June 29, 2010
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Why Apple Goes All Skeuomorph

Adam Greenfield launches an intelligent complaint about Apple’s new penchant for silly skeuomorphic interface decorations:

Dig, however, the page-curl animation (beautifully rendered, but stick-in-the-craw wrong) in iBooks. Feast your eyes on the leatherette Executive Desk Blotter nonsense going on in Notes. Open up Calendar, with its twee spiral-bound conceit, and gaze into the face of Fear. What are these but misguided coddles, patronizing crutches, interactively horseless carriages?

What explains these blunders? And why do we often forgive them in Apple designs? I think there are three separate motivators:

  1. Atavistic interfaces, like those silly spiral bindings, are comforting and readily understood by newspaper and magazine reviewers. Often, these reviewers are tremendously influential and, at the same time, both ignorant and uninterested. Because the spiral binding is familiar and comforting, they feel comfortable.
  2. Apple’s experience model is heavily weighted toward first encounters. Apple products demo well. First, they look terrific in the Steve’s keynote. Then, they look great in the store. And then comes the Out Of The Box Experience. Apple’s aesthetic is heavily weighted toward those first few minutes.
  3. Modern fashion in interface design strongly favors polish and craft. I doubt the general public cares a lot about pixel-perfect interfaces, but pros do; the tiny bits of chaff with their perfect little cast shadows on your iPad calendar are a signal from one haute couture designer to her colleagues. In other words, tiny skeuomorphs are the new easter eggs.

Greenfield identifies the culprit correctly: the reason these three factors are permitted to distort the design is Fear. Indeed, we’re glad to see some silliness and flummery in these interfaces because we know they are silly and the reassure us of our superiority to those funny little people who create them.