The management shakeup at Apple thrust a spotlight on a little known concept (at least to non-graphic designers), called skeuomorphic design. The late Steve Jobs and his recently ousted protégé Scott Forstall championed the concept, while Apple design guru Jony Ive isn’t a fan.
Looks like the skeuomorphic crowd has left the Apple building.
What exactly is skeuomorphic design? It’s a visual approach that incorporates a real-world (some would say, “old”) look and feel into the digital world, such as the lacquered wood and green felt of a real casino table in the Game Center app, wooden bookshelves in the iBooks app, and even flipping pages in digital books.
Apple fans are largely divided on the topic of skeuomorphic design. Some like the idea of bridging the old real world and the new digital one. Others consider real-world references to be too traditional on an iPad, which they consider a new kind of canvass for creative digital design.
But these two ways of thinking are limited because they focus solely on certain demographics, says Silicon Valley graphic designer Steve Yamaguma of Design2Market. Young people, for instance, don’t need outdated metaphors to help them embrace apps. Older people, though, might appreciate visual cues.
“The click of a camera, do we really need that? For most people, I think so,” Yamaguma says. “It gives the sense of a real camera, the sensation of capturing an image, and also signals that the shot was taken.”
Of course, a new generation that hasn’t used a real camera with a mechanical shutter that clicks or hasn’t read a lot of printed books might find skeuomorphic design unappealing. (Oddly, skeuomorphic design has been pushed to the extremes with the photo sharing app Instagram, which gives digital photos an “old” look and enjoys popularity among the younger generation.)
Given Apple’s global audience, Yamaguma believes Apple should embrace a broad range of design concepts, including the use of skeuomorphic design where it makes sense—at least for now.
“Design is dynamic and not a straight line,” he says, which is why Apple designers shouldn’t take sides when it comes to concepts such as skeuomorphic design. But he admits that certain concepts might outlive their usefulness.
“In time, those [skeuomorphic] metaphors will become less and less important,” Yamaguma says. “There may be a time when they do become obsolete.”
Tom Kaneshige has been covering business and technology in Silicon Valley for two decades. As senior online writer at CIO.com, Tom covers Silicon Valley culture, BYOD and consumer tech in the enterprise.