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Skeuomorphic Design: Hot or Not?

| November 2, 2012

Slate.com posted an article today about technology design that really threw me for a loop. (note: I have never worked on hardware or software design, but a lot of the same principles apply.) I always thought that I was more appreciative of clean, stark imagery and layout. But after reading the article by Farhad Manjoo, I realized it’s not that straightforward.

Apple fired Scott Forstall this week, a long-time employee who was in charge of Mobile Software development, and consequently determined the design of most iOS apps. Mr. Forstall is a proponent of skeuomorphism, which basically means creating an app or software that mimics real-world objects. For example, designing the Notes app to look like a legal notepad, or the Calculator app to resemble a real 3-D calculator. This is a philosophy that Steve Jobs strongly supported. Jobs was also a big fan of incorporating textures into design.

apps Skeuomorphic Design: Hot or Not?
some examples of Apple’s use of textures and real-world design

 

Sir Jonathan “Jony” Ive (lead designer for the iPod, iPhone and iPad) has been promoted to head designer of Apple, which means he now can determine the look of the software, in addition to the hardware design.

And Ive, according to reports, hates skeuomorphic design. “You can be sure that the next generation of iOS and OS X will have Jony’s industrial design aesthetic all over them,” one anonymous Apple designer told the New York Times this week. “Clean edges, flat surfaces will likely replace the textures that are all over the place right now.”

While Farhad Manjoo admits that some of Apple’s skeuomorphic designs can come across as cheesy, he beseeches Sir Ives not to give the software design a complete overhaul:

As designer Tobias Bjerrome Ahlin points out, when it’s used appropriately, skeuomorphic design can give users a quick sense of what an app does. This is especially true for nonexperts. How do you convey to someone that Notes is where you jot down a grocery list but Pages is where you type up a book report? If both apps showed you nothing but a blank screen, a novice wouldn’t know what to do. But since it looks like a notebook, Notes doesn’t even need a help screen. Hokey as it is, the legal pad and ugly handwriting font tell the whole story in a split second: Notes is for jotting things down.

Manjoo compares Apple iOS design to that of Android and Windows’s Phone, and admits that as a tech-enthusiast he does like the clean approach:

While Windows Phone’s flat, two-dimensional design is attractive, I can see how it could strike many people as cold and uninviting. Everything about iOS, on the other hand, feels playful, friendly, and nonthreatening. This is in no small part due to Apple’s liberal use of skeuomorphs.

This also brings up the concept of form follows function. Apple is often scorned for creating products that are aesthetically pleasing, but  lacking in technological advances. Basically, they put out pretty products and people line up to buy them. (As a former PC user who now relies on Apple products. I don’t entirely agree with that assessment.) There is a reason that Apple sells- and that is because their designs are relatable. I think what they have right now is a pretty good formula- the hardware design which has been spearhead by Jony Ives is sleek and modern enough to appeal to techies, yet the software and functionality is familiar because of the skeuomorphic design which makes it easy enough for anyone from the age of 2 through 100 to use.

What most resonated with me most however, is this line:

There’s an even larger reason to use real-world design metaphors: They add emotional depth to software.

While I do appreciate the clean, attractive approach of Microsoft’s new designs, at the end of the day it’s not something I remember. Yes, solid colors and grid systems do give me a thrill, but it’s the warmth of textures and well-placed gradients that tell a familiar story and that’s what stays with me. Often I will design a flyer or website that is squeaky clean and fresh, but find that it lacks personality. By layering in textures, it can bring the page to life and add an emotional quality that was missing from the design.

microsoft Skeuomorphic Design: Hot or Not?
The new Microsoft logo is aesthetically pleasing and modern, but it lacks the brand recognition and warmth of the old logo

Truth is, I’m a sucker for nostalgia (which is why I never throw anything out!), but more often what catches my eye is the simplistic design approach. So while I think the current Apple designs are a perfect marriage of new world technology + real-world familiarity, I can understand that not everyone will agree with that.

James Higgs aggressively criticizes Apple’s approach to design in this article here, and if you’re looking for a different perspective on this issue, there’s a lot of differing opinions in his comments. He calls out Apple’s software design for being too saccharine and sentimental, and claims that Apple is patronizing and babying us (the consumer). His opinion however comes across as extremely cynical and lacking in sentimentality.

Any thoughts on this topic? Let me know in the comments!

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