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An End to Green Felt: iOS 7 and the Vanishing Myth of Skeuomorphism

"We completely ran out of green felt," quipped Apple's Senior Vice President of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi on Monday. He was speaking at WWDC 2013 and, of course, he was referring to the eradication of what has almost universally been referred to as "skeuomorphism" from iOS.

With the installation of no-nonsense industrial designer Jony Ive in Scott Forstall's old role at the company, many observers were already expecting such a shift to take place with the latest major update of the mobile OS.

For years criticism had been gathering pace of Apple's over-use of tacky wood panelling, stitched leather and other pseudo-antique style references. It just started to look cartoonish and unsophisticated.

The harshest critics suggested that so-called skeuomorphism was poisonous, something which prevented the interface from achieving its true potential - a thing which anchored Apple's product in imagery of the past, not catapulting it into the future.

"One of the great and famous designs of our times is in fact out of date"

"One of the great and famous designs of our times is in fact out of date," said Forbes in 2012.

Crap though some of those designs were by many people's standards, the one thing above all others which made iOS the most successful smartphone user interface of all time was the fact that it was brilliantly simple to use and understand.

Towards the end of last year I wrote a long article for this site about how the strict academic definition of "skeuomorphism" means that the word has essentially been mis-used en masse by millions. That a popular meaning has evolved is not something I'm averse to. But in the second half of that article I argued what the problems with that might be, even if you accept a somewhat bastardised definition.

The amounts of kitsch in pre-7 iterations of iOS is difficult for anyone to defend, but a lot of people - perhaps not designers or techies - liked it. All along so-called skeuomorphism was only ever a way of making a new thing more accessible. The backlash came largely from tech-savvy people who wanted something more advanced and functional. The consequence of their scoffing at "skeuomorphs" was that they appeared to be announcing their membership of an elite - an elite which didn't need the helping hand and cosiness that "skeuomorphism" provided.

iOS7

"I don't need faux textures! PLUG MY BRAIN DIRECTLY INTO THE CPU," is my tl;dr version of many nerdy forum posts which descried the prevalence of physical object metaphors in iOS. If the skeuomorphism debate tells us anything, it tells us about how our connection with an interface defines our sense of personal gratification as a computer user. Are we good at using it? Does it respond satisfyingly to our touch? Do we like looking at it?

So when Apple announced that the green felt really was gone, many nodded quietly in acknowledgement that, finally, slow-to-respond Apple had listened and made the switch.

But wait, is iOS 7 suddenly a better OS for it? The rhetorical question I asked last year is now quite relevant: "Has stylistic divergence led to a better interface experience, or just a different one?" I'm not a developer so haven't been able to try it for myself, but from what I've read and seen of version 7, it certainly seems to incorporate several improvements and alterations which will be very welcome. But it's not perfect.

In particular, the new icon set has drawn a fair bit of negative scrutiny. They're by no means awful, but they stand out as very conscious attempts at departure from the supposedly "skeuomorphic" designs of the past.

"Maybe desperation to respond to the S-word has resulted in an interface that is trying too hard to be different"

But maybe eagerness to make that departure didn't inform a truly intelligent design choice. Maybe desperation to respond to the S-word has resulted in an interface that is trying too hard to be different for the sake of it.

Because this is such a subjective point, and because it takes a while for new designs to settle, I don't plan on writing off iOS 7 yet. But I do think it's fascinating to see a company develop one of the most-loved operating systems in recent memory and then radically transform its appearance apparently off the back of a debate which, if you take my word for it, was always a severely flawed way of discussing the pros and cons of interaction design.

While Apple's software chiefs and the company's exacting, loyal fans toast the death of, "skeuomorphism," I can't help wondering if their old enemy was only ever a scapegoat.

 

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