Skeuomorphism over function: when good designs go bad.

All the back and forth on Apple's recently passed and future design philosophies has made me think about where Apple actually went wrong. I think the problem is that Apple inadvertently created a negative association for skeuomorphism. It became the target for what is more accurately a case of form over function.

It goes back to OS X Lion:

  • iCal had its functionality messed with and was made to look more like a desk calendar. Those things aren't actually related - you can strip out the texture and the calendar still works the same, new way - but it's a negative association. The skeuomorphic calendar doesn't work 'right'.
  • Address Book was broken for the sake of skeuomorphism. It doesn't work as well as it used to because they made it look like an actual address book. Very strong negative association. The skeuomorphic address book is broken.

Then we get some iOS apps:

  • Find My Friends. It isn't even really skeuomorphic. It has a nonsensical texture. The leather doesn't really correspond to a thing in the real world. What is it, the leather book where I locate my friends? But the term has caught on, and the app is pretty boring, despite the keynote hype for it. Negative association. Disappointing 'skeuomorphic' app.
  • Podcasts. Podcasts was a poor app when it was first released*. It didn't work well. It crashed. It was hideously slow on my iPhone 4. In fact, it seemed that part of the reason it was so slow was the reel to reel animation they built into the app. Like address book, the skeuomorphism actively makes the app worse. Huge negative association. Broken skeuomorphic app.

Add it all up and you end up with a group of people with a negative impression of skeuomorphism (even if not everyone gets exactly what it is). Yes, there are some neutral - maybe even positive - examples like GameCenter, or the volume knobs, or half of iOS but these are nice flourishes going up against actually broken apps.

The problem isn't skeuomorphism. Not directly. The problem is just that Apple went too far towards form over function. The skeuomorphic form caused conflicts with the software function, and Apple chose the form. Skeuomorphism isn't inherently bad. The trades they made were bad. They were unbalanced. And I say this as someone who is generally willing to sacrifice some function for his form. When I see the Podcasts app, all I can think is, "You've spent all this time making an app that looks nice but doesn't actually work."

We need to get over the idea that skeuomorphism is bad, but Apple needs to help us by making functional apps; wrapped in leather or not.

*I stopped using the Podcasts app after aout three days, and eventually I stopped using an iPhone as a daily driver. I can't speak to the current quality of the Podcasts app.