There has been a new word in many designers’ vocabulary lately. Skeuomorphism. Actually, we are surrounded by Skeuomorphic tendencies every day. Plastic hubcaps on cars that mimic steel, or worse, hubcaps that are spoked, falsely indicating structural elements. Pleather; artificially embossed plastics that suggest the grain of real leather. The light bulbs that mimic candles in candelabras or air fresheners. The unnecessary,obsolescent, and familiar imposed on the new.
Skeuomorphism has had a big role in interface design ever since the graphical user interface, the features of which lead to the success of personal computers. Freed from the need to think like a programmer, the graphical user interface gave us real-world visual metaphors through which to understand technical processes. We all know what a trash can looks like, we understand what folders are and how they hold sheets of paper. These metaphors mean we didn’t have to be a programmer to navigate our computers. As a learning device, the comparison between programming functions and real-world imagery was invaluable.
In the intervening years, computers have gotten more sophisticated and the ability to represent graphical elements has increased exponentially. Graphic icons have been replaced by highly detailed imagery with reflections, sheens, shadows, textures, etc. Recently we have seen Microsoft move beyond this paradigm with the introduction of Windows 8 and their new visual design language, Metro. Characterized by flat, bold colors and very clean, simple typography, it represents a huge turnaround from the graphic presentations of their previous iterations of their operating systems.
Meanwhile, Apple has been raising skeuomorphism to new heights, purportedly due to Steve Job’s and the former leader of Apple’s mobile software development, Scott Forstall’s preference for linen, leather, wood textures and page flipping motions most apparent in the iPad and iPhone interfaces. Newspapers and magazines are represented as paper publications on a wooden bookshelf. My calendar is trimmed in leather. Notes are made on a yellow legal pad with pages torn off at the top, in a handwritten-looking font. On Monday, October 29, 2012, Forstall was replaced by Jonathan Ive, responsible for Apple’s product design. With this change in leadership, I feel confident that the days of Apple’s current attitude toward interface design is limited, but I think they face an uphill battle with the Microsoft Metro design system. It’s not often Apple is see as the also-ran in terms of design.
And this brings up an interesting issue. Skeuomorphism is an abomination among the contemporary design community. It is seen as folksy, nostalgic and unnecessary, even internally within Apple. But, we haven’t heard much complaining from Apple users. Of course, Steve Jobs wasn’t known for listening to focus groups anyway. But a recent poll of 1,200 users of Windows products by Associated Press and GfK indicates that only 35% thought that Windows 8 and the Metro design system was an improvement over Windows 7. Change is hard, and Windows 8 will have to demonstrate its benefits to a huge user base. From a design angle, Windows 8 represents a perspective that Apple applies in its product design, but not its UI design. With the recent shakeup at Apple, they are poised to address this problem, and for once, find themselves trying to catch up to Microsoft, and it won’t be easy.