The Design Battle That’s Tearing Apple and the Tech World Apart

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Nov. 1 2012 7:07 PM

Should a Calendar App Look Like a Calendar?

The design battle that’s tearing Apple and the tech world apart.

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Former Apple Senior VP of iPhone Software Scott Forstall

Photograph by Justin Sullivan.

This week, Apple fired Scott Forstall, its longtime chief of mobile software. In the wake of the shake-up—which reportedly had to do with Forstall’s refusal to sign a public apology for Apple’s troubled Maps app—a strange, one-dimensional narrative has overrun the tech industry. The story goes like this: In addition to presiding over two big failures—Maps and Siri—Forstall was also responsible for the spate of goofy, even “tacky” designs that have wormed their way into Apple’s software.

Forstall’s sin, according to design snobs, is that he likes to make software that mimics real-world objects. The iPad’s Notes app, for instance, looks like a yellow-lined legal pad set into a stitched, leather-bound datebook. The Calendar app is meant to look like a paper datebook, and when you advance to the next day, you see a hokey page-turn animation. One of the worst offenders is Apple’s Podcasts app. When you press play, the app displays a comical animation of a reel-to-reel tape deck:

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Interface designers have been fretting about Apple’s turn toward faux-real imagery for a long time. There’s even a term for it—designers call it skeuomorphism, though as I’ll explain, that term has been widely misused in the raging debates about Apple’s software. And yes, the debates have been raging, not just among design cognoscenti outside Apple, but reportedly within the company as well.

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Steve Jobs was a fan of software that looked like its real-world analogue. He was especially fond of making programs that aped the textures of fine, expensive materials. In September, Fast Company’s Austin Carr reported that the leather stitching in iCal, the Mac’s calendar program, was based on the leather in Jobs’ Gulfstream jet. After Jobs’ death, Forstall become the company’s biggest proponent of skeuomorphism, much to the chagrin of the firm’s designers. "It’s visual masturbation," one former Apple user-interface designer told Fast Company’s Carr. "It’s like the designers are flexing their muscles to show you how good of a visual rendering they can do of a physical object. Who cares?"

The anti-Jobs, anti-Forstall, anti-skeuomorph crowd sees Jony Ive as their savior. The legendary, beloved chief of Apple’s hardware team—Ive is the lead designer of the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and many other products—has now been promoted to head design across the company, putting him in charge of the look of both hardware and software. And Ive, according to reports, hates skeuomorphic design. “You can be sure that the next generation of iOS and OS X will have Jony’s industrial design aesthetic all over them,” one anonymous Apple designer told the New York Times this week. “Clean edges, flat surfaces will likely replace the textures that are all over the place right now.”

To which I’ve got one thing to say: Please, Jony, don’t do it! Yes, some of Apple’s software has become a bit corny. (I’m looking at your cheap-casino green felt, Game Center!) But those who advocate throwing out real-world textures and visual metaphors are missing something important. As designer Tobias Bjerrome Ahlin points out, when it’s used appropriately, skeuomorphic design can give users a quick sense of what an app does. This is especially true for nonexperts. How do you convey to someone that Notes is where you jot down a grocery list but Pages is where you type up a book report? If both apps showed you nothing but a blank screen, a novice wouldn’t know what to do. But since it looks like a notebook, Notes doesn’t even need a help screen. Hokey as it is, the legal pad and ugly handwriting font tell the whole story in a split second: Notes is for jotting things down.

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There’s an even larger reason to use real-world design metaphors: They add emotional depth to software. If Jony Ive really does replace iOS’s textures with clean edges and flat surfaces, he won’t be breaking much new ground in the mobile world. That’s because iOS’ two main rivals, Android and Windows Phone, are already dominated by a flat, clean look. Indeed, Microsoft, in particular, has made its distaste for skeuomorphism one of its primary design philosophies, and you can find that aesthetic across the firm’s products. If you want two-dimensional design, Steve Ballmer has got a helluva deal for you.

I’m on record as liking the look and feel of Microsoft’s new designs, but I also suspect that, as a tech enthusiast, I’m not representative of most mainstream users. While Windows Phone’s flat, two-dimensional design is attractive, I can see how it could strike many people as cold and uninviting. Everything about iOS, on the other hand, feels playful, friendly, and nonthreatening. This is in no small part due to Apple’s liberal use of skeuomorphs. Think of it as the difference between dining at Per Se and at Applebee’s: Yes, nobody would ever rank the weeknight diner over the Michelin three-star restaurant. But you’ll never have to worry about your attire or your table manners at Applebee’s. Everything about the place, from the lighting to the waiter’s uniforms, is designed to suggest that you’re in a low-stakes environment. That’s the same function of the leather stitching in the Calendar app. It’s not elegant, but it sure is friendly.

Or, for a better example of the advantage of skeuomorphs, compare the iPhone's calculator, on the left, to the one used in Windows Phone, on the right:

The iPhone's calculator (left), and Windows Phone's calculator (right)
The iPhone's calculator (left), and Windows Phone's calculator (right)

Technically, “skeuomorphic” design refers to software that mimics the elements in an older device that were functionally necessary for that device to work. In that way, the iPhone calculator’s three-dimensional buttons are an archetypal example of skeuomorphism. You needed three-dimensional buttons in physical calculators; on a flat screen, 3-D buttons aren’t necessary. (On the other hand, leather stitching in the Calendar app isn’t skeuomorphic, because the leather isn’t functional, just decorative.)

The iPhone calculator’s skeuomorphism doesn’t add any extra functionality to the app, nor does it convey any extra information about what the app does (as skeuomorphism does for Notes). Its only purpose, then, is emotional: The calculator’s three-dimensional buttons (which, it turns out, are a tribute to an iconic Braun pocket calculator) make the calculator feel approachable. This becomes obvious when you look at Windows’ calculator: Without the shadows on the buttons, it looks anodyne, lacking in personality. Now, I bet there are many readers who like that look, who feel that a calculator app should be anodyne. To me, though, that seems like an acquired taste, not a mainstream instinct.

On Thursday morning, I called up Andrew Allen, one of the co-founders of a software company called fiftythree. Allen’s firm makes one of my favorite iPad apps, a drawing program called Paper. Fiftythree is unabashedly fond of skeuomorphism: When you start up Paper, you’re shown a slate of beautiful, photorealistic notebooks. Your next step is to pick a book and draw. When you tap one of the books, it flips open to reveal a sheaf of journal paper—and when you swipe your finger across the pages, they turn like the pages of a real-life flipbook.

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I asked Allen why his team had created the program this way. After all, they could have designed for function alone, placing a big Plus button on the home screen. Open the app, click the Plus button, and start drawing. “When people talk about skeuomorphism, they’re often talking about functionality—maintaining ornaments of the past even though they no longer have function,” he says. “But that’s taking a very narrow view of design. They’re forgetting about the emotional impact, the higher-level needs that we satisfy through design. So for us, the idea of showing a journal satisfies emotional aspects you couldn’t through a Plus button. We wanted to bring back a journal with sequential pages—bring the user back to a familiar place.”

And that’s really the main advantage of skeuomorphic designs: They remind us of stuff we already know, and stuff we already know feels comfortable. I hope Jony Ive keeps this in mind as he goes about revamping iOS. It’s true that iOS’s apps have gotten a little over the top, and they could do with some cleaning up. But it would be a bad idea to remove textures and visual metaphors. Mobile computers are very new things, and they make a lot of people instantly uncomfortable. iOS, for all its hokiness, puts people at ease. And that’s no small thing.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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