‘Rift’ within Apple over skeuomorphism fetish

Ah, skeuomorphism – my favourite punching bag. Austin Carr has spoken to former Apple designers and people within the company, and they’re all confirming there’s a rift within Cupertino between people who want to move away from skeuomorphism, and people who want to retain it as much as possible, and even want to expand it. Since I’ve long hoped for Apple to ditch this “visual masturbation”, as one former Apple designer calls it, I’m happy to learn not the entire company supports skeuomorphism.

As part of an investigative article into Microsoft’s sharp and clear move away from skeuomorphism with its Metro user interface, Carr also talked to several people within Apple, as well as former Apple designers. “It’s visual masturbation,” a former senior UI designer at Apple who worked closely with Steve Jobs told 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?”

I’ve always found the rift between Apple’s hardware and software design to be curious. I may find Apple’s recent hardware design to be a bit boring and bland, but at least it’s solid, well-defined, and far, far from ugly. It’s minimalist, almost cold and hospital-like. This stands in sharp contrast to Apple’s software design, which seems to be designed by people hell-bent on injecting as much of Microsoft Bob into iOS and OS X as possible.

Compared to the clean, fresh, and distinctive characteristics of Holo, and the sheer minimalism, sharpness and almost MS-DOS-like focus on typography of Metro, iOS and OS X feel condescending, childish, and, considering it hasn’t changed in five years, considerably outdated. iOS is getting that vibe Windows had in the late ’90s and 2000s; afraid of change, afraid to move forward, afraid to offend existing users. Considering iOS 6 shows no sign of change, we’ll be stuck with this for at least another year.

As it turns out, Carr has found out (confirmed by John Gruber) that I’m not alone. There’s a rift within Apple about this very issue, and it’s bubbling to the surface.

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. “iCal’s leather-stitching was literally based on a texture in his Gulfstream jet,” says the former senior UI designer. “There was lots of internal email among UI designers at Apple saying this was just embarrassing, just terrible.”

For now, the skeuomorphism group within Apple seems to be the winning side. Forstall recently demoed an animated paper shredder for iOS 6, which will animate the deleting of e-tickets and coupons. This goes far, far beyond “visual masturbation”, and has even long passed tacky station – this is just downright stupid. No wonder Jony Ive – forever my respect for the Cube – isn’t enamoured with this nonsense.

A common argument in favour of Apple’s fetish with skeuomorphism are Apple’s sales figures. If it’s such a problem, then why is it selling so well? This, of course, is a silly argument. Just as Windows’ popularity doesn’t mean it’s the best desktop operating system, iOS’ popularity doesn’t mean skeuomorphism is the best way to design software. Heck, my own computer illiterate father barked in disbelief when I upgraded his iMac and he was confronted with the new iCal for the first time.

While the rift Carr has uncovered by no means signals the end of skeuomorphism in Apple, it’s at least a positive sign the company is aware of the issue. Let’s see which of the two camps gains the upper hand.


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