Why Apple’s Interfaces Will Be Skeuomorphic Forever, And Why Yours Will Be Too

“Skeuomorph…”  What??  I have been designing interfaces for 25 years and that word triggers nothing resembling understanding in my mind on its linguistic merit alone.  Indeed, like some cosmic self-referential joke the word skeuomorph lacks the linguistic reference points I need to understand it.

So actually yes, it would be really nice if the word ornamentally looked a little more like what it meant, you know?

So Scott Forstall got the boot – and designers the world over are celebrating the likely death of Apple’s “skeuomorphic” interface trend.  Actually I am quite looking forward to an Ive-centric interface, but not so much because I hate so-called skeuomorphic interfaces, but because Ive is a (the) kick ass designer and I want to see his design sensibility in software.  That will be exciting.

And yet, I’m not celebrating the death of skeuomorphic interfaces at Apple because – and I can already hear the panties bunching up – there is no such a thing as an off-state of skeuomorphism. That’s an irrelevant concept.   And even if there was such a thing, the result would be ugly and unusable.

Essentially, every user interface on Earth is ornamentally referencing and representing other unrelated materials, interfaces and elements.  The only questions are: what’s it representing, and by how much?

Essentially, every user interface on Earth is ornamentally referencing and representing other unrelated materials, interfaces and elements.  The only questions are: what’s it representing, and by how much?

For example, there is a very popular trend in interface design – promoted daily by the very designers who lament Apple’s so-called “skeuomorphic” leather and stitching – where a very subtle digital noise texture is applied to surfaces of buttons and pages.  It’s very subtle – but gives the treated objects a tactile quality. Combined with slight gradient shading, often embossed lettering and even the subtlest of drop shadows under a button, the effect is that of something touchable – something dimensional.

Excuse me, how can this not be construed as skeuomorphic?

Is that texture functional – lacking any quality of ornamentation?  Is the embossing not an attempt to depict the effect of bumps on real world paper?  Are the subtle drop shadows under buttons attempting to communicate something other than the physicality of a real-world object on a surface, interacting with a light source that doesn’t actually exist?  The most basic use of the light source concept is, by definition skeuomorphic.

Drop shadows, embossing, gradients suggesting dimension, gloss, reflection, texture, the list is endless… and absolutely all of this is merely a degree of skeuomorphism because it’s all referencing and ornamentally rendering unrelated objects and effects of the real world.

And you’re all doing it.

This whole debate is a question of taste and functional UI effectiveness.  It’s not the predetermined result of some referential method of design.

So when you say you want Apple to stop creating skeuomorphic interfaces – you really don’t mean that.  What you want is for Apple to stop having bad taste, and you want Apple to make their interfaces communicate more effectively.

So when you say you want Apple to stop creating skeuomorphic interfaces – you really don’t mean that.  What you want is for Apple to stop having bad taste, and you want Apple to make their interfaces communicate more effectively.

The issues you have had with these specific interfaces is that they either communicated things that confused and functionally misled (which is bad UX), or simply felt subjectively unnecessary (bad taste).  And these points are not the direct result of skeuomorphism.

“But,” you say, “I don’t use any of that dimensional silliness.  My pages, buttons and links are purely digital – “flat” and/or inherently connected only to the interactive function, void of anything resembling the real world, and void of ornamentation of any kind.  Indeed, my interfaces are completely free of this skeuomorphism.”

Bullshit.

I’ll skip the part about how you call them pages, buttons and links (cough – conceptually skeuomorphic – cough) and we’ll chalk that up to legacy terminology.  You didn’t choose those terms.  Just as you didn’t choose to think of the selection tool in photoshop as a lasso, or the varied brushes, erasers and magnifying glass.  That’s all legacy – and even though it makes perfect sense to you now – you didn’t choose that.  Unless you work at Adobe in which case maybe you did and shame on you.

But you’re a designer – and your interfaces aren’t ornamental – yours are a case of pure UI function.  You reference and render nothing from anywhere else except what’s right there on that… page… er, screen… no … matrix of pixels.

For example, perhaps you underline your text links.  Surely that’s not skeuomorphic, right?  That’s an invention of the digital age.  Pure interface.  Well, lets test it:  Does the underline lack ornamentation, is it required to functionally enable the linking?    Well, no, you do not have to place an underline on that link to technically enable linking.   It will still be clickable without the underline.  But the user might not understand that it’s clickable without it.  So we need to communicate to the user that this is clickable.  To do that we need to reference previous, unrelated instances where other designers have faced such a condition.  And we find an underline – to indicate interactivity.

“Wait,” you say, “the underline indicating linking may be referencing other similar conditions, but it’s pure UI, it’s simply a best practice.  It is not a representation of the real world.  It’s not metaphorical.”

Nyeah actually it is.  It just may not be obvious because we are sitting in a particularly abstract stretch of the skeuomorphic spectrum.

Why did an underlined link ever make sense?  Who did it first and why?

Well although my career spans the entirety of web linking I have no clue who did it on a computer first (anyone know this?).  But I do know that the underline has always (or for a very looooong time) – well before computers – been used to emphasize a section of text.  And the first guys who ever applied an underline to a string of text as a UI solution for indicating interactivity borrowed that idea directly from real-world texts – to similarly emphasize linked text – to indicate that it’s different.  And that came from the real world.  We just all agree that it works and we no longer challenge it’s meaning.

Face it, you have never designed an effective interface in your whole life that was not skeuomorphic to some degree.  All interfaces are skeuomorphic, because all interfaces are representational of something other than the pixels they are made of.

Look I know what the arguments are going to be – people are going to fault my position on this subject of currency and and how referencing other digital interface conventions “doesn’t count” – that it has to be the useless ornamental reproduction of some physical real-world object.  But you are wrong.

Skeuomorphism is a big, fat gradient that runs all the way from “absolute reproduction of the real world” to “absolute, un-relatable abstraction”.

Skeuomorphism is a big, fat gradient that runs all the way from “absolute reproduction of the real world” to “absolute, un-relatable abstraction”.

And the only point on that spectrum truly void of skeuomorphism is the absolute, distant latter: pure abstraction.  Just as zero is the only number without content.  And you know what that looks like ?  It’s what the computer sees when there’s no code.  No user interface.  Pure abstraction.  That is arguably a true lack of skeuomorphism.  Or rather, as close as we can get.  Because even the underlying code wasn’t born in the digital age, it’s all an extension of pre-existing language and math.

Look at it this way – an iPad is a piece of glass.  You are touching a piece of glass. So as a designer you need a form of visual metaphor to take the first step in allowing this object to become something other than a piece of glass.  To make it functional.  And that alone is a step on the skeuomorphic spectrum.

Sure you can reduce the silliness and obviousness of your skeuomorphism (good taste), and you can try to use really current, useful reference points (good UI), but you cannot design without referencing and rendering aspects of unrelated interfaces – physical or digital.  And that fact sits squarely on the slippery slope of skeuomorphism.

I read a blogger who tried to argue that metaphoric and skeuomorphic are significantly different concepts.  I think he felt the need to try this out because he thought about the topic just enough to realize the slippery slope he was on.  But it ultimately made no sense to me.  I think a lot of people want a pat term to explain away bad taste and ineffective UI resulting from a family of specific executions, but I don’t think they have thought about it enough yet.  Skeuomorphic is metaphoric.

OK so let’s say all this is true.  I know you want to argue, but come with me.

In the old days – meaning 1993-ish – There was something much worse than your so-called skeuomorphic interface.  There were interfaces that denied the very concept of interface – and looked completely like the real world.  I mean like all the way.  A bank lobby for example.  So you’d pop in your floppy disc or CD-Rom and boom – you’d be looking at a really bad 3D rendering of an actual bank teller window.  The idea was awful even then.  “Click the teller to ask a question” or “Click the stapler to connect your accounts”.

And that was a type of “skeuomorphism” that went pretty far up the spectrum.

Back then my team and I were developing interfaces where there were indeed, buttons and scroll bars and links but they were treated with suggestive textures and forms which really did help a generation of complete newbie computer users orient themselves to our subject and the clicking, navigating and dragging. You would now call what we’d done skeuomorphism.

My team and I used to call these interfaces that used textures and forms, ornamentally suggestive of some relevant or real-world concept “soft metaphor interfaces”.  Where the more literal representations (the bank lobby) were generally called “hard metaphor interfaces”.

And these terms allowed for acknowledgment of variability, of volume. The more representative, the “harder” the metaphoric approach was.  The more abstract, the “softer” it could be said to be.

And these terms allowed for acknowledgment of variability, of volume. The more representative, the “harder” the metaphoric approach was.  The more abstract, the “softer” it could be said to be.

To this day I prefer these qualifiers of metaphor to the term “skeuomorphic”.  In part because “skeuomorphic” is used in a binary sense which implies that it can be turned off.  But the variability suggested by the softness of metaphor is more articulate and useful when actually designing and discussing design. Like lighter and darker, this is a designer’s language.

I hope after reading this you don’t walk away thinking I believe the leather and stitching and torn paper on the calendar app was rightly implemented.  It wasn’t – and others have done a solid job explaining how it breaks the very UX intent of that app.

But the truth is – there are times when some amount of metaphor, of obvious skeuomorphism in interface design makes tons of sense.  Take the early internet.  Back then most people were still relatively new to PCs. Ideas we take for granted today – like buttons, hover states, links, dragging and dropping, etc, was completely new to massive swaths of the population.  Computers scared people. Metaphorical interfaces reduced fear of the technology – encouraged interaction.

And I think, as Apple first popularized multi-touch – an interface method that was entirely new – it made all the sense in the world to embrace so-called skeuomorphism as they did.  I don’t begrudge them that at all.  Sure – there are lots of us that simply didn’t need the crutch.  We either grew up with these tools and or create them and feel a bit like it talks down to us.  But Apple’s overt skeuomorphic interfaces weren’t really aimed at us.

Remember the launch of the iPad, where Steve Jobs announced that this was the “post PC era”?  Apple didn’t win the PC war – and instead deftly changed the game.  “Oh, are you still using a PC?  Ah, I see, well that’s over.  Welcome to the future.”  Brilliant!

But the population WAS still using a PC.   And Apple, with it’s overt skeuomorphic interfaces, was designing for them.  Users who were figuratively still using IE6.  Who were afraid of clicking things lest they break something.

These users needed to see this new device – this new interface method – looking friendly.  It needed to look easy and fun.  And at a glance, hate it though you may, well-designed metaphorical interfaces do a good job of that.  They look fun and easy.

Communicating with your users is your job. And to do that you must continue to devise smart UI conventions and employ good taste – and that means choosing carefully where on the skeuomorphic spectrum you wish to design.  Skeuomorphic is not a bad word.  It’s what you do.

5 Comments Why Apple’s Interfaces Will Be Skeuomorphic Forever, And Why Yours Will Be Too

  1. Pingback: Pixel Acres » Blog Archive » The demise of skeuomorphism

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  3. Pingback: An intelligent take on the non-sense ranting about Skeuomorphism | Mimozar blog

  4. Simon

    I think link underlining was first done in Mosaic. That browser was developed at the NCSA and the University of Illinois by Marc Andreesen, among others.

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