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Synthesizer 76 iPad App Shows Delights and Pitfalls of “Skeuomorphic” UI’s

Jonas Eriksson’s retro synthesizer app mimics real-world with gorgeous fidelity — and exemplifies a growing paradigm in UI design.

Synthesizer 76 iPad App Shows Delights and Pitfalls of “Skeuomorphic” UI’s

There are well-designed apps, and there are fricking well-designed apps. Jonas Eriksson’s head-swimmingly sexy interfaces for a vintage iPad synthesizer belong to the latter category. But here’s another word to describe Eriksson’s work, a term that’s increasingly relevant in our multitouch-dominated digital world: skeuomorphic. (Drop that into cocktail conversation if you dare!)

Let us explain: Skeuomorphic apps take pains to reference or mimic physical, real-world features in their user interfaces. Apple is the current king of this design style, enshrining skeuomorphics in its Human Interface Guidelines: “Whenever possible, add a realistic, physical dimension to your application. The more true to life your application looks and behaves, the easier it is for people to understand how it works and the more they enjoy using it.”

That’s why Contacts for iPad looks like a physical address book, the OS X Calculator has giant grey buttons below a faux-digital “screen”, and — in Eriksson’s case — why Synthesizer 76 sports thick audio cords snaking into polished brass terminals that cast realistic shadows over a pebbled vinyl finish. The design is so sensually immersive it’s practically three-dimensional — and, according to skeuo-philes, fundamentally intuitive to the user. After all, you don’t need instructions to know how knobs, cords, and vintage dials work.

But sexy as they are, do skeuomorphic interfaces actually hinder more than they help? As Fred Beecher at Evantage’s User Experience Blog notes, it all depends on context. Music-production apps like Synthesizer 76 and Korg’s iMS-20 seem to benefit from heavily skeuomorphic interfaces, says Beecher: patch cords and voltage meters that might look intimidating and abstruse in the real world become playful and inviting when embedded in a tablet app. (Not only are they significantly cheaper to own, you can’t “break” them.)

But when it comes to no-nonsense productivity apps, skeuomorphic UIs often just get in the way. Beecher singles out Apple’s Contacts and Calendar iPad apps for particular scorn: “While they retain the visual form of books, they do not allow you to turn pages by swiping. What’s worse, they often respond to swipes by scrolling a list on what appears to be a page, severely conflicting with the user’s mental model of a book.” And designers have been griping about the skeuomorphic idiocy of desktop calculator apps for ages — why must we stab at clunky virtual “buttons” with our mouse when an entirely computer-native interface is much more powerful?

Beecher’s post should be required reading for any designer (or client!) who covets “sexy” app interfaces. As for Synthesizer 76, it hasn’t shipped to the App Store yet — so we can’t tell how useful its drool-worthy surfaces actually are. But even though you might not want digital foil-stamped labels in your email app, it’s hard to deny the sensory appeal of Eriksson’s work.

[See more at Jonas Eriksson’s site]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.