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Is an Unhappy Design Core the Root of Apple's Problem?

11.07.2012
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This post was written by Shawn Deena, a member of the Bull City Mobile team

Show of hands-- how many kids do you think that are coming up in elementary school and beyond know what a floppy disk is or was. Anyone? Bueller … (for that matter how many of them even know that reference?). Chances are none of them know what it is or if they have “heard” of it from their parents or grandparents, it’s prefaced by this phrase, “Back in my day...”

So why then if this is the case, does a forward thinking company like Apple still employ  icons that have no relevance to the people using this technology today?. The term by the way is called “Skeumorphism.” Defined as such …

An ornament or design representing a utensil or implement.


Basically a virtual trash can that looks like a real one, or the aforementioned floppy disc. In the days when Apple was first serving up home computers to the mass public it made sense to make things on the desktop look like things in real life so that people who were not all that familiar with computers (which was most everyone) could find something to relate to.  So that’s why we had things like a rolodex (it was this card file where you used a pen to write down contacts -- how barbaric), and notepads and trash cans.

Apple’s Problem -- An Unhappy Design Core

A large portion of the design world and folks inside Apple are not fans of this design in the modern age. Sure it made sense 30 years ago but consensus is now that these skeuomorphs are tacky, obtrusive and make the company look dated and behind the times.  Many feel it disables innovation. Now that the man behind this idea is gone, Steve Jobs, there’s been sort of an uprising inside the ranks to get rid of this outmoded design style. Think of it this way, look at Microsoft’s new design style. It’s sleek, modern and doesn’t rely on these old school standards to communicate to its users. The folks inside Apple have noticed.

In fact, the company’s design chief, Jonathan Ive, is probably the loudest voice behind changing Apple’s user interface. How do you make products that look and feel like future tech and function like nothing people have ever seen before but still have this old front-end design. An iMac is just a giant screen on a stand. That’s futuristic, that’s sleek. But a floppy disc icon to save your files?? If you are in charge of design for a company that has wowed the world with physical products that make people want to wait in line, it’s easy to understand the frustration in having to deal with something as archaic as a leather grain notebook icon.

Here’s the rub -- this same issue  that Ive is railing against, is one of the key reasons Apple got to be where there are in the first place.  Want some proof? -- Just wind the clock back five years and look  at the first iPhone.

The Solution?

It’s not so simple.  As mentioned before Microsoft’s new OS, Windows 8 is trying hard with its UI to shy away from the tried and true skeuomorphism. It has been well received by critics but it remains to be seen how well this will be embraced. Amazon’s Kindle has also done well in attempting to not make it’s ebook mimic real books and that also seems to be doing well. Unfortunately you are still dealing with a consumer market that is so accustomed to these real world icons on desktops and smartphones, that you can’t completely eradicate them just yet.

It’s entirely understandable why designers inside the Apple core see these icons in our current technological landscape as limiting the possibilities of digital design and  a bit condescending to users. But this concept has been around as long as we’ve had computers, way back to virtual folders looking like real folders. Eradicating them from Apple’s UI may not make anything better or make the company better. Perhaps maybe the solution is to update some of these “real world icons”  to create designs that are more relevant to now. They can certainly begin to take steps to remove some of the more archaic or useless skeuomorphs like say, faux notebook paper. The big question of course then becomes, from a design perspective, is what a non skeuomorphic design will look like.

Published at DZone with permission of its author, Shawn Deena . (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)

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