Austin Carr of Fast Company reports on Apple’s current software design:
The criticism and controversy, much of it revolving around a trend called skeuomorphism, reveal chinks in Apple’s armor rarely visible to those outside One Infinite Loop.
There are a couple of things in this article that I feel are unfair toward Apple’s apparent design goals. Based on the tone of the piece, the author also dislikes the skeumorphism of Calendar, Game Center, and other apps that rely heavily on looking like real-world objects or surfaces. Not a single counterpoint survives the assault. Referencing real objects was useful in the past, but not now. Why not?
The article would have readers believe that current users have no point of reference for a Rolodex. Ok, I’ll bite, but what about before computers? The first time I saw a Rolodex, I had to learn what it was. At least for now, who is it that needs more help understanding a computer, the person who owned and used a Rolodex, or the person who has never seen one? You know the answer and so do I. That’s what Apple designs for: the mass-market.
To me this piece reads like a bunch of whiny designers complaining about unnecessary flourishes. Turns out regular people enjoy flourishes like a cute e-ticket that shreds itself. As long as the animation doesn’t get in the way of the next intented action, it isn’t hurting anyone, and it’s delighting those who are most uncomfortable with digital devices.
Carr’s selected sources, an ex-Apple designer and several respected third-party developers, come from a background that derides the seemingly superfluous elements of a design, much like Apple’s own Jony Ive. It surprises me not at all that Ive would dislike the skeumorphic or semi-skeumorphic concepts that drive much of Apple’s software, but it’s important to note that hardware and software are very different design realms.
I’d argue that Apple wants its software to feel playful and fun and familiar. Desk calendars are familiar to a certain set. Shredding cards is a playful way of showing “deleted.” Apple’s hardware is not playful. It used to be, but now it is centered around a subtle, quiet, beatuy. The hardware becomes invisible; that’s the point, especially on iOS. What happens if the software does the same (as it does in the work of iA Design and others featured in the article)?
Opponents of skeumorphism would probably say that when software disappears what we see is content. That’s great if you fully understand the device and have no reservations approaching it. If the user is at all timid about the computer or tablet or phone, that lovely absence becomes the thing that human beings fear most: the unknown. And even if everthing is visible and accessible? Then it is missing vitality and effervesence, it calms instead of captures.
If you disagree, answer me this. If Microsoft’s Metro (don’t call it Metro) design is so great—and I think it is for people who really are comfortable with digital devices—why aren’t people coalescing around WP7?
When I talk to people who aren’t focused daily on the aspects of their digital devices, they say they love things like Apple’s Notes app and the iBooks pageturn and red-ribbon bookmark. They don’t come to me raving about apps where the interface just melts away. They hate those apps because all the familiar points of interaction are gone. They hold up the device, often clearly frustrated, and say, “What am I supposed to do?”