Tuesday, 13 November 2012

In defence of skeuomorphic design

(Author's note: I am not a designer, and don't pretend to be. However I am a believer in customer focus, so the opinions expressed here reflect this fact.)

Scott Forstall has been pushed out of Apple, and the wagons have circled behind him.

That's pretty rough for the man responsible for iOS - the operating system beloved of (nearly all) Apple acolytes. However with the passing of Steve Jobs, Forstall always was on borrowed time. His management style and ambition to build a power base were probably the main reasons behind his departure, but there's one group of people who will celebrate his departure with unrestrained joy - design purists. Scott Forstall was (gasp) a devotee of skeuomorphic design; on screen use wooden and leather textures, elaborately turning pages, files that get "shredded", all Forstall. He wasn't the only one to carry a torch for these real world touches though, Jobs was as well. Hence as long as Jobs was in power, Forstall's approach held sway. However with Jony Ive assuming responsibility for the design of iOS we can expect a different approach. The question is whether this is such a good idea, my belief from a customer perspective is that it isn't.

Skeuomorphism has been a part of Apple's design approach since the very first Macintosh in the 1980s... indeed use of the GUI was entirely based in the principles of skeuomorphism. Since that time, this approach has retained a vital place in Apple design for a number of reasons. Firstly, as mentioned Jobs was a fan of this approach and with good reason; more than almost any CEO in living memory, he was highly clued into his consumers. Apple products consistently push the boundaries of product capability and design, yet they are able do so whilst remaining intuitive and human. That they are able to achieve this balance is in large part due to the use of skeuomorphic design, which grounds Apple's radically different approaches to hardware in a world that is familiar to its users.

The second reason is related to the first, many designers reject skeuomorphism as they feel that today's digital natives would not understand the referential touches - how many 16 year olds would even recognise a cassette tape let alone reel to reel? But this argument misses a crucial point - given the price-points of most Apple products, the earliest adopters are often those who can afford to buy their products are most likely to either need or appreciate the links with the past... that sort of disposable income usually comes with age. As a side note, design is recycled and new generations often copy fashions of those who came before (even Ives himself is heavily influenced by the work of earlier designers).

The final reason to retain skeuomorphic elements is unexpectedly one sometimes neglected by designers, the relationship of the design with its audience. The move to simplicity is laudable, and Ives' ability to consistently hit the mark in product design reflects his customer focus. However the push to completely remove skeuomorphic design entirely risks falling into the category of designers getting too carried away with their art, forgetting that normal people must WANT to interact with their creations - both hardware and software. The best analogy I can think of here is Brutalist architecture... lauded by architects for its simplicity and modernity, whilst loathed by those forced to live with it. In their rush to simplify, the Brutalists neglected the humanity of their audience, simplicity became starkness, and modernity became alienating. Whether they're digital natives or not, people need these links with the products they see around them everyday. I doesn't need to be excessive, but it must feel organic.

It will be interesting to see where Ives takes the next iteration of iOS, will he look towards a slow phasing out of skeuomorphic elements or will he go for a radical redesign? If he wants an example of the latter, he might want to see what happens with Windows 8... Microsoft's latest release seeks to make a clean break with the past, shedding skeuomorphism entirely. In doing so they're taking a big gamble, especially given their  market ubiquity. Their rationale for doing so is certainly clear as mobile devices become the way of the future. However, whether it succeeds in the short term or not will come down to the ability of normal people to accept change. Whether Microsoft succeed will have a major effect on their market position; whether Apple believes Microsoft have succeeded will no doubt be reflected in iOS7.

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