Why do most smartphones make a clicking noise, like a camera shutter closing, when you take a picture with them? Why do the virtual pages of a book on a tablet appear to turn as you swipe across the screen?
The answer is skeuomorphic design, from the Greek words for a tool (skeuos) and shape (morph). It means designing a tool in a new medium that incorporates some of the features of its antecedents. These no long perform any necessary function but – like the unfurling of virtual paper across a digital screen – forge an intuitive link with the past, not to mention being (hopefully) attractive in their own right.
Though it sounds obscure, skeuomorphism is everywhere around us – from “retro” detailing on clothes to electric kettles shaped like their stove-top ancestors. It’s also a topic of much hand-wringing and angst in the tech world, thanks to Apple CEO Tim Cook’s decision to shake up the design principles of his company’s iOS mobile operating system – one of the world’s touchstones for digital appearances.
The latest incarnation of iOS – version 7 – is likely to be previewed in June ahead of a September release. And its putative appearance is feeding a frenzy of speculation thanks to Cook’s decision in October last year to put hardware supremo Jonathan Ive – the designer responsible for iconic minimalist designs from the iMac and iPod to the iPad – in charge not only of the physical product, but also the look and feel of its software.
Ive replaces perhaps the world’s most influential exponent of skeuomorphic software, Scott Forstall, whose work at Apple included creating iOS as we know it – complete with a compass app that looks like a handheld orienteering compass, a notes app mimicking yellow sticky paper, a calculator app designed like an old-fashioned accountant’s pocket calculator, a game centre themed around wood and green baize, and analogue dials on its clocks.
Apple’s skeuomorphism has, over the last few years, divided the opinions of designers, to say the least. For author and tech design consultant Adam Greenfield, it’s inexplicable that the company has for so long saddled its exquisite devices with “the most awful and mawkish and flat-out tacky visual cues”; while software developer James Higgs has bluntly described it as “horrific, dishonest and childish crap.”
For more sympathetic critics like user interface designer Sacha Greif, meanwhile, the decision to launch the iPhone with such a textured, “realistic” interface was a sensible move given just how novel the device was in 2007. “Nobody,” he argues, “had seen such visual richness in an operating system’s user interface before (let alone on a phone)... Realism was a way to link the future with the past, and make people feel at ease with their new device.”
This ease has been important to the company’s success. Outside the rank of designers, few ordinary users are likely to give the subtle stylistic influences of their screens much thought. Yet these are crucial psychological components within a weightless, immaterial medium.
Unlike physical materials and the traditions surrounding them, digital pixels have no inherent aesthetic or “feel”. Everything onscreen must be fabricated from scratch – and, for many early users of Apple products, the textured tones of a skeuomorphic interface offered a democratic counterpoint to the elitism of their seamless exteriors.
From fake to flat
Today, though, even the fanboys agree that some species of revamp is in order – and that Ive’s fondness for modernist minimalism is in line with trends elsewhere. Rather than fake wood and leather, a visual style has emerged in the last few years that is neatly embodied by Microsoft and its technicolour approach to Windows’s latest incarnation.