“Everything you think you know about skeuomorphism at Apple is wrong” (on Jony Ive)



Big shakeup in Apple leadership: design guru Jony Ive will take on responsibility for everything related to Human Interface, in addition to his work as leader of Industrial Design. He replaces Scott Forstall, a “polarising” manager at Apple, mostly because designers don’t like the so called “skeuomorphism” that Forstall was fond of.

An example of skeuomorphism is the fake stitched leather look that Apple has chosen for some of its apps, most notably the “Contacts app”, which has look and feel of a real world notebook. The fake stitched leather look has sparked intense debate among People With Taste:

Inside Apple, tension has brewed for years over the issue. Apple iOS SVP Scott Forstall is said to push for skeuomorphic design, while industrial designer Jony Ive and other Apple higher-ups are said to oppose the direction. “You could tell who did the product based on how much glitz was in the UI,” says one source intimately familiar with Apple’s design process.

But before Forstall, it was Steve Jobs who encouraged the skeuomorphic approach, some say.

(via Daring Fireball)

Because the issue gained some traction in the blogosphere, it became a Real Problem, and it was also a good tool for journalists to poke fun at almighty Apple. This also from Daring Fireball, a quote from an interview with Ive in The Telegraph. (Note how the journalist manages to mention himself twice, which is the hallmark of great magazine writing):

When I mention the fake stitching, Ive offers a wince but it’s a gesture of sympathy rather than a suggestion that he dislikes such things. At least, that’s how I read it.

But before you go around telling friends at the next dinner party all about how Forstall lost his job to skeuomorphism, designer Sacha Greif would like to give you a few basic facts about the technique. About what it is, but also about what it ISN’T. So pay attention. Might come in handy at the next cocktail party.

Sacha Greif: not everything you think is skeuomorphic is skeuomorphic

First of all, there is nothing wrong with this technique, Greif says:

  • It helps tell these apps apart (“Find My Friends? Oh, right, the one with leather!”).
  • It makes the apps more approachable (“Hmm, this looks just like my real-world address book, it can’t be much harder to use”).
  • It gives Apple apps (and actually, iOS apps in general) a distinctive style (of course, that style will probably seem retro and kitsch in a couple years).

But also: not everything that you think is skeuomorphic actually is. You can only call something skeuomorphic if it mimics the materials or ornamental elements of something that exists in the real world.

Pop quiz: is this skeuomorphism?

jony ive skeuomorphism

If you said “yes” you failed the cocktail party test:

An iPhone app with leather textures and a space background is NOT skeuomorphic. First of all there is no “original” to speak of here, and even if there were I strongly doubt that “original” included a space-time portal to outer space.

Read the entire blog post, with more examples at Sacha Greif’s blog.

Speaking of which, I would really love to read a good blog post on the original Apple designers, namely the design team of Braun. What are they up to these days? If anyone knows, drop us a line.

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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