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A Map, Not a Territory: Apple and the End of Skeuomorphism

by Mostafa Heddaya on June 27, 2013

Faux wood and felt, as seen here in Apple iOS's Game Center app, have been a hallmark of Apple's skeuomorphic visual philosophy — but no longer, according to a recent announcement. (screenshot by the author)

Faux wood and felt, as seen here in the iOS Game Center app, have been a hallmark of Apple’s skeuomorphic visual philosophy — but no longer, according to a recent announcement. (screenshot by the author)

In an influential special issue of Scientific American appearing in 1991, the computer scientist Mark Weiser wrote of the challenges in integrating computers to “the natural human environment” such that they “vanish into the background.” Though not quite a theory of user interface design, Weiser’s notion of “ubiquitous computing” remains definitive in its vision for computing as a pervasive but unobtrusive element of the human experience.

So, when earlier this month Apple announced the end of skeuomorphism in iOS — the use of real-world objects and textures as visual elements — at the annual World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco, it was a significant shift in the praxis of computing. In a speech noted by TechCrunch and Motherboard as unusually dismissive of Apple’s previous commitment to user interface elements that mimic the appearance of familiar objects — brushed chrome, pebbled leather, green felt, yellow lined paper — Craig Federighi, senior vice president of iOS software, held no punches in expressing the obsolescence of his predecessor Scott Forstall’s vision. “Look! Even without all that stitching, everything just stays in place,” Federighi cawed.

The Xerox Star Workstation, developed at PARC, introduced the first commercial GUI (image via Wikimedia)

The Xerox Star Workstation, developed at PARC, introduced the first commercial graphical user interface. (image via Wikimedia)

The idea that computer interfaces should mimic elements of the corporeal world is fundamentally less a matter of aesthetic philosophy as it is a practical matter, a visual scheme which holds computers accountable to the world that preceded them, the world familiar to the uninitiated user. The very idea of a graphical user interface, a layer of software mediating the code-human interaction, relies on this question of aesthetic representation, with early iterations of such interfaces at Stanford and, later, at Xerox’s PARC, developing the “windows” scheme that remains in use to this day. PARC also pioneered many other familiar elements, including icons and check boxes, and famously invented the mouse, which was allegedly lifted by Apple after Steve Jobs visited PARC in 1979.

What’s interesting about Apple’s shift away from Forstall’s very particular school of operating system skeuomorphism is that it associates the failure of an entire idea — that operating systems ought to mimic the function of objects in the physical world — with a very particularized notion of that idea. After all, it’s easy to hate the Forstall-era vision that Apple packed into iOS, with its ersatz green felts, aggressive leathers, and tacky notepads. (The font used in the Notes app was always especially mystifying to me, given Jobs’s renowned typographic fastidiousness.) But rather than give up entirely on the idea of using everyday objects as visual cues in their operating system, Apple might have considered finding more interesting skeuomorphic alternatives. That Apple thinks now is the time to destroy the oldest idol in the world of visual computing smacks not of foresight but of arrogance.

Screen Shot 2013-06-27 at 7.34.59 AM

The website of San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions, recently named the Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation and similarly lauded by Bon Appetit, has a classically skeuomorphic faux-canvas background.

Skeuomorphism itself predates computing — the term originated in the 19th century — and simply refers to the idea of vestigial functions in aesthetic design. In an article on the topic published yesterday, The Economist cites the computer scientist Dan O’Hara’s example of “pottery jugs from Zaire, the handles of which are shaped in imitation of handles of traditional jugs customarily made of cord.” The idea of vestigial function is a useful one when we consider current trends in visual culture. A quick assessment of America’s cultural lodestars, from San Francisco to Brooklyn, reveals an aesthetic obsession with a particular vision of authenticity, a sensibility firmly grounded in historical precedent.

Accurate or not, old-timey fonts, whimsical Victorian etchings, and a reliance on “heritage” materials in everything from fashion to construction reveals a deeply conservative visual culture — despite what might be going on at the Museum of Modern Art or the New Museum (or, perhaps more provocatively, as a reaction to it). This isn’t to say that these are visual cues to be replicated in operating systems, but the observation reveals something altogether more basic, that the things elemental to our latest sense of visual comfort remain very old.

This fact doesn’t require a knee-jerk reaction in the world of contemporary operating system design, merely an acknowledgment of our perpetual sense of visual vertigo in the face of an ever-shifting paradigm of human-machine interaction. And these machines will always exist with reference to another, older world — as Mark Weiser wrote in the aforementioned essay, computer interface design, unlike the problem of virtual reality, aims to construct “a map, not a territory.” This isn’t a new thought. Vannevar Bush, an engineer, inventor, and early theorist of the age of mechanization, covered this very topic for The Atlantic Monthly in 1945, observing: “Our present languages are not especially adapted to this sort of mechanization.”

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  • ErrnBrrn

    That looks like its gonna be good. Wow.

    http://www.Go-Anon.tk

  • Lady Ann

    Speaking for myself and possibly others, we apple owners are so used to their operating systems that we can “figure it out” without skeuomorphism. As humans, we evolve. We no longer need our vestigial tails either (we got ‘em, they’ve just shortened). But, it would be fun if apple used completely random icons/backgrounds and really messed with our minds.

  • Gary van der Steur

    Forstall’s skeuomorphism is/was harmless and witty, and provided work for Over Designers everywhere. But I’ll be happy with the vanilla look of the future if the apps themselves work better. Many of Apple’s own iOS6 apps aren’t that great to use, in my opinion, and that has nothing to do with aggressive leathers.

    Also, while I’m sure you don’t mean to equate State Bird Provision’s website with the user interface of an operating system, I’m not sure why it’s in the article. (Or why it has such an provocative caption. Are we to believe the James Beard Foundation and Bon Appetit are misguided in some way, or are you just presenting creds?) At any rate, SBP’s site, by presenting a visually rich environment, is bucking a trend that defaults to austerity and feels geared for the ease of robots and spiders, not humans.

    • Mostafa Heddaya

      The State Bird thing is purely an example. Just presenting credentials — am not at all commenting on whether the design is good or bad (though I do like it), merely that it happens to embody skeuomorphic design that is also historical or “old-timey,” which suited the argument being made.

  • Kerry Kugelman

    I second Gary’s motion: don’t fret so much over cosmetics, and focus instead on improving the functionality and user experience of the OS and apps/programs. Keep the danged Address Book/Contacts interface, but give us better integration across other programs; with iCloud (if only!); and don’t jettison legacy connectors so quickly when the new cords & adaptors are running $30-50 each. That *is* arrogant.

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