Apple Doesn't Need Tutoring on Software Design

Apple uses a particular kind of software design in iOS that helps users become accustomed to a new environment. It's born of the Steve Jobs philosophy that computers should be at the intersection of technology and the humanities. Already, however, there are some who would propose abandoning that valuable concept in favor of... well, nothing really great.

Recently, there was a popular article by Austin Carr entitled, "Will Apple’s Tacky Software-Design Philosophy Cause A Revolt?" The article explained that the UI design concept that has fake leather, stitches, torn paper, brushed aluminum, wooden bookshelves and so on is an anachronism and should be abandoned.

In design terms, what we're talking about here is skeuomorphism , that is, the invocation of "an object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artifact in another material." A good example of skeuomorphism, and one that's often criticized, is the leather and torn paper look in the iOS calendar app, especially when it got carried over to OS X.

The Critique

Here's the gist of Mr. Carr's argument. The last two are direct quotes from designer Gadi Amit.

  • Traditional visual metaphors no longer translate to modern users.
  • Excessive digital imitation of real-world objects creates confusion among users.
  • Metaphors that were, in the early days of the computing revolution, relevant to assisting people in bridging the gap between the physical and digital worlds, are no longer necessary.
  • Our culture has changed. We don’t need translation of the digital medium in mechanical real-life terms. It’s an old-fashioned paradigm.

Elaborating further, a former senior UI designer at Apple opined, "There's no need to add glitter if the product can stand on its own."

The first thing I noticed about these arguments by Mr. Carr was the unending praise for the alternative method used in Windows 8. In the article, there are signposts that the author is attracted to the more sterile Windows alternative: "It’s Microsoft’s stripped-down UI that many find appealing -- a welcome alternative to Apple’s approach to software design.... In our feature story on Microsoft, you’ll learn how design is changing Redmond for the better. And you’ll also learn why designers from Gadi Amit to Yves Béhar to former Apple insiders are praising the company’s newfound design DNA."

At least we know where Mr. Carr stands.

I think it's valuable to have identified an alternative, newer concept when critiquing another more traditional way of thinking. But I also think that being enamored with the Microsoft alternative kept Mr. Carr from exploring why Apple does what it does. The use of the word "tacky" in the title gives us a clue that there will be no exploration of why Apple's software looks like it does and why, perhaps, skeuomorphism has redeeming values.

Arguing for Skeuomorphism

There's no question that Apple was the leader, igniting the concept of the modern tablet. That revolutionary new user interface of gestures: swipes and pinches and taps on a live, touch-sensitive screen that doesn't need a stylus launched Apple into the Post-PC era. (Notably, Apple is spending a lot of time in court trying to defend those very patents.)

In this new iOS, new users would be confronted with a whole new way of doing things, a new experience for touching, gestures, launching and organizing apps, discovering the absence of visible file system, and so on. Faced with those new and possibly confusing visual cues, it was essential to build into the UI familiar visual elements that suggested how an app works.

A good example is iBooks. The appearance of the stacked edges of the book pages suggests where to touch and swipe the current page in order to turn to the next one. In essence, the skeuomorphic design here means that the newbie user already, instinctively knows how to turn a page.

Other uses are not so convincing, but are more ornamental, like the stitches in the leather of the calendar. But even then, those stitches send a subliminal message. This app is warm, artistic, thoughtful. A careful designer put something of him/herself into this instead of leaving it naked, not fully cooked. It goes all the way back to 1984 and the icon designs of Susan Kare.

In fact, in contrast to the criticism above, the app cannot stand on its own, and both it and the user still need help. Here's the reason why.

A critical concept is the suggestion that this app, a calendar or a contacts list, is the same as what we had before but better. Some attachment back to reality offsets that jarring transition. That same but better idea (for example, durability, searching, easy editing, sharing) is critical when it comes to convincing new users that the iPad is better than what they had before, even if it's orders of magnitude more expensive than a paper calendar or day planner. It doesn't pay to be too alien and sterile with newbies.

The Genius of Steve Jobs

Apple's co-founder is well known for his passion about design. It started at Reed College with calligraphy and endured for the rest of his life. He felt that technology should never be sterile for its own sake, but rather reflect taste, art, and the human side. As Mr. Jobs described it, computer design should be at the intersection of technology and the humanities. In this New Yorker article, it's all explained.

But what set all of Jobs’s companies apart,  from Pixar to NeXT to Apple, was, indeed, an insistence that computer scientists must work together with artists and designers—that the best ideas emerge from the intersection of technology and the humanities. 'One of the greatest achievements at Pixar was that we brought these two cultures together and got them working side by side,' Jobs said in 2003."

Scott Forstall must have that Jobs dictum on the top of his whiteboard, outlined in red.

Apple's Imperative

Apple, Inc. had the initiative and the vision to bring us the first really usable tablet that set the modern standard and launched the Post-PC era. In order to do that, Apple and Mr. Jobs, who supervised the development of the iPad, depended on fundamental design elements, including skeuomorphism, a valuable tool that would help Apple lead the world into this new era.

There may come a day when our children or grandchildren no longer need this kind of design element. Indeed, they may be working on completely different kinds of platforms with Siri's own descendent. For now, however, it's vital to understand why this design concept is so fundamental for the tens, hundreds of millions of new iPad customers.

Microsoft, years late with its own semi-tablet, is seeking to go its own way, perhaps feeling that the very design principles that made the iPad so astoundingly successful now need to be dismissed. The reason Microsoft can even try that is because they're standing on the shoulders of what Apple has done in iOS since 2007 and the iPad since 2010. As an added plus, it avoids patent litigation.

In contrast, Apple's design principles are being blatantly copied by aggressive tablet makers because copying something that's great usually makes money. Both camps are on thin ice, courtesy of Apple's genius.

In the final analysis, Apple did something brilliant with the iOS design, and the role that skeuomorphism played, in time, will run its course. But not today, and not even in the next few years.