Apple's corny designs easy to relate to

16:00, Nov 06 2012
Scott Forstall
SIGN OF THE TIMES: Apple’s real-world design ethos may change now Scott Forstall has gone.

Apple has sacked its longtime chief of mobile software, Scott Forstall. In the wake of the shake-up, which reportedly had to do with Forstall's refusal to sign a public apology for Apple's troubled Maps app, a strange, one-dimensional narrative has overrun the technology industry.

The story goes like this: In addition to presiding over two big failures - Maps and Siri - Forstall was also responsible for the spate of silly, tacky designs that have wormed their way into Apple's software.

Forstall's sin, according to design snobs, is that he likes to make software that mimics real-world objects. The iPad's Notes app, for instance, looks like a yellow-lined legal pad set into a stitched, leather-bound datebook.

The Calendar app is meant to look like a paper datebook, and when you advance to the next day, you see a hokey page-turn animation.

One of the worst offenders is Apple's Podcasts app. When you press play, the app displays a comical animation of a reel-to-reel tape deck.

Interface designers have been fretting about Apple's turn towards faux-real imagery for a long time. There's even a term for it - designers call it skeuomorphism, although that term has been widely misused in the raging debates about Apple's software. And yes, the debates have been raging, reportedly even within the company.


Late Apple head Steve Jobs was a fan of software that looked like its real-world analogue. He was especially fond of making programs that aped the textures of fine, expensive materials.

In September, Austin Carr, of Fast Company magazine, reported the leather stitching in iCal, the Mac's calendar program, was based on the leather in Jobs' Gulfstream jet.

After Jobs' death, Forstall became the company's biggest proponent of skeuomorphism, much to the chagrin of the firm's designers.

"It's visual masturbation," one former Apple user-interface designer told Carr. "It's like the designers are flexing their muscles to show you how good a visual rendering they can do of a physical object. Who cares?"

The anti-Jobs, anti-Forstall, anti-skeuomorph crowd sees Jony Ive as their saviour. The legendary, beloved chief of Apple's hardware team - Ive is the lead designer of the iPod, iPhone, iPad and many other products - has been promoted to head design across the company, putting him in charge of the look of hardware and software.

According to reports, he hates skeuomorphic design.

"You can be sure that the next generation of iOS and OS X will have Jony's industrial design aesthetic all over them," one anonymous Apple designer told The New York Times this week.

"Clean edges, flat surfaces will likely replace the textures that are all over the place right now."

To which I've got one thing to say: Please, Jony, don't do it! Yes, some of Apple's software has become a bit corny - I'm looking at your cheap-casino green-felt, Game Centre - but those who advocate throwing out real-world textures and visual metaphors are missing something important.

As designer Tobias Bjerrome Ahlin points out, when it's used appropriately, skeuomorphic design can give users a quick sense of what an app does.

This is especially true for non-experts. How do you convey to someone that Notes is where you jot down a grocery list, but Pages is where you type a book report?

If both apps showed you nothing but a blank screen, a novice wouldn't know what to do, but since it looks like a notebook, Notes doesn't even need a help screen. Hokey as it is, the legal pad and ugly handwriting font tell you in a split second: Notes is for jotting things down.

There is an even larger reason to use real-world design metaphors: They add emotional depth to software. If Jony Ive really does replace iOS's textures with clean edges and flat surfaces, he won't be breaking much new ground in the mobile world. That's because iOS's two main rivals, Android and Windows Phone, are already dominated by a flat, clean look.

Indeed, Microsoft, in particular, has made its distaste for skeuomorphism one of its primary design philosophies, and you can find that aesthetic across the firm's products. If you want two-dimensional design, Steve Ballmer has a deal for you.

I like the look and feeling of Microsoft's new designs, but I suspect that, as a tech enthusiast, I'm not representative of most mainstream users.

While Windows Phone's flat, two-dimensional design is attractive, I can see how it could strike many people as cold and uninviting. Everything about iOS, on the other hand, feels playful, friendly and non-threatening. This is in no small part because of Apple's liberal use of skeuomorphs. Think of it as the difference between dining at a chain restaurant and one dedicated to haute cuisine.

Nobody would ever rank a week-night diner over a Michelin three-star restaurant, but you would never have to worry about your attire or table manners there. Everything about the place, from the lighting to the waiter's uniforms, is designed to suggest that you're in a low-stakes environment.

That's the same function the leather stitching in the Calendar app performs. It's not elegant, but it sure is friendly.