NYT: Apple Executive Shuffle Could Result in the End of Skeuomorphism


The New York Times notes the recent executive shuffle at Apple, specifically the firing of iOS chief Scott Forstall could lead to the end of skeuomorphism, which many higher ups opposed.


Apple uses digital skeuomorphic design: calendars with faux leather-stitching, bookshelves with wood veneers, fake glass and paper and brushed chrome. These objects retain ornamental elements of the past, derivative iterations — elements that are no longer necessary to the current object’s functions, Fast Company’s Austin Carr emphasizes.

It is an open secret that Scott Forstall was Steve Jobs’ guy, and according to the NYT sources the former Apple CEO

“pushed the company’s software designers to use the linen texture liberally in the software for the company’s mobile devices. He did the same with many other virtual doodads that mimic the appearance and behavior of real-world things, like wooden shelves for organizing newspapers and the page-flipping motion of a book,” according to people who worked with him but declined to be named to avoid Apple’s ire.

Now that Forstall is leaving Apple, the next update will likely shift away from these visual tricks. Jony Ive, who took over direction of Human Interfaces across the company, is also a veteran at Apple: he has long been responsible for the minimalistic design of Apple’s products.

However, as an anonymous source cited by the NYT says

“Ive has made his distaste for the visual ornamentation in Apple’s mobile software known within the company,” according to current and former Apple employees who asked not to be named discussing internal matters.

But Ive isn’t the only one disappointed by Forstall’s choice for software design.

Axel Roesler, associate professor and chairman of the interaction design program at the University of Washington, believes Apple’s software design needs an update: “It has become larded with nostalgia [and] unnecessary visual references to the past”. Criticism is flowing from all over, with designers pointing to a couple apps and icons featuring a visual reference that, for example, people under 40 may have never seen.

A former senior UI designer who worked closely with Steve Jobs at Apple says as cited by Austin Carr:

“It’s visual masturbation. 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?”

“I feel like [Apple] has concentrated too much on mimicking the visual skeuomorphic approach rather than concentrating on the actual functionality.” For example, in iOS 6, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system, Forstall recently demoed an animated paper shredder, which will be used to delete e-tickets and coupons. How many iPhone users have ever actually seen a paper shredder in real life? Is it necessary? Or just visual masturbation? “To me, it’s lipstick on a pig,” says the source intimately familiar with Apple’s design process. “There’s no need to add glitter if the product can stand on its own.”

This translates into the question: what do modern users need? Are the visual metaphors Apple uses really outdated?

According to Yves Béhar, the founder of fuseproject, which is best known for designing the Jawbone and original One Laptop Per Child PC, excessive digital imitation of real-world objects creates confusion among users, as they don’t work like real objects. In addition, visual metaphors could be outmoded in the eyes of many, like Gadi Amit, renown for the Lytro camera and Fitbit design, points out.

The solution? We don’t know yet. But the sources both the NYT and Fast Company cites are amazed by Microsoft’s fresh approach, which distances itself from skeumorphism and puts an accent on a flat user interface that’s minimalist to the core. One thing they fail to mention, however, is that some visual elements, such as mail and camera, are the digital remakes of real objects.

What do you think: Does Apple’s mobile software UI need refreshment? Maybe a more Microsoft-like, simplistic approach suggested by some considering Ive’s minimalistic approach to design?


  • Stephen

    Let’s hope so

  • I was wondering about this myself with Jony Ive taking over. I figured he was likely to be against skeuomorphism. Interesting to hear that others agree.

    Personally, I like the skeuomorphism in Apple’s products simply because it differentiates them from the competition. It’s part of their brand now. You want something that feels nostalgic and familiar? Choose iOS. I think the more futuristic-looking designs from Google and especially Microsoft might scare people off who don’t understand technology. Apple’s designs feel warmer and more approachable. I fear that if they get rid of those aspects, they may loose one of the unique aspects they hold that appeals to many users in the marketplace.

    That being said, I do see the limitations in making everything skeuomorphic. The first version of the Address Book on OS X with the updated skeuomorphic design was awful. They pulled useful functionality (three column layout) out of the app, just because it didn’t fit with the skeuomorphism. As long as they balance each decision with making sure it still works for the needs of the application, I’m fine with it. I personally think it’s kinda pretty.

  • Farids

    Little details, making the iBooks look like a wooden library, or news stand look like what it is, or using shredders, classic studio microphones and compasses isn’t the sign of an outdated OS. Granted, iOS may not have advanced as fast as Android has. But it’s not outdated because of nostalgic accents. Long ago, when computers were nothing but glorified calculators, and I was a university student, I went to buy a computer. It was a custom 286 computer. My uncle, who didn’t know anything about computers, stopped me from buying that model from THAT STORE. When I asked why, he said, “when the guy was showing the inside of that computer, I noticed, 2 different type screws were holding one drive.”. ” The care they’ve taken to put this computer together, or lack of it, is apparent in the detail of how they’ve assembled it. If they haven’t cared enough to use one type of screw for a drive, then they haven’t really cared about the machine they’re selling and supporting!”, he added. He was right. I don’t really care about these little details in iOS as far as user interface goes. But these little details, when looking at the, say, iPhone or iPad body, user interface and its little details, or even the box design and the way the included stuff are organized in the box, tell me how much love and care has gone into making my Apple computer, tablet, or phone. That’s why I will not buy any other make or brand. That is of course, till that care is no longer present. That day, Apple will be just another brand, not the most exceptional brand in the world it is now.

  • Erik Kappel

    I wouldn’t say a more Microsoft-like approach, rather a more Apple hardware-like approach to it’s software. Microsoft has a beautiful differentiated OS. Apple should should by no means copy their arch rival, but rather veer towards their own brand of minimalism… Which Jony Ive excels at. So let’s hope that’s what we see with him at the helm of iOS now!

  • Erik Kappel

    Wow. Sorry for all the mistakes in that one 😛

  • Joey Connick

    This whole notion that no one under the age of X will have seen a paper shredder is ridiculous! There have been paper shredders in every office I’ve ever worked in–do people not work in offices anymore? I didn’t realize we were all returning to the farm for our jobs.

  • I _like_ skeuomorphic design. If the iPhone is a delicious cake, eye candy is the icing. Sure, Forstall went a little too far sometimes — the shredder is a perfect example — but in general the mimicking of real-world objects that relate to the functionality of the app they’re a veneer on looks good to me. By contrast, I find Microsoft’s flat, boxy, and relentlessly minimalist Metro UI intolerably drab. Windows 8’s UI is a unmitigated eyesore that I want to take a restraining order out against.

    I greatly respect Ive’s sense of hardware design; the iPhone 4/4S/5 design is gorgeous, and he didn’t win those black pencil awards for nothing. I just don’t want to see that same level of minimalism turn the otherwise largely fine iOS UI into a dull walk through a park made of construction paper.

  • GranMasterFlashfff

    In this early transition of people switching from flip phones to what essentially are phones in computers, yes skeuomorphic designs are gateways into the smartphone world. People relate to things they already know. That’s also why touch based flipping of pages in a virtual book is easy to understand and manipulate. Once the mass of people become far for sophisticated, then they can much more easily adopt advanced designs. There is a reason why the Windows tablets of the early 90s failed…it was too computer like. It’s all about Apple’s Single stream of products and allowing the masses to transition.

  • Think_Different101

    I would say that these small details in app appearance and icons, is the attention to detail apple is notorious for! In and out their products are beautiful but more specifically, it’s what intertwines the old and new, it’s how if someone 75 can pick up an iPad I know he can read a book in iBooks because it looks like a book he once could hold. But at the same time a 13 yo can read a comic in the same app… Changing these small features has a huge impact on the culture… Apple products are bout yes for there looks status productivity but mostly for its simplicity anyone can use them.. Hearing impaired, blind , disabled, young and old… Don’t be so selfish think about every one…