It probably goes without saying that I am a huge fan of Apple; as is almost everyone in the design field. However, their UI, especially in iOS, has always bothered me. For a company with such excellent taste and attention to design, the skeuomorphism of their mobile operating system seems so completely out of place. How can a company that is always on the cutting edge of hardware and experience be satisfied to cheaply emulate “real life” objects in their UI? Many people have simply written it off to taste, presuming that Apple wanted iOS to be approachable, even cute; but this argument never satisfied me. Their hardware never sold on personality. (Ok, for awhile it did, but not very well as compared to more recent products) In recent years it’s been minimal and neutral, successful for its excellence of design, build quality, and innovation.
I am not alone in this qualm. In fact, I would venture to say that the majority of the design and UI community takes issue with the leather stitching, mandatory shine, and linen textures of iOS. But today I came across this thought from Oliver Reichenstein of iA that changed the way I think about the issue:
Half way through the Steve Jobs Biography, the biggest revelation for me so far is the clash between Raskin and Jobs. It’s a clash between serious design and selling design:
Serious design does not necessarily sell well. That’s why it needs to be expensive to even exist.
What sells is sentimentalism, nostalgia, solemnity—what sells is kitsch. That’s why kitsch can be so cheap. Because it sells so well.
That is true for any kind of design. And this is why iCal has this fucking leather surface that makes any user interface designer puke wet feverish dogs. And that’s why Apple has so much money in the bank. Not because of the mind blowing design of its hardware. (They always had the nicest hardware). But because people are sold through its nostalgic interface. The winning path started with OSX, the interface “you want to lick.” Kitsch interfaces makes the average user think:
“I know how to use this!” (which is always a false promise)
“Looks like I need to learn to use this.” (which is always the case)
In practice, Jef Raskin’s serious design approach would win hands down against the Jobs approach—but Jef would not even get the chance to compete, because no one cares about serious design before getting in touch with it.
I don’t agree with it all, but there is a big revelation in there for me. Some people believe that skeuomorphism makes an interface easier to use, or more intuitive for the user, and I simply don’t buy that. But what hadn’t occurred to me is that it doesn’t matter if it actually does make it easier to use, all that matters is that it makes the average person think it’s easier to use. In reality, a user must take time to learn any interface, whether clad in faux leather or not. The skeuomorphism in iOS plainly tricks people that might otherwise walk away, convinced that they can’t learn something new, into putting in the time required to get acclimated to a new interface.
For every one designer pointing out flawed and unnecessary ornamentation in iOS, one hundred non-designers, normal people, are tricked into thinking they understand something new.
Apple has become increasingly mainstream with the success of the iPod, iPhone, and now the iPad. They always appealed to the creative class, those with a trained eye and developed taste, but now they’re in the pockets of an incredibly diverse chunk of the population. They recognize this, and they’ve draped artificial linen over the eyes of the everyman so the future doesn’t scare or intimidate him too much. Skeuomorphism, in Apple’s case, is not a cute style or an attempt to make their interfaces easier to use, but instead a way to ease us on to the new frontier.
I am certainly not off to throw a linen texture on the apps we’re working on at Friends of The Web, but I am definitely thinking about skeuomorphism differently now.
Thanks to Cemre Güngör for turning me on to the post from Oliver.