Since the introduction of iOS 7 at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference last month in San Francisco, there has been a lot of buzz on design blogs about how Apple has for the most part dropped skeuomorphism from the look of the operating system.
If you have seen these posts, you might have said, “Thank you,” because something that sounds so complex and boring must have been making my iOS experience more complex! Or you’ve skipped right over these posts because the word skeuomorphism sounds too arcane. But it really isn’t. Wikipedia defines it this way:
A skeuomorph is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.
But what is a skeuomorph really? Quite simply, it is how we understand the world around us and how we take the inside of the computer and turn it into a graphical experience we can comprehend and interact with. For example, the term “desktop” evokes a physical desktop where you once had “files” and “folders” that you worked with and recombined and typed. Another great example is how many of the e-readers or magazine apps actually simulate the turning of a physical page. Put in terms of language, skeuomorphs are well understood metaphors that have permeated society enough to become a standardized representation.
This side by side comparison shows how the notes, passbook, and calendar have lost their skeuomoprhs. But, in the case of the videos icon, the skeuomorph of the clapper board remains.
In the design of branded experiences, we use skeuomorphs all the time. We select colors, forms and other visual cues that help send the message to the audience. But there are arguments against skeuomorphic design on both the digital and physical side. On the physical side, the ‘carcass’ of a cabinet is often built out of wood, so why on earth would I then cover it in a wood laminate in order to create a skeuomorph for the item I have actually just covered up? This is an extreme example to show how sometimes skeuomorphs can get a little absurd (like a fake wood paneled station wagon).
The woody skeuomorph harks back to a time when the station wagon portion of the vehicle was actually constructed of wood. Photo by Dave 7.
But in construction, many of the finer woods that we are emulating are not strong enough, stable enough or as readily available as engineered wood products like plywood or MDF. That’s not to say that we haven’t used real wood or reclaimed wood on projects.
Wellbody Academy, Pacific Science Center
Photo: ©2013Douglas A. Salin – www.dougsalin.com
As a derivative, there is inherently something lost between the real deal and the skeuomorph. To the touch, a real wood counter top has an inherent warmth and texture that a wood laminate lacks, but when you are telling a story to 10,000 people versus putting an ornate carved cane into a single user’s hand, the skeuomorph can get you much more bang for your buck.
Apple’s iCal is designed to look like a desk blotter calendar, but I think Jony Ive’s question is this: when is the last time someone actually saw one of these in real life?
I don’t mean to pick on Chrysler, really. But fake wood and spoke wheel hubcaps show how referencing the past with no real functional purpose can backfire on the brand essence.
Which brings us back to iOS 7. If all these metaphors are out there and so well understood, why would you consider dropping them from your visual language? In many cases a skeuomorph is nothing more than an ornament, a reminder of things past, and when you look at it that way and take a look at fake spoked wheels or torn pieces of paper at the top of your calendar application, you can start to understand Apple’s shift. Apple, after all, is plowing forward into the future, and to appear ground-breaking and cutting-edge, you often have to leave the past behind.
Another reason might be that the Graphic User Interface (GUI) concept has become so ubiquitous that the necessity of skeuomorphs as visual cues may be on the decline. And this is a very fine and important distinction.
Skeuomorphs as ornamentation = BAD
Skeuomorphs as cues = GOOD
OK, that’s a little simplified so let’s look at the development of the GUI. When computers were new, they needed a visual language to shroud the inner workings and make it easy for the user to interface with the new device. In this case, the skeuomorphs were visual cues that reminded the user of the purpose of almost everything on the screen. The magnifying glass icon is a prime example, and it is unlikely to change since there is probably no iconographic image that better describes the act of zooming in and out.
The Xerox Star Workstation introduced the first commercial GUI OS as shown above.
But it has been over thirty years since the introduction of the GUI in 1981 on the Xerox 8010 Star Information System, and the number of people in the world today for whom the GUI is new is tiny. With that in mind, many of the derivatives and metaphors in operating systems are becoming unnecessary. Indeed, many of the original skeuomorphs are now being replaced with skeuomorphs pulled directly from the computer itself. Most users understand the pull down menu, and if you simplify that into three horizontal lines, you get a skeuomorphic icon for “click here to access the menu.”
As new items are introduced into the world, like the drop down menu, they eventually permeate society and can then become a skeuomorph as shown here in the Facebook iOS app.
But the same is not true for the world of visual storytelling. Skeuomorphs as visual cues that serve as storytelling devices are still important, but we have to be careful about the ornamentation factor since it can seriously affect the quality of the experience and therefore the audience’s perception of the client’s brand. When it comes to representing the client’s brand, it is all about authenticity because the audience will see through anything else.