What Skeuomorphism Can Tell Us About Design Thinking (and Apple)

Skeuomorphism is one of those concepts that occasionally makes for great small talk. Admittedly it only works with a rather select audience. But when it does work you not only have the pleasure of overcoming a hurdle of three consecutive vowels, you also have a topic where design minded folks can channel both their inner nerd and their disdain for the mainstream. As a conversation topic it’s pure, unadulterated hipster gold.

You can witness this property of the word in recent online debates, where skeuomorphism gets flung around like an insult sometimes. In posts and comments that criticize the interface choices Apple has been pushing to its customers the word pops up a lot. Notably James Higgs and Oliver Reichenstein (of iA fame) have criticized Apple for their sentimental ornamentation. The iCal app has gained notoriety to the point of being featured as an example in the Wikipedia entry.

The whole debate over Apple choosing a design that is so controversial among designers (see also Kaishin Lemeden) is why I take skeuomorphism to be an excellent example of how informed choice is the base for any design process. The better informed, the better the choices, the more likely a design is a success.

Skeuomorphism in its essence is a design cue or pattern that is nonessential for the functionality of a design. However, it is reminiscent of a former design, where it originally was essential. Carrying over patterns from earlier designs for ornamental purposes has been around at least since the time the ancient greeks and their contemporaries repurposed patterns from silverware to their pottery.

Today you can find an everyday example of fully nonfunctional ornamentation residue in the abundance of fake comb joints you see at a popular Swedish furniture chain. What used to be a method to interlock wooden boards remains as a faux impression of sturdiness in shelves that are cheaply glued together.

It is precisely because of its association with sentimental ornamentation that skeuomorphism can be a well thought out choice. But it can also be detrimental if you don’t apply the concept with purpose.

What is good design anyway?

Let’s be frank about this: Design is a trade where concepts and practices from a plethora of disciplines converge. No wonder that even accomplished designers sometimes fail to understand the perspective of a colleague. With cross-disciplinary inputs being as diverse as they are, no one can be an expert of everything in the field.

You may apply concepts from rhetorics and applied chemistry alike, balance task demand, categorical perception and gestalt theory with focus group studies or a corporate design beyond your control and more often than not you do it all under the vengeful eye of a controller constraining your time and budget. If in the face of all this your starting point for a design critique is its aesthetic value… well, you’re probably doing it wrong.

I don’t mean to belittle the importance of beauty. Aesthetic value is an important part of design, it can even be functionally motivated to a certain degree. Beautiful things are actually easier to use, so if you can make positive affect (check the science yourself) work in your favor, by all means, make it pretty! And if you want to communicate cheap in an ad catalogue get rid of all that fancy white space, use lots of callouts in a hideous red and yellow color scheme and make that logo bigger!

But aesthetic appeal is but one element with the efficacy to help you create succesfull designs. The key takeaway from a design is: it should work. That’s what differentiates design from the idea of l’art pour l’art. There is an objective at the start of your creative process and you are solving problems and managing constraints along the way to create something that meets the objective.

Defining the creative process in such a way entails that there is no perfect design. Once you are managing constraints that are in conflict with each other logic dictates that no solution can fully satisfy all constraints. You are forced to make tradeoffs. Looking at it this way, good design stems from making sound choices and finding a solution that is optimal rather than perfect. It meets your objective as much as possible, given the circumstances.

Does Apple design (just) work?

I claim no insight to the design process that takes place behind closed doors in Cupertino. Yet I find it reasonable to assume that the most important objective for a company is: their product sells. To that end Apple designs hardware and software in a way that bundled together is so appealing as to warrant the price tag.

Part of their design process is resolving the problem of turning a canvas on which pixels can take any shape or form into a facilitator of an immersive experience for the user. What they are selling, in effect, is not so much the hardware and software, but an experience of being empowered to complete tasks that the user would have found much harder to accomplish if not for the help of the Apple bundle. Even their marketing claim alludes to the experience.

Creating an immersive experience requires to eliminate the saliency (or prominence) of the fact that the user is interacting with a complex machine in the first place. Hence, the minimalist aesthetic of the hardware. It is quite functional in its understatement to enhance the contrastive properties of anything the canvas displays by virtue of its aesthetic properties. Thus we can fully motivate that design choice functionally.

What contrasts with the understated appeal of the hardware are the pixels on the screen. The apps themselves, especially on the touch devices, are quite exuberant in their aesthetic. Some call their aesthetic kitsch, even.

I think that it is in the development of iOS that the immersive experience was fully developed to be the driving concept of Apple software design. Tactile interaction took away another layer of abstraction in the mental model users employ to navigate the virtual realm of their software. Instead of using physical interfaces like the mouse or keyboard to send orders into the machine, the screen now all but fades away when users manipulate the pixels directly by touch. Now the software must uphold the illusion of direct interaction not to upset that newly formed mental model. This is precisely what Apple aims to do, as stated in their iOS Human Interface Guidelines:

When appropriate, add a realistic, physical dimension to your application. Often, the more true to life your application looks and behaves, the easier it is for people to understand how it works and the more they enjoy using it.

Here the aesthetic appeal of skeuomorphism translates into a functional category of app design. Not only does the illusion of familiarity make a pixelated rendition of a well known object less intimidating, thus more appealing to interact with than an abstract user interface to a demographic that has lots of spending power but little experience with virtual reality—remember, Apple wants to sell products. Alluding to familiar objects can also be part of a usability concept when it employs visual metaphors that draw on the shared cultural memory of users.

Making skeuomorphism work

Bear in mind: there is no default aesthetic for virtual environments. Moreover, the most experience we still have with the physical world. There we acquire concepts of cause and effect that we apply anew in each unfamiliar setting.

This is as much a blessing as a curse for skeuomorphic interface designs. If you leverage the preexisting expectations of cause and effect artfully, users will enjoy the affordance of the interface. However, when the skeuomorphic aesthetic writes cheques that your interface can’t cash the resulting false affordance is a major disappointment.

Much like visual metaphors skeuomorphic design is also contingent on a shared cultural archive of forms and associations. What is considered as luxurious in one culture may be perceived as tacky and cheap in another. Associations also change over time. Some ornaments may even turn into complete obscurity. Do you think that a manual typewriter reference, a carriage return, will be understood to do what the return key on a keyboard does by people who grew up without typewriters? What appeal would a typewriter even have to them? These are properties you need to account for when choosing a real world reference.

Distinct visual features help to distinguish apps from each other. In multitasking environments or swiped app switching the prominent visual cues to the identity of the app are a welcomed source of orientation. Contrast is a key tenet of design: having salient features communicate a swift feedback of a particular app state is a boon.

Thus, skeuomorphism done right can translate aesthetic and nostalgic appeal into a functional category. It can help differentiate interface environment at a quick glance. And it can leverage mental models to make an interface more intuitively accessible. You just have to weigh these benefits against the potential sacrifices you will have to make in terms of universal appeal, functionality or screen real estate.

The problem with iCal

I put it to you that Apple has received the most flak not over creating suboptimal design (as I defined it above) but rather for choosing an aesthetic that did not live up to the expectations of a small but vocal user base. Yet in the light of how the recent OSX iteration has incorporated the iOSque faux leather iCal look I think it is reasonable to assume that the design process behind the desktop OS has shifted in a way that does indeed produce less than optimal design.

There are some glaring usability issues on iOS alone, where two skeuomorphic apps employ different interface designs, but use the same leather bound paper metaphor. Why can’t I flip pages on my iCal like I can in iBooks? Such an omission is more than false affordance, it is a serious consistency problem within the iOS experience alone.

Tradeoffs will have to be made when creating a unified look and feel for both, the touch and the desktop interface, is prioritized. However, if streamlining the operating systems pressures the OSX software to adopt models that were tailor made for the touch system, some of those models are bound to fall short of what desktop users have come to expect, both in functionality and aesthetics.

The question whether it is even possible to force two different models of interaction into one design framework notwithstanding: alienating part of your user base through aesthetic and usability issues without making up for it in some other way does not seem a smart choice to me. Then again I don’t know who Apple expects to buy their experience packages in the future, nor what their ulterior objective in the ongoing transition is. But I too find the iCal app quite ugly.

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