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Comment: Scott Forstall is right not to apologize for skeuomorphism, and has a point even today

In a Computer History Museum interview this week, Scott Forstall was unapologetic about the skeuomorphic designs used in early iOS versions – the famous leather, paper and metal textures used to make on-screen elements look like real-world objects.

Disagreements between Forstall and design head Jony Ive on the look of iOS were believed to have been one of the reasons for him leaving the company back in 2012 …

Both Forstall and Steve Jobs were strong proponents of the use of familiar visual cues, making virtual objects look like their real-life counterparts – and they were absolutely right to do so at the time.

When the iPhone launched back in 2007, smartphones were the preserve of geeks. We were happy with phones screens that looked like miniature PCs because that’s what we were used to. We were fine with icons that looked like computer apps because, to us, that’s what they were.

But that’s one of the main reasons that smartphones weren’t a mass-market product at the time. Ordinary people used paper diaries and contacts books and notebooks. If Apple wanted to persuade them to switch instead to electronic ones, it needed to make the transition look simple. Part of doing this was making the electronic versions look just like the familiar paper ones.

Of course, time marches on, and today most people are more familiar with smartphones than the paper-based solutions that came before them. There is no reason today why an app should resemble a paper product that many people haven’t used for a decade or more, and which younger iPhone users probably never used.

But that doesn’t mean that we have to go ever further down the flat design route either. I’m a great fan of minimalism, but even I find that today’s iOS design looks … well, just a bit boring.

Here we are with a device whose graphics are so powerful and sophisticated that it can be used for augmented reality, and we’re using it to display child-like icons and design elements that wouldn’t have caused a 2007 iPhone to break sweat.

Sure, we don’t need to make the iPhone’s Calendar app look like a paper diary, for example, but there’s equally no reason that it has to remain rigidly two-dimensional in appearance. We can still use 3D to good effect, even if we’re not trying to copy physical objects.

Part of the issue, I think, is that designers get bored. They’ve been playing with variations on the same old ideas for so many years that they are desperate for anything new, anything different.

I’ve seen the same thing in photography competitions. Seasoned judges have seen tens of thousands of good photos, all based on the same set of established principles of what makes for an appealing image, and eventually they are so bored they want to see something – anything – different. Hence things like the Taylor Wessing Portrait competition, where first you had to submit something weird and ugly to be in with a chance, and later things came full circle and you had to submit the most basic-looking photo in the world.

That’s where we’re at right now with iOS. So sure, I don’t want us returning to the YouTube icon looking like a 1960s TV, but I would very much like to see an end to this boring flat design phase. Maybe not skeuomorphism, but let’s please end the war on three-dimensional design.

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Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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