This isn’t your Dad’s Skeuomorphism.
The design world is one of its periodic panty-bunching upheavals about the new Apple Watch. Apparently, the design has been deemed “skeuomorphic.” This is not the first time Apple has been accused of indulging in skeuomorphic design. But Jony Ive, Apple design guru and noted indoor scarf-wearer was supposed to have purged the skeuomorphic heresy from Cupertino city limits. iOS7 was widely hailed among “those who know” as a return to design excellence based largely on Mr. Ive’s banishment of the drop shadow. “What is skeuomorphism,” you might ask? (Excellent question, imaginary interlocutor.) For present purposes, we can define skeuomorphism as the use of analog elements in digital design in order to make the user interface appear more intuitive.This may be something as simple as a drop shadow to make a button look pushable or a wood grain bookshelf in your iBook application. When you want to insult this kind of design, you call it skeuomorphism. When you want to insult it not as much, you call it mimesis. So why is skeuomorphism/mimesis so bad? Well, a lot of crappy design was done using skeuomorphic elements. The classic examples are Apple’s old yellow pads for note-taking on iOS or that god-awful green felt in the game room. But beyond a few isolated examples of exceptional ugliness, skeuomorphism also violates the basic design credo that form should follow function. But let’s try not to be so rigid about these things. The personal computing revolution represented by the graphical user interface is a triumph of Skeuomorphism that has proven helpful and even healthy. The idea that designers would be shocked (SHOCKED!) to discover that Apple, the company that perfected the GUI, was using Skeuomorphism doesn’t pass the smell test. Technology always ages badly. Today’s cutting edge OS will look absurdly dated a year or two from now. Most users believe this is because the technology advances so rapidly, yielding faster, superior performance with Moore’s Law leading the charge. And that’s somewhat true. However, it is also true that we grow more comfortable with digital tools over time and that comfort allows designers to discard some to the anachronistic elements they originally used to make us comfortable. In this way, we gradually shed Skeuomorphism. Apple’s past design triumphs are due to riding the wave of Skeuomorphism by staying just slightly ahead of it. They are now being criticized because their design sensibility has fallen slightly behind their core users. The problem isn’t that they are Skeuomorphic, it’s that they are more-Skeuomorphic than you are. The design we celebrate today will in time appear to be ridiculously skeuomorphic. We won’t be able to see how right away, because the anachronisms that make us comfortable will feel so natural. As time passes, we will become more comfortable with new functions. When that happens, we will be able to see the textures, shadows and hints that have helped us evolve as users. And then we’ll be ready for another tentative step out of the physical and into a digital world of our own imagination.