In Defense of the Skeuomorph, or Maybe Not...

Reprinted from my blog posting at:

Jony Ive is a fantastic designer. As a rule, his vision for a device sets the trend for that entire class of devices. Apparently, Jony Ive hates skeuomorphic design elements. Skeuomorphs are those sometimes corny bits of realism some designers add to user interfaces. These design elements reference an application’s analog embodiment. Apple’s desktop and mobile interfaces are littered with them. Their notepad application looks like a notepad. Hell, the hard drive icon on my desktop is a very nice rendering of the hard drive that is actually in my desktop.

This push for increasingly intricate user interface elements might have served a UX purpose, but it was fueled by our computers’ ever increasing ability to create and display large complex graphics. On mobile screens, where every pixel is precious, simple pictographs can be a more efficient communication tool than a more complex 3D rendering. With the advent of high density displays these pictographs are becoming quite beautiful. Jagged lines and blurred details are replaced by a crispness that really suits these simpler icons. Microsoft’s Metro interface is often a very pretty thing to look at. This simple style is showing up in print, video and even in fine art. The fact that these pictographs might evoke anything from cave paintings to Andy Warhol to Super Mario certainly aligns with the current post-millennial aesthetic. I’m sure Jony Ive noticed.

Those old skeuomorphs are the decedents of a decorative painting style called trompe l’oeil or “fool the eye.” Mural artists often used this technique to create very realistic frames around their painted scenes. Interior decorators created intricate architectural details on flat walls. In both cases trompe l’oeil was used to communicate something about the space and the objects within it. In this way, a drab wall with a picture painted on it could become an ornate gallery with artwork that should be admired (not leaned against). Skeuomorphism did much the same thing for the original iPhone. Back in 2007 it helped users understand this very new “Internet Communications Device”.

Take a look at your smart phone. Don’t turn it on just look at it. What does its form suggest? Does it look like a camera? A television? A game? A phone? Mine looks like a small black rectangle with fingerprints on it. If I look closely there are a few small buttons and holes. Its form really doesn’t suggest its function, which is ironic because its form is dictated by its engineering. Apparently Scott Forstall and others at Apple chose to address this problem by incorporating skeuomorphic design elements into the user interface of the iPhone (and later the iPad). Apple has a long history of solving its “Keep it simple” aesthetic with a dose of realism. Rumor has it that Jony Ive will put an end to this policy. What will that mean? Visually, were told that the new iOS will be flatter and less cluttered. Sounds good, right? On a device that doesn’t look like it does anything all those little bits or realism suggest functionality. Those realistic elements “fool the eye” into seeing classic analog objects within an anonymous black box. These objects link that box with the act of taking a notes, playing a game or reading a book. So, maybe Scott Forstall was right. Maybe we do need a few corny graphical elements here and there. On the other hand, how long will graphical elements based on archaic objects be relevant? Is relying on them to convey information shortsighted?