Over the past year or two, skeuomorphism has become the new Comic Sans. Just name-drop this esoteric technical term into polite conversation (always dismissively, of course–and don’t worry, you don’t have to really understand what it means), and you will conveniently establish your bona fides as someone in possession of refined taste and proper opinions. Because everyone who knows anything about design knows that skeuomorphism is, like, the worst. What everyone also knows is that thanks to Jony Ive, Apple’s design chief (or maybe “design pope” is more appropriate at this point?), Apple will be unveiling a de-textured, de-specular-highlighted, de-drop-shadowed iOS 7 at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference this week. You can practically hear the triumphant chants already: Death to leather and felt! Long live flat! Two legs bad, four legs good!
In case we’ve all forgotten, let’s recall that famous quote from Steve Jobs himself: that design is “not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” Sure, Ive’s distaste for skeuomorphic flourishes has been well documented. But he’s not a fashion designer, and if skeuomorphism is “out,” it’s not because Ive haughtily decreed it à la Heidi Klum on Project Runway. The real reason–one befitting a product designer of Ive’s stature–is almost surely, and simply, this: that skeuomorphism is a solution to a problem that iOS no longer has.
iOS’s original, shiny, “lickable” UI taught the entire world how to use touch-screen mobile devices. As I’ve argued elsewhere, skeuomorphism was a canny and monstrously effective solution to a daunting problem: how to make an input method once only seen in science fiction movies seem as normal and friendly as. . .well, as dialing a phone. Skeuomorphism was a teaching method to make the ambiguous seem obvious and the futuristic feel familiar. And six years later, school is pretty much out.
But the s-word isn’t a synonym for “tacky” or “dishonest” or any other kind of gossipy/moralizing nonsense. The reason why iOS’s much-mocked Podcasts UI sucked wasn’t because it was skeuomorphic. It was because the mental model of a reel-to-reel tape machine simply made no sense. You barely knew what you were looking at, so the skeuomorphism couldn’t instantly orient you regarding the app’s functionality. In other words, it was illegible.
This illegibility might have been what Jony Ive was getting at when he allegedly said that skeuomorphic interfaces often do not “stand the test of time.” But not all skeuomorphs are illegible. In fact, most of them are exactly the opposite–like the Notes app, which depicts lined yellow “pages.” You could argue that these most basic skeuomorphs–paper, bookshelves–are the ones that are least likely to become illegible over time as digital devices evolve. Meanwhile, have you used iTunes lately? Flat as hell–and a total, inscrutable mess.
Digital interfaces are, to paraphrase designer Bret Victor, an often-awkward mash-up of pages and machines: “virtual mechanical affordances printed on virtual paper.” We have to read them as texts but also manipulate them as objects. Swinging too far in one direction gives you the stitched-leather skeuomorphic excesses of iCal and Game Center, but (as ex-Apple UI designer Louie Mantia has remarked) it also gives you an abundance of familiar sensory detail with which to orient yourself. Swing too far in the other direction, and you get the abstracted sharpness of Microsoft’s Metro, which prioritizes “pure information” to such a degree that the UI is almost pure typography–but it can also feel antiseptic and arid.
Ive’s iOS 7 will be (unsurprisingly) somewhere in the middle. It’ll preserve the pseudo-physical “visual indicators that people need to trigger the idea of a tappable element”–which are also core elements of iOS’s brand–but they’ll just be sanded down to an appropriate level for 2013. And this isn’t even new. As designer Tim Green lucidly argues, this “mellowing out” of skeuomorphic affordances in iOS has been going on for years already. Gizmodo’s screenshot comparing earlier iterations of Apple’s own WWDC app confirms that this evolution has been well under way for a while–even before Ive took over, while The Great Satan–I mean, Scott Forstall–was in charge.
What Sir Jonathan Ive is interested in, surely, is evolving iOS’s design to make it more of an ease and pleasure to use, not picking sides in some faddish war between “flat” and “not.” Will iOS 7 be flatter than what we have now? Yes. Does that mean Ive has the same facile, knee-jerk hatred of skeuomorphism that most of the Internet seems to? I highly doubt it. Skeuomorphism isn’t Comic Sans–it’s more like Transitional type, an entire typographic style which bridged the gap between calligraphic Old Style faces (based on pen strokes) and mechanized Modern ones. And as for whether any skeuomorphic design can “stand the test of time,” that–like any design choice–depends on context. Just like Transitional type (like Baskerville, for instance) is still in use today, so, too, does skeuomorphism have its time and place. Good design is about knowing when and where that is.