In (Partial) Defense of Apple’s Skeuomorphic Design in iOS

Faux stitched leather annoys me too. But I’m not sure all skeuomorphic design is bad.

Wikipedia defines skeuomorphic design as:

an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material

I find it annoying in certain situations in iOS and OS X, such as the Phone app icon ¹, the Address Book on the Mac, the page flips in iBooks. Still, I’m not turned off by the green felt in Game Center.

The worst offenders are those which echo physical counterparts which are long gone for anyone under the age of 30. An actual address book? Nobody is using one anymore, are they? The analogy makes no sense unless you’re old. And even then, it’s unnecessary. It also limits functionality by requiring the software to confirm to a limited set of data display based on a less efficient data storage method.

But for situations where the analog counterpart is still present (like a blackjack table), I’m OK with that. Further, I think iOS benefits from the “little universe” approach that each app offers. It makes a dramatically obvious visual distinction as to which app you’re using. And as long as it isn’t limiting functionality, I think it’s fair game.

Sure, this could be done using minimalist design, but why does every app have to be minimalist? Sometimes when working on the Mac, all the windows I have open start to look the same. The neutral light gray doesn’t help. Distinct visual differentiation helps all users — and I am assuming new computer users in particular — to navigate what can become a dizzying mess of sameness.

I tried out a Windows 8 laptop demo a while back. I kinda liked it. I definitely like that Microsoft is trying something new and original. But the whole experience started to feel like the operating system was just some veneer design for a futuristic Hollywood film. Sure, it looks cool, but it all started to just blend into itself. Like the Motorola Razr, it was all movie prop surface sheen. It looked like what a designer imagined future design would look like.

I don’t want every app to have the same clean look and geometric design. I don’t want iOS to end up with every app looking like the Settings app. I like entering the “pocket universe” of each app.

Is some of it corny as hell? Oh yes. But let’s not enforce a Dieter Rams aesthetic on every last object in the world. There’s room for variety.

¹ Shouldn’t the Phone app just be an icon of the iPhone itself? Why the antiquated handset? I suppose this isn’t really skeuomorphic, but I wanted to complain about it anyway.

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