Less Is Not Always More: The Argument for Apple-style Skeuomorphism

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bulk up the interface than to strip it down; where waste is good, and all the surplus computing and graphics power at our disposal today is used to make the consumer’s experience a little more magical.

Now, there’s another class of applications—office and productivity apps, Web browsers, social media clients, and the like—where there is less to be gained by drawing from the visual vocabulary of the physical world. The fragments of torn paper visible in Apple’s Calendar app do not make it more useful. In fact, they may make it slightly less useful. The only cogent critique of Forstall-era skeuomorphism I’ve encountered is that such details are deceptive, and therefore confusing.

An interface that evokes an older referent, this argument goes, should actually deliver on the reference. You shouldn’t make the top-level screen of the iBooks app look like a wooden bookcase (to take another oft-cited example) unless you’re going to make it work like a real bookcase—meaning, I guess, that you should be able to move the books around. “My brain, which is used to the physical bookshelf, is confused because of the differences in usability,” complains Yves Béhar, the founder of a San Francisco- and New York-based industrial design firm called Fuseproject, in a recent Fast Company screed against Apple’s skeuomorphic tendencies. “It’s cute, but not particularly useful.”

The iBooks bookshelf on the iPad.

The iBooks bookshelf on the iPad.

Well, Mr. Béhar, I’m sorry about your brain, but I don’t feel confused. I feel comforted. Sure, I could still cope in a world where Swiss designers rule and every interface is boiled down to Windows 8-style “squares, images, and text,” as developer and blogger Ambrose Little puts it. But why should I have to? If a skeuomorphic element can make an app more usable or more delightful, then it’s silly to eschew it simply on theological grounds. (In fact, I challenge software designers to build a metaphor-free interface. As Little has pointed out, such a design would be unintelligible.)

It’s easy to take the fake stitched leather too far—and do I think it’s fair to blame Apple for unleashing an epidemic of bad skeuomorphism on the part of third-party developers. You can peruse numerous design disasters from the iOS App Store at the hilarious blog skeu.it. But compared to these examples, Apple’s own design offenses are, at worst, misdemeanors. And only in a petty, joyless, ruthlessly industrialized world would they be punished. Let’s give ornament and metaphor their due—and hope that the future isn’t too full of flat surfaces and clean edges.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Less Is Not Always More: The Argument for Apple-style Skeuomorphism”

  1. Way to go Wade! I gave a little workshop on Design Thinking and UX trends at HBS last night and skeumorphism was a topic. I found myself saying exactly what you dared to write…it this an echo chamber debate among the digerati? How could you possibly get worked up about that tiny sliver of torn paper on the iCal? Any man on the street interview would reveal either a general overlooking of those skeumorphic details or an outright fondness for things like wooden bookshelves. Horrors!

  2. Wade Roush says:

    Jules, I completely agree. I think Jony Ives’ industrial minimalism is great for Apple’s *hardware*, where ornament and emotion would get in the way of delivering great digital experiences. But the experiences themselves don’t need to be equally threadbare.