iOS 7: The Skeuomorph Triumphant

iOS 7 had one thing to prove, and in the week since it’s been announced it’s certainly proven it: that nobody really knew what they were saying when they screamed for the death of skeuomorphism.

From the Oxford Dictionary

Skeuomorph (Noun)

  • An object or feature that imitates the design of a similar artifact made from another material.
  • (Computing) An element of a graphical user interface that mimics a physical object.

I include this definition because it’s something that seemingly very few have actually taken the time to look at. Because if you have this definition in your head, you can’t look at iOS 7 and say that the skeuomorphism is gone.

As a matter of fact, you can’t look at iOS 7 without realizing that there’s more of the stuff now than there ever was before.

The Old and the New

Last autumn, when Scott Forstall was publicly ousted from Apple and Jony Ive took the reigns of “human interface,” there was much talk about “honest” design - the idea that for something to be well-designed meant that it was true to itself, built to reflect its function. Crafted to an explicit purpose, without going overboard or not going far enough.

It’s pretty easy to imagine physical devices that meet these specifications. Just reading the above paragraph conjures up mental images of Dieter Rams alarm clocks and Sori Yanagi flatware. This is a concept we’re used to. Physical things that are designed to do one physical thing can commit to that.

But what happens with something as ephemeral as software on a touchscreen? Beyond that, what happens with something like an operating system, which in addition to providing no haptic feedback at all, has to be able perform to a million different tasks?

It took longer for humanity to create software than it did to create physical things. It was simply harder to do. This trend is reflected in design: we’ve gotten very good at designing our physical things in an honest way, but we’re just beginning to get a grip on how to do the same with software.

And Apple, with iOS 7, is showing us how it’s done.

It’s kind of funny: all of tech punditry was calling for Apple to drop their skeuomorphic design, and when Apple actually brought it to a whole new level, everyone clapped each other on the back, claiming “mission accomplished” just because it looked different than it did before.

In reality, most of these people simply didn’t like the fashion of iOS, and wanted something different. “Skeuomorphism” was an inaccurate term for what they wanted to change, but it was a rallying point that sounded fancy, was soon dropped into conversations as a synonym for “The way iOS 6 looks.” When the look changed, the automatic assumption was that the skeuomorphism was gone - and all around the internet we saw a wave of knee-jerk reaction articles celebrating its apparent demise.

But it hasn’t met its demise. It’s just gone from level one to level two.

The Training Wheels Come Off

John Gruber, I think, was more right than he knows when he predicted:

The primary problem Apple faced with the iPhone in 2007 was building familiarity with a new way of using computers. That problem has now been solved. It is time to solve new problems.

The training wheels can now come off. That’s what I think Apple is going to do tomorrow.

In 2007, Apple needed to teach people how to use these devices. This was something new. The fashion of their skeuomorphs reflected this, and resulted in a user interface that, six years later, would be identified as disjointed and inconsistent. What made sense then no longer makes sense: yes, it’s useful that the iPad Notes app looks like a notepad, but we get it. We don’t need that anymore.

So now, in 2013, Apple’s changing things up. They’re unifying their design language, by shifting the focus of their real-life imitation. It's the biggest and most meaningful change Apple's ever given to their operating system:

Instead of each app imitating a real-life object, the entire operating system now imitates a the smartphone that it’s running on.

This is the ultimate in “honest” software design.

A Song of Glass and Light

In 2007, Apple said “Look, a notes app! You know what this is because we made it look like a notepad.”

In 2013, Apple is saying “Look, a notes app! you know what this is because you’re using a smartphone.”

The glass that we tap to input and receive data, emulated by the glass in the FaceTime app, the glass volume indicators, the glass Command Center, and the glass Notification Center.

The backlight that allows us to use our phones anywhere we are, emulated by the translucency of the glass interface objects listed above. The Notification Center is darker than the Command Center because the Notification Center fills the entire screen, blocking out all of the light and dimming the screen as a closed shade would dim a room.

The bubbly “gloss” is gone, because it was not honest - the gloss suggested an external light source, shining down on the icons. The translucency suggests a backlight, which is the truth.

Even the animations of the operating system are on a newer, more honest level. When you open an app, the phone zooms into the icon, which transforms into the application. Pressing the home button zooms you back out in the reverse of that animation. Folders are now zoomed in on, instead of opened up by cracking the home screen open.

The strained metaphor of the “springboard” has been fixed - before WWDC, what we saw was a concept that made a lot of sense in 2007 (a bunch of icons) with a whole lot of tacked-on features that didn’t make conceptual sense: linen multitasking below the screen, a linen dropdown with notifications, and folders that split the homescreen to reveal a linen catalog of apps.

2013 is a restart, allowing Apple to tightly integrate into the main design those features that, before, were products of “Oh, crap, where do we put this 2010 and 2011 functionality on our 2007 operating system?”

The Skeuomorph Triumphant

The hardware and the software of the iPhone have merged, creating something completely new. But skeuomorphism is not dead - it is triumphant. It is ascendant. It is new, it is fresh, it is beautiful, and it is here to stay. It gives you a visceral feeling using the phone. The new physics and the design language focused on glass and light give you a permanent sense of where you are, show you where you’re going and where you’ve been, and make using your phone fun in a way it hasn’t been since the launch of the App Store in 2007.

This is the ultimate design victory of iOS 7.

Yes, the Safari icon is kind of ugly. No, the Game Center icon doesn’t really match the aesthetic. And I know, the Calendar is a bit less information-dense than it used to be. This is a beta, and all of these things are small details that will be buffed out before release.

The important part is that you’re going to spend hours scrolling through the Messages app, watching the bubbles crash into each other. You’re going to stand in line at Starbucks, tilting your phone around to look at the homescreen parallax. You’re going to smile when you discover that when you lock your phone in the Notification Center, the blurred screen behind the shade goes dark before the whole screen shuts off, as if the phone is shutting off layer by layer from the inside out.

And trust me on this: even if you don’t love the way it looks right now, you’re going to love the way it feels.