The Problem of Looking Too Real

Screenshot from fastcodesign.com

Screenshot from fastcodesign.com

Skeuomorphism. It’s a term you’ve probably haven’t heard much, or even at all, but you can see it almost everywhere. You open your bookshelf on your ipad and what do you see? A book shelf… designed to look like what you would see in the real world. That’s skeuomorphism. At least that’s how designers have been using the term, which is inaccurate. It’s actually the mimicking of elements in a former or older device that were functionally necessary. Not necessarily the design looking like a real world object entirely…but I digress.

As many of you Apple product fans might already know, Scott Forstall, one of Apples designers, was fired over using Skeuomorphism.

“After Jobs’ death, Forstall become the company’s biggest proponent of skeuomorphism, much to the chagrin of the firm’s designers. “It’s visual masturbation,” one former Apple user-interface designer told Fast Company’s Carr. “It’s like the designers are flexing their muscles to show you how good of a visual rendering they can do of a physical object. Who cares?”

– Should a Calendar App Look Like a Calendar? By 

Who cares indeed? Is it really that big of a deal to make objects on a screen look like their physical world counterparts? Personally, I don’t think it matters all that much. Real world objects are things users would be familiar with, and though on occasion it’s corny, I honestly feel like they make the apps and interface much more user friendly and quicker to read. People can tell what an app is for when they see a book shelf or a date book calendar, rather than some obscure screen with buttons and gizmos that have little to no indication of their use or function.

Yes, some of Apple’s software has become a bit corny. (I’m looking at your cheap-casino green felt, Game Center!) But those who advocate throwing out real-world textures and visual metaphors are missing something important. As designer Tobias Bjerrome Ahlin points out, when it’s used appropriately, skeuomorphic design can give users a quick sense of what an app does. – Should a Calendar App Look Like a Calendar? By 

Does it matter either way? Is it bad to make screen objects to look like their real world counterparts? The way I see it, if we’re using it daily in reality…why not make it look like it’s reality? Is it’s daily use not real enough for designers to want to make them look real? Because it’s certainly real enough for me. After all, it makes the virtual object more approachable for my generation, which happened to grow up from the transition between pen and paper to desktop. I’m used to using both, but perhaps in more recent generations, it may not matter as much to have any nostalgic allusion to the real world counterpart.

However obvious Apple’s skeuomorphic approach to UI might be, it’s an approach that is hard to argue with. The company is still considered highly innovative, and the success of its products is unprecedented–most would successfully argue that it’s by far the best we have. But aside from aesthetic reaons, it is hard to see how these designs will ever evolve beyond derivative representations. Will they just change color and increase their visual fidelity?  –Can We Please Move Past Apple’s Silly, Faux-Real UIs?  by 

My question is, does it ever have to evolve? If it’s so classic do we need it to “get better” or even change? Perhaps the reason it’s so hard to argue with is because it’s so sustainable? I certainly feel like this is so. The way you can tell if something is designed well is if it can stand the test of time. Bookshelves still have the same structure as they have always had, and though we can change their color or paint them how we like in our homes, we certainly don’t change the structure of them much do we? So why would it be any different on screen. If it’s working well, why strive to change it. I think what we need to figure out is how to identify what is more valuable: sustainable or innovative?

We certainly live in a culture where everyone is striving to be “the next thing.” We automatically think that because we can have something new, we don’t want to hang onto what is sustainable. I’ve had my second generation iPod touch for a fairly long time in comparison to many of my peers. Why? Because what I have works for what I use it for…and it isn’t broken. But are we able to apply this same kind of logic to design? If it’s working, and remains relevant, is it okay to hold onto? Do we really need the next big thing in order to remain relevant, or are we confusing relevant with trendy?

Feel free to let me know what you think. For further reading visit these two articles.

Can We Please Move Past Apple’s Silly, Faux-Real UIs?

Should a Calendar App Look Like a Calendar? – 

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