Years ago, as Apple was preparing to launch a more polished version of iOS, the late Steve Jobs would frequently call in members of his human interface design team to go over the system’s veneer.
“[Steve would have] these extensive reviews of materials just to see what would look best on the calendar or bookshelf apps,” recalls Nitin Ganatra, Apple’s former director of engineering for iOS applications. “It would be one image after another of leather and wood, and I remember the HI guys having a bad day every so often because textures that they worked so hard to create would come up, and Steve would just make a blech noise for every single one that went by.”
It’s a classic example of Jobsian perfection. But it’s more than just a fascinating anecdote. The story shows not only how much time Apple dedicated to perfecting its much-maligned visuals, but also how much has changed since Jobs passed away and his protégé Scott Forstall, the executive said to be most carrying on the torch of skeuomorphism after his death, was reportedly fired.
Now, the latest iteration of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 7 has finally been distanced from this visual skeuomorphism, a term often used (or co-opted) to describe the gaudy, three-dimensional renderings in Apple’s software, from its reflective glass to its faux-leather stitching. But despite moving toward a flatter design in iOS 7, skeuomorphism still lives on in the software, as a slew of insiders told me during Fast Company‘s recent oral history of design at Apple. But it’s not manifested in the form of silly textures. Rather, Apple’s approach to skeuomorphism has evolved to bring more subtle, life-like physics to the OS, laying the foundation for a more harmonious and seamless meld of hardware and software.
Interestingly, this approach to skeuomorphism is not new; it actually gets back to the core of what Apple aimed to accomplish when it first began developing the iPhone. The concept of skeuomorphism didn’t just come up regarding the look of the user interface. “A lot of the [talk of skeuomorphism] came in around the discussion of gestures,” recalls Ganatra. “There was a lot of thought about natural metaphors. It started with your hand. If your finger is swiping back and forth, and you’re moving the view accordingly, that in some ways is mimicking [real-life interactions with] physical objects.” In other words, in order to educate users on how touch-screen interactions would work, the company had to develop intuitive gestures that translated on screen, such as pinching to zoom in on your pictures, or the inertial scrolling that allows you to glide naturally through your music library with the flick of a finger.
“It was definitely understood that as much as you could tie things to the physical world and give people clues in the digital presentation of how these things operate, they’ll be able to manipulate them more successfully,” Ganatra explains. “I don’t remember a feeling of, ‘Oh boy, here we go again, mimicking physical objects.’ It was seen as a positive thing.”
In the years after the iPhone came out, however, Apple drifted from that core idea toward a more traditional and visual approach to skeuomorphic design. These principles can be traced back to the desktop metaphors employed in early versions of Mac OS and Windows, when designers used, say, virtual rolodexes to help users understand how to navigate through their contacts. The aim was to create an aesthetic experience that was immediately familiar to the user–which translated to real-life visual metaphors: the iCal app, for instance, was designed to look like a leather office calendar, while the Podcasts app was modeled after a reel-to-reel tape player. This trend is best epitomized by Game Center, a social gaming app for the iPhone that took Jobs’s preference for visual metaphors to garish new extremes. With its green felt and lacquered wood, it had all the classiness of a Trump casino. Critics objected to this direction. “These [visual] metaphors that were, in the early days of the computing revolution, relevant to assisting people in bridging the gap between the physical and digital worlds, are no longer necessary,” Gadi Amit, the founder of NewDealDesign, once told me. “Our culture has changed. We don’t need translation of the digital medium in mechanical real-life terms. It’s an old-fashioned paradigm.”
It’s the reason Apple design SVP Jony Ive has gone to such lengths to remake iOS 7. Ive, who sources say was very against the visual skeuomorphism in Apple’s software, has pushed iOS 7 toward flatness, eschewing much of its original brushed chrome and glossiness, while placing a renewed focus on color, translucency, typography, animation, and simplified iconography. (When Craig Federighi, who replaced Forstall as the head of Apple’s software engineering team, first introduced iOS 7, he was sure to publicly exorcise the company’s past demons. “We just completely ran out of green felt and wood as well–this has got to be good for the environment,” he quipped on stage.)
But Apple’s visual metaphors have only been replaced by a different form skeuomorphism: a physics engine that mimics real-life interactions. “I have nitpicks with iOS 7, but I’m really happy they did something big. It’s more than just the veneer,” says Loren Brichter, the former Apple designer who has had a major influence on mobile app design. “The way they’re reimplementing the UI framework with physics–it just feels natural. They’re mimicking the real world. So in a way, the skeuomorphism, which was previously going into visual design, is now going into interaction design.”
Indeed, the most immediate example of this is iOS 7’s Parallax feature, which provides motion effects to icons and alerts, based on your physical interactions with the phone. For instance, looking at the home screen, as you sway the phone gently from side to side, the background wallpaper appears to bend on screen, with the icons hovering above seemingly on a different dimensional plane. Through the iPhone 5s’s embedded fingerprint sensor and its M7 motion coprocessor, which continuously tracks your motion data via the device’s accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass, I would expect that Apple would push even more interaction designs that sync the digital and physical worlds.
This new level of skeuomorphism helps to merge industrial design and software into one seamless entity. “[The] experience is defined by hardware and software working harmoniously together,” Ive said in a video shown at the unveiling of the new iPhones. “We continue to refine that experience by blurring the boundaries between the two.”
That’s not to say all other forms of skeuomorphism have dissipated from the design–some of the more tawdry elements still remain. They’re too engrained in iOS–too embedded in our understanding of the design to go away. Close your eyes, for example, and you can still experience skeuomorphism–from the faux shutter sound made after you snap a picture, to the mock turnkey noise emitting from your phone after you’ve locked or unlocked it.
“There’s skeuomorphism everywhere, even in iOS 7, and it’s going to continue,” Ganatra says. “Even these audible cues are like the auditory version of skeuomorphism. But they work really well, and I can’t imagine that bleeps and bloops would do a better job–even though Apple is getting away from ‘evil skeuomorphism.'”
A team ofFast Company reporters spent months interviewing more than 50 former Apple execs and insiders, many of whom had never spoken publicly about their work. Read their oral history of Apple’s design approach here. An extended version of this oral history is available in the iBookstore and from Amazon.