Apple has long been considered a pioneer in user interface design, but lately there has been an interesting debate going on about their increased use of skeuomorphic design on some of their applications and whether or not it is an appropriate practice for digital media.
“Skeuomorphism is when a product imitates design elements functionally necessary in the original product design, but that becomes ornamental in the new product design.” — Wikipedia. So by definition, you can easily understand why so many (primarily designers) are opposed to it – it is design as decoration – something that we are trained to avoid wherever and whenever possible. However the question remains, is it such a terrible thing?
In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I completely dislike the skeuomorphic designs in Apple’s interfaces. With that out of the way, I think it is only fair to try to look at the other side of the coin on this. I recently read an article/interview with a former UI designer at Apple that shed some additional insights into how and why these designs came to be, and while I found myself disagreeing with many of the points he made, I did agree with some of his answers. For example, it is easy to forget that skeuomorphism applies to both how things look, and how things behave – so his clarification that skeuomorphism is very important in determining an application’s behavior resonated very well with me.
But, I digress. The question at hand is, is skeuomorphism as applied to how something looks a bad idea? To answer that, I think it is important to remember the age-old question of form over function. While my opinion is that form should always follow function, I can see where in this case, form may very well educate function. Let me explain:
Many years ago I attended a keynote speech by Cameron Moll, a prominent interactive designer. He told a story about how one day when he was visiting his father, he saw that his father’s computer desktop was cluttered with icons. He explains that they were in random piles across the screen, but piles nonetheless. When Cameron saw this, he immediately assumed that his father didn’t know how to store things in folders, so, like any good son would do, he helped his dad out by clicking on the “Clean Up Icons By Name” feature and in one simple action, re-organized the desktop so things would be easier to find. Well, he proceeded to explain the look of sheer terror and disbelief on his dad’s face when he saw what had just happened. His dad then asked him “why did you do that?! Do you know how long it took me to organize those files?!” Cameron said it wasn’t until that point that he realized that to his father, the desktop of his computer resembled a physical desk top, where papers do live in piles.
Cameron’s story is, in my opinion, a perfect case for skeuomorphic design. There is a very large number of users of new applications that benefit from the familiarity of a leather calendar, or the turning of a page in a book. And for these users, those visual cues may be critical in educating them on the function of the software.
Now, it is important to note that while few software is taking such pronounced visual cues from the analog world as Apple’s, it does not mean that they are the only ones. For example, when was the last time you saw or used a floppy disk? Or a rotary phone for that matter? Or how about the last time that you wrote a letter, put it in an envelope and mailed it? And yet, we see these visual references almost daily in today’s software.
So in conclusion, while I would very much prefer a less analog look to the software I use, I can at least see some benefits to keeping some things rooted in the past still. That said, I am also quite intrigued by Microsoft’s fresh approach to their Windows 8 UI…but it remains a mystery on whether or not it will actually be intuitive enough for its users. We shall see.