps to merge industrial design and software into one seamless entity. "[The] experience is defined by hardware and software working harmoniously together," Ive said in a video shown at the unveiling of the new iPhones. "We continue to refine that experience by blurring the boundaries between the two.”

That's not to say all other forms of skeuomorphism have dissipated from the design—some of the more tawdry elements still remain. They're too engrained in iOS—too embedded in our understanding of the design to go away. Close your eyes, for example, and you can still experience skeuomorphism—from the faux shutter sound made after you snap a picture, to the mock turnkey noise emitting from your phone after you've locked or unlocked it.

"There's skeuomorphism everywhere, even in iOS 7, and it's going to continue," Ganatra says. "Even these audible cues are like the auditory version of skeuomorphism. But they work really well, and I can't imagine that bleeps and bloops would do a better job—even though Apple is getting away from 'evil skeuomorphism.'"

A team ofFast Company reporters spent months interviewing more than 50 former Apple execs and insiders, many of whom had never spoken publicly about their work. Read their oral history of Apple's design approach here. An extended version of this oral history is available in the iBookstore and from Amazon.

[Image: Anthony Hall via Shutterstock]

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18 Comments

  • Dan Herbert

    Flat design is lazy, boring and bad for ux, why is this now a "bad" thing? Oh I know... Android saying "content should be the star", content should be the star, but you should present it in a clever way, not like a 1996 white html page with blue test all over it.

  • Rick Kreuk

    Fuck Apple for removing skeuomorphism. It's what I loved most about their products.

  • 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.

  • Brian

    From Wikipedia: 
    "A skeuomorph is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to structures that were necessary in the original."

    I quote the definition as the author of this article appears to be confused as to exactly what skeuomorphism is.

  • "MaxxFordham"

    Oh, and I was gonna say, too, that "skeuomorphism" is *way* overused as a term, especially for the wrong thing.

    Mike

  • "MaxxFordham"

     I agree, Brian. Also sounds like Larry McKoder up here is confused that way, too. Skeuomorphims are just things that used to have a real function but don't anymore due to obsolescence, but which looks or sounds people still like to include into newer designs of things just decoratively.

    The buttons and icons, etc., on our computers and phones are different from skeuomorphisms themselves because they still DO have a function, no matter what they look like. If they look like physical, real-world items, then they have been employing a principle called visual metaphorism or visual emulation; not skeuomorphism.

    And no, Larry, *not* all beauty comes from skeuomorphism. In fact, MUCH of it does not.

    Mike

  • jasonm23github

    Yes yes, this is all well and good...

    But someone needs to kick up a fuss about the adolescent day-glo color scheme, seriously haven't seen such a ill advised color palette, since Mods wore fluorescent socks.

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  • robertgillespie

    I was hoping the release of iOS 7 would mark the end of the word skeuomorphism in my day to day. But it appears, based on this article, to have additional and relevant meaning outside of describing the Griswold Family Truckster. And in the case of iOS7, it just works. Interactive skeuomorphism, I like the sound of that. Let this be a reminder: less is more & everything in moderation helps achieve good design. 

  • Jeff Putz

    Wait... Apple is innovating with physics cues? Have you used Windows Phone? It came out three years ago.

  • Dan Herbert
    • People who use the products every day and have to look at it.
    • Millions of designers out of a job (flat design allows developers to cut out the designer)
    • People who admire good design, not something a programmer scrapped together
    • Government concerned about economy
    • people browsing apps by looks so they can easily spot which ones effort was put into and not have to deal with a shitty user interface / lack of features

    Lots of issues, to the naked eye it might seem minor, but this is a pressing issue

  • "MaxxFordham"

     Uh, YEAH, ya moron, some of these people DO create icons and logos and other stuff like that for a living! What did you think: those on-screen buttons and backgrounds and menus and other display pieces on your phone and computer and TV, etc. just created themselves? Or were they some of the results from some kind of "big bang" (as if the "big bang" could have really happened)?

    GEESH!

  • Joshua Young

    No need to get angry dude. I don't understand the point of arguing about skeuomorphism. It's a pointless conversation that has an insignificant impact on human life. And it's getting pretty old.

  • Michael Newgyn

    If you haven't noticed, this is A WEBSITE ABOUT DESIGN. SO NO SH*T IT WILL TALK ABOUT DESIGN. IF YOU DONT CARE, THEN MAYBE YOU WOULD DO BETTER ON ANOTHER WEBSITE. ignorant.

  • Joshua Young

    WE do do WE? I don't know what field you're in, but it sound pretty boring. Do you create icons for a living?