The scrap over skeuomorphism: what does it really mean?

 

Skeuomorphism. An ugly word to describe what in many people’s view is an ugly thing. But what does it mean, and why should you care about it – particularly now that so many people are saying it is dead? Long before Apple launched its new iOS7 user interface at its Worldwide Developers Conference back in June, bringing this previously obscure word into common currency, a debate was already raging about the relative merits of skeuomorphic versus ‘flat’ visual design for digital interfaces.

In tech circles, skeuomorphism means making digital stuff look like physical-world stuff; the cheap-looking pine wood shelves in the iBook app, the stitched leather effect on iCal, and so on. Although lexicographical purists such as those at The Economist aren’t particularly happy with this usage of a word they think would more properly be reserved for conversations about pot handles and fingernails.

Why should you care about skeuomorphism? Perhaps because this problem of how physical products should be represented in the digital world is a fairly central one in publishing. Publishing abounds with skeuomorphs – to name just three: the ebook, the e-journal, and the ‘digital bookshelf’.

The scrapple within Apple

iOS creator Scott Forstall was a fan of skeuomorphic design and so, allegedly, was Steve Jobs. But Jobs is dead, and Forstall’s reign, it now seems, is over. Anti-skeuomorphists such as Apple’s design chief Jony Ive are now in the ascendent at Apple. This is important, because where Apple leads – especially in the area of design – others tend to follow.

As so often with these things, the debate has an ideological flavour, not to say a religious one. You might even say that it’s an argument that has been going on since the English Civil War.

In the blue corner, with their floppy lace cuffs and crucifixes, we have the cavalier skeuomorphists – toting a traditionalist, symbol-laden, keep-it-like-it-is view of the world. And in the red corner (US readers might have to reverse these colorations) are the form-follows-function, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin, new model armies of roundheads – with their angular, perhaps ever so slightly hard-to-love modernist credo.

But let’s give the two sides the respect of having their views properly aired – starting with the anti-skeuomorphist roundheads.

An argument against

Skeuomorhism hides the way that the machine we are using actually works, interposing a layer between us and its functionality that preserves us in an immature state as users. It flatters, lulls, but ultimately infantilises us. We may well find more approachable a calculating app that actually looks like a physical desk calculator, but the argument is that our use of it will therefore stop short at the limitations imposed by its mimicry of the physical-world object. The online version could do so much more for us, but skeuomorhic design stops that from ever happening. It limits thought, and it limits innovation. Its effect is to strip virtual products of a large part of their virtuality, in the process cutting off their potential to add further value in the future, and shortening their shelf life.

Form follows function, and it also reveals function. Well-designed products show you how to use them – you should never need a manual. And neither should you need little pictures of familiar things from the old days to give you cues.

Skeuomorphism apologists might say it is just a transitional phase, but unless someone calls time on transitional phases, they have a habit of never ending. That’s why we still have buttons on jacket cuffs, and egg-and-dart styrofoam moulding on dado rails. If we don’t root them out, skeuomorphs linger on well after anyone can remember why they were once useful.

An argument in favour

On the other hand …

The people who actually use digital products don’t care about design principles. Furthermore they’re made of meat, not metal, and find interacting with metal objects in any intimate way extraordinarily difficult and unpleasant unless strenuous efforts, and a good deal of art as well as science, are employed to smooth their path. They don’t want to learn how devices work, they just want them to work.

Technology is incredibly ephemeral and tomorrow there will be another device to get to grips with, another interface to learn how to navigate, another five passwords to memorise – and another charger to remember to carry around at all times in case your digital life support system should suddenly shut down when you are half way through the last chapter of Madame Bovary or the latest article in the Journal of Joint and Bone Surgery.

Users just want things they can understand easily and skeuomorphism does this for them, translating between the incredibly arcane and dull world of code and the real world where they live and think and learn and like pictures of kittens on Instagram.

Synthesis

Like all such binary oppositions this one is of course nonsensical. All language is metaphor, and that includes visual language. Forstall might have gone over the top with his trompe-l’œil green baize, pine shelves, leather-stitched calendars, yellow legal pads and ring-binders, but the puritanical flat-and-squareness of Microsoft’s recent interfaces still depends on metaphorical objects called ‘windows’ and ’tiles’, even if they are not so lushly rendered.

And if the Scandinavian-looking simplicity of the Windows 8 interface reminds you of the sharp corners on the IKEA furniture you are always barking your knees on, that is not to say that Apple’s interpretation of this new stylistic rigour will be anything like as clunky. Apple products have always delighted the senses (well, most people’s senses). For iOS7 Jony Ive promises ‘new types of depth’. Get used to the word parallax (almost as ugly a one as ‘skeuomorph’). You’ll be hearing a lot of it from web designers – and seeing a lot of it on interfaces.

Skeuomorphism is something that might periodically have to be reigned back, but all interface designers have to grapple with the issue of finding appropriate visual metaphors to prompt users. In the end it’s a matter of how well or badly this is done – and whether the results accord with prevailing trends in visual taste.

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