Skeuomorphism has been a relatively hot topic in the design community, this past year. The New York Times published an article, on Wednesday, explaining the rumoured design rift within Apple.
The style favored by Mr. Forstall and Mr. Jobs is known in this crowd as skeuomorphism, in which certain images and metaphors, like a spiral-bound notebook or stitched leather, are used in software to give people a reassuring real-world reference.
One of the first examples of skeuomorphism in the past year that have gotten designers talking has been Apple’s Calendar app, which looks like a real, leather–bound desk calendar.
Many argue that a digital calendar shouldn’t look like its physical counterpart; a computer can arrange content dynamically — why make a virtual calendar look like the organizer on your desk? The answer is recognizability. The average computer user still isn’t comfortable with a computer; Apple’s software is designed to look friendly, and unintimidating. When someone who’s never used a computer before sees Apple’s Calendar app, they recognize what it is, and what it’s used for.
Steven P. Jobs, the Apple chief executive who died a year ago, pushed the company’s software designers to use the linen texture liberally in the software for the company’s mobile devices. He did the same with many other virtual doodads that mimic the appearance and behavior of real-world things, like wooden shelves for organizing newspapers and the page-flipping motion of a book, according to people who worked with him but declined to be named to avoid Apple’s ire.
Those page–flipping animations in Apple’s iBooks app are one of the coolest things about an iOS device, to someone who’s never seen one before. That brief moment of excitement the user feels, when they first flip the page, cannot be understated. “Look, the page turns like a real book!”.
The animation isn’t just eye candy, either; it provides important information to the user. Were the screen to instantaneously update with the new page, there would be no sense of space — no clear path from one location, to another. The page curl tells the user where they’re going, from where, and helps them develop a spatial memory of the book. No, the book is not actually ink on paper, but if people recognize it as a printed book, they’ll immediately understand how to use it.
The calculator app, on the iPhone, obviously does not require an LCD screen, or physical buttons. For the most part, though, people understand what a real calculator is, and how it works, so to see those elements — or at least what look like those elements — is extremely useful to how they interact with the device. The user can take their knowledge about real calculators, and apply it to the digital world.
Axel Roesler, associate professor and chairman of the interaction design program at the University of Washington, says Apple’s software designs had become larded with nostalgia, unnecessary visual references to the past that he compared to Greek columns in modern-day architecture. He said he would like to see Mr. Ive take a fresh approach.
I can’t help but feel that critics of skeuomorphism are missing a major point, here: by definition, everything on a computer screen is skeuomorphic, at least to some degree. The windows, buttons, and sliders we interact with on–screen are obviously not physical windows, buttons, or sliders, but they’re necessary in order for a human to interact with the machine. The question should not be whether skeuomorphism is good design; it’s how far the designer should take it.
Microsoft’s DOS wasn’t the least bit skeuomorphic — it was as honest a design as possible, for a computer — but real people never used DOS; it wasn’t until computers had a GUI (graphical user interface) that they were relatable enough for the average human being. People need to be able to relate computers to physical objects in the real world.
Maybe Apple’s Contacts app doesn’t need to have leather binding, or stitched pages. And perhaps Axel Roesler is correct — that Apple’s software design will look dated, in the future. Regardless, skeuomorphism isn’t the problem — it’s a necessary part of software design — and personally, I’m with Scott Forstall and Steve Jobs on this one.
Source: The New York Times