Stop the Skeuomorphic Madness!

Apple has gone off the deep end with its skeuomorphic designs. Worse yet, the debate has become polarized. The polar opposite of excessive skeuomorphism is the so-called “flat design,” seen in Windows 8. A “flat” design is not only devoid of anything that mimics a physical object or material, but it also is devoid of texture, depth, and even color. If we go flat, we’re basically back to the 128K Mac of 1984.

According to the rumor mill, this year’s Apple OSs will dial down the excessive skeuomorphism, On last week’s Talk Show, I heard the delightful term “deforestallization” to refer to this effort. Since Scott Forstall has become Apple’s gardener, he’s been blamed for this particular excess. Let’s hope that this reform doesn’t result in jumping back to the other pole.

There is a middle ground. That’s true because Apple’s brand of skeuomorphism has gotten so extreme. Skeuomorphism in moderate doses is a good thing. And Apple has already used skeuomorphic designs well.

What’s wrong with Apple’s Skeuomorphism?

Apple has lost all sense of purpose. It’s become skeuomorphic for skeuomorphic’s sake.

Let’s think about this. Its original purpose was to help users who were new to computers learn the interface. It did this by leveraging users’ (presumed) familiarity with real world objects by suggesting that objects in the computer’s interface were analogs to physical objects that they already knew. In that way, they’d become more comfortable with the computer.

The primordial skeuomorphic interface was the “desktop metaphor” of the legendary Xerox Star. Here is a screen shot (a photo!) of the Xerox Star.

Xerox Star Desktop

Even though it used only simple line art, the desktop metaphor successfully leveraged the target audience’s familiarity with their own office environment.

Legend has it that it took Steve only a few minutes with the Xerox Star to decide what his company needed to be working on for the next few decades. Such is the power of the desktop metaphor.

Where did Apple go wrong?

For starters, Apple has become fixated on copying old objects for the sake of old. Pure old — so old that the object may predate the audience!

That amazing “Podcasts” app has become the poster boy for what’s gone wrong. Most point to the (now departed) reel-to-reel tape deck, but I didn’t think that was the worst of it. To me, a better indicator of skeuomorphism-gone-bad is that remarkable interface for finding and subscribing to new podcasts. This is an important function since the podcast universe is so large and specialized.

Unbelievably, it was based on analog radio tuners! Arbitrary categories of podcasts are referred to as “stations” and the user must “discover” the stations by dialing up or down along the horizontal axis. It implements sequential access when the underlying phenomena is random access. WTF!

Just take a look at this.

The analog radio “dial” is on top and the user can discover the “stations” by moving the indicator from left to right. As you do so, the new stations (a.k.a., subcategories) are revealed.

In this shot, the user is “tuned” to the Shopping station (!!!) but the stations that belong to its right (!!!!!) are not yet revealed (Think about it, Apple: How do podcasts occupy a physical position along a continuum? How can a podcast be to the left or right of another podcast?) As the user “tunes in” the higher frequency stations (!!!!), their names will be revealed.

Who designed this? A better question is why. It looks like an interface that was designed by a company who doesn’t understand the internet or computers at all. But it’s Apple! What happened?

This is a perfect example of how Apple has gone off the deep end. Instead of leveraging the familiar, this interface only reminds Apple’s real customers how difficult and awkward analog radios really were. Amazingly, an iOS device owner must learn the disadvantages of analog radio tuners in order to use this interface to browse the iTunes catalog of podcasts!

What Went Wrong?

At least two things. An implicit message in this interface is that, somehow, “older is better”. How does an ancient interface like this make the metaphor more compelling?

The analog radio interface is so old that it predates the target audience! An understandable reaction to anyone in the under-60 subgroup is “WTF.”

The second thing is that Apple has become obsessed with photorealistic simulations and animations. Regrettably, this has become an end in itself. Skeumorphism has become an opportunity for Apple to show off its animation virtuosity. Perhaps we were supposed to be so impressed by that beautifully animated reel-to-reel tape deck that we'd forget about the simple fact that it had nothing to do with the podcast universe.

The sad fact is that photorealistic animations don’t accomplish the underlying objective if the object being simulated is unfamiliar to the intended audience.

Please take another look at the desktop of the Xerox Star. Its hardly realistic — and neither was the desktop of the Lisa or the original Mac.

But it didn’t matter.

Because it was based on objects and processes that the intended audience was intimately familiar with, the metaphor worked splendidly. When the underlying purpose and objective of skeuomorphic design is realized, simple cartoon-like drawings were “good enough.”

What can be Done?

Actually, the current Mac OS X interface uses a schizophrenic combination of counterproductive skeuomorphic design and flat monochromatic interfaces. Jony Ive, you have work to do!

Monochromatic Mania

At the same time the excesses of skeuomorphism have become the Cupertino fashion, other parts of the Mac OS X design have been toned way down. Here’s a couple of examples.

  • The functionality of scroll bars has been reduced.
  • The arrows at the top and bottom of scroll bars are gone, the bar is narrower, and the usability of what used to be the scrollbar has been reduced.

    Here’s the Leopard scrollbar. You can see at a glance where you are in the document and you can scroll to click either arrow click on the scroll bar, or drag the thumb.

    Lion doesn’t like scroll bars. There’s even an option in System Preferences to hide the scroll bar entirely! If this option is selected, the interface has no widget to indicate whether part of the document is hidden and must be scrolled to bring other sections into view.

  • Color has been removed from Window icons!
  • It’s as though Apple has an internal Clorox Brigade that bleached all the color from Mac OS X icons! (This couldn't have been part of that "Back to the Mac" movement since iOS devices are retina resolution and highly colorful. A bleached Mac OS X window actually reminds me of a monochrome Kindle, not an iPad.) Let’s look at a few examples of bleached icons:

Finder and Pathfinder

Prior to the Clorox fashion statement, the Finder’s toolbar used color liberally but not gratuitously. The icons were drawn in high resolution and color was used to make them easier to distinguish. They were skeuomorphic!

Leopard toolbar

The design and the choice of color were chosen so that they suggested real world objects, wherever equivalent.

The geek’s version of Finder, Pathfinder 5, used a richer set of icons and they were drawn in the same style as Finder. Here’s Pathfinder 5’s toolbar.

Pathfinder 5 toolbar

Something happened with Lion. That’s when the Clorox Brigade swung into action. The icons were drawn less realistically and the color has been bleached out. Here’s the current version of Finder Toolbar.

Mountain Lion toolbar

In Lion, icons became less distinctive. When the color information was present, you could use both the color and shape information to recognize and process an icon. Without the use of color as a visual cue, you need to stop for a split second and process the icon’s shape.

Regrettably, Pathfinder followed Apple’s lead and tossed Clorox on their own toolbar! Pathfinder offers far more functionality than the Apple Finder, but the icons are as bland as Mountain Lion’s. Here’s Pathfinder 6’s toolbar.

Pathfinder 6 toolbar

In bleaching out the color and adopting simpler and less realistic shapes, Apple threw away an advantage of skeuomorphism. The Leopard icons are easier to recognize because the color choices matched the colors of the physical objects. The Delete button is red, the hammer in the customize button has the colors of wood and steel, and so forth.

Notice that Lion doesn’t even use the full black-to-white gamut. Compare, for example, the Back and Forward buttons in Leopard versus Lion. In Leopard, an active icon is black and an inactive icon is a dim gray. The Clorox Brigade used so much bleach that it takes extra time to determine whether an icon is active or inactive. Even a solid black is no longer used.

Lion’s exclusive use of a bland gray makes them about as difficult to recognize as possible.

Before the Bleach Brigade struck, colorful icons were used to great effect in third-party software as well. For example, the near-extinct Camino browser sported its skeuomorphic icons in the toolbar in both the main window and the Downloads window.


It seems that the Camino interface has not been updated (a.k.a. bleached) for Lion, so its toolbars reflect the pre-Clorox design sense. Here’s its main toolbar.

Camino Toolbar icons

Here’s the toolbar of its Downloads window.

Camino Downloads toolbar

I especially like the little whisk broom with its straw brush, drawn in all its skeuomorphic glory. That’s another benefit: Skeumorphism gives the computer a certain playfulness that is lacking in the dull gray of Mountain Lion’s Finder.

Even in the simple Downloads window, all the icons were colorful high-resolution designs. There is no way the color gets in the way, distracts the user, or suggests an outdated or obscure object. We had skeuomorphism without the controversy.

We’ve come Full Circle

Ironically, the bleached out look of Mountain Lion is actually similar to the simple monochrome icons of...the Xerox Star and the Lisa!! That was 30 years ago. Is this progress?

In its time, the Xerox Star needed the horsepower of a high end workstation just to draw its simple monochrome desktop. If it were possible, it could have been improved if it could have drawn its screen in high resolution color. It had an excuse.

In 2013, high resolution and 24-bit color can be used constructively to help create a more convincing illusion of physical objects and processes. And we have far more interface objects to deal with now. Somehow, Apple needs to adopt a skeumorphism only when it is not an excuse for distracting, indulgent, and pointless animations. As recently as Snow Leopard, they were there.