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Tuesday
Apr192011

In Defence of Skeuomorphic Design – Mostly

There's been a lot of noise about the rise of skeuomorphic design in graphical user interfaces (GUIs) of late. Mostly because with the rise in use of touch interfaces and a concurrent increase in computational power and graphical capabilities, designers have been given the freedom to better explore the range of options in how a human being interfaces with a machine.

A skeuomorph is a term taken from archeology, where a new object is created which has taken on or even mimics characteristics taken from an old object, even if these characteristics offer no discernible function. An example in car design would be the classic vinyl "landau" roof which mimics classic coach building design cues from horse and cart days, even simulating a convertible roof when the roof is fixed. For this reason, skeuomorphs are quite often firmly placed in the world of kitsch and low grade faux design.

In computing, the first examples of skeuomorphic design I remember were quite often music applications such as Propellerheads' Rebirth and Reason during the 1990's, which imitated the design of real world electronic instruments both in front and behind. You could virtually route audio and CV cables from one piece of "equipment" to another, just as you would behind a real world audio rack. In fact, something that is rarely recognised in this discussion is that skeuomorphism in computing has ALWAYS been with us, right from the first Macintosh GUI with it's virtual buttons, folders and documents in a desktop context.

Still the most recent proponent of skeuomorphic GUI design, has been Apple. iOS contains a huge number of examples and the large number of apps that operate in that ecosystem, even more. A good example is the in-built voice recorder iPhone app that features a large classic vacuum microphone on screen during recording. Apple's iOS contains examples of both how skeuomorphic design can benefit, as well as hinder, user comprehension.

The benefits of skeuomorphic design are manifest. By imitating a real world object, the functionality of that real world object is implied and may be acted upon without instruction. A virtual keyboard needs no instruction to tap the rectangular black and white regions to play a note. A virtual drum kit or guitar's function is obvious at first glance. In fact, the beauty of iOS's Garage Band is that so much complex functionality is implied through skeuomorphism and needs no explanation. Real world experience teaches you operation.

On the other hand, iOS's contacts app also shows how it SHOULDN'T be done. This app mimics a real world paper contacts diary with pages containing contact information. Implied information is obvious. If you have pages then you must be able to turn pages, only… you can't. Swiping the page to turn it (as you can with iBooks) merely scrolls you through a list contained on a "paper" page which, in itself, is a visual disconnect. Skeuomorphism works great when the virtual world is in harmony with the real world. Where it isn't, skeuomorphism has failed and reverts to mere visual adornment. IOS's calendar application with leather bound regions and fake ripped paper as days and months roll by, is falling into the same trap.

However Apple will probably argue that even such superficial adornment offers another benefit. The warmth and familiarity of past experience expressed on a screen. Nostalgic design offering comfort and none of the conventional cold and confrontational computing experience. To an extent they are right, but for a company priding itself on it's faultless taste, it's rather an odd approach to take.

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