Skeuomorphism’s Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
The new design of iOS 7 may not be as different as you think.
Flat. Divisive. The rumors are true.
The internet’s going absolutely bananas right now trying to figure out whether it’s more fun to be for or against Apple’s new iOS 7 design.
But love it or hate it, seven months of Jony Ive definitely shook things up. Aside from the grid of rounded rectangles on the home screen, the new iOS doesn’t look anything like anything we’ve previously seen. All-new icons, colors, and fonts. Drop shadows and containers are gone.
There’s an inevitable conclusion here: skeuomorphism is dead! Flat design delivers a knockout punch! Hipster designers everywhere are cheering. Somewhere, Scott Forstall is crying a single tear.
Not so fast.
Skeuomorphism,in case you haven’t been on a tech blog in a year or so, is basically design that’s emulating another material or a real world object. The usual examples are the green felt craps table in the current version of Game Center or the leather stitching in the Calendar app.
Recently, popular opinion has turned against this type of design. Apple’s head of hair – I mean software – even made a bunch of leather stitching jokes during his presentation. So obviously, this whole concept of emulating real-world objects is on its way out now that Jony Ive’s in charge of iOS design. Right?
Here’s the thing, though: we know Ive is really, really into materials. Their look, their texture, their feel. He’s a hardware designer, after all. The man made a laptop out of titanium. We all had to hear a lot of breathy discussion about “chamfers” when the iPhone 5 came out.
This hasn’t changed in his software design: iOS 7 is made of materials. The frosted glass of the notification center, the dock, and the new Control Center. The way the wallpaper on the home screen is set behind everything else – the phone’s gyroscope and accelerometer working to make it seem recessed beneath the icons.
Jony Ive would never make a laptop out of leather or a phone out of felt, but layered glass and plastic are his wheelhouse. Refraction, depth, contrast.These are the building blocks of this new design.
In hindsight, it’s kind of ridiculous to expect a man who’s earned a freaking knighthood by creating three-dimensional objects to create a flat design.
If anything, iOS 7 is more skeuomorphic than the previous releases. The previous versions did little more than pay lip service to what things looked like in the real world. It required little engineering work, the effort was simply in creating textured images to be displayed on a flat screen. By contrast, the newly redoubled effort to make things real-world requires significant engineering effort.
On previous versions of iOS, it was extremely difficult for a developer to implement a blurred background. On iOS 7, this effect is everywhere.On previous versions, using the accelerometer burned through the battery, so using parallax effects was a big energy trade-off. On iOS 7, this has been promoted to a system-level feature, and they’ve optimized the entire OS stack around making this particular feature as battery-efficient as possible.
That’s dedication to skeumorphism.
There’s one example that really sums up how skeumorphism has evolved – not disappeared – in iOS. The volume slider in the Music app.
A year or so ago, an eagle-eyed user spotted something interesting about it. The reflection on the knob, designed to look like brushed aluminum, moved depending on how you moved the phone in your hand, as though it was really responding to the light of the room.
Most people chuckled to themselves about the obsessiveness of such a little detail, while others bemoaned its seeming pointlessness.
The new volume knob isn’t using the gyroscope to react as though it is a real object – the entire system is. This little thing, last year’s smallest detail, has exploded into a fundamental feature of the design of the entire operating system. The volume knob demonstrated a desire to emulate a real life material, an attempt to recreate something about hardware that software cannot.
That desire hasn’t changed. Just the materials.