When Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone - perhaps his greatest product presentation - he joked that the iPhone was an iPod with a rotary dialing system on the front. It was deliberately absurd, and the audience duely delivered the anticipated laugh. (I'm reliably informed that an early prototype of the phone actually did feature such an interface.)
But no one laughs when Apple delivers a calendar application for the iPad that tries its hardest to look like a real-word desktop calendar pad, complete with fake leather and "torn" pages.
Still fewer have a chuckle when they see the new Address Book app on Mac OS X Lion, or the even more recent Find My Friends iPhone app.
These apps, and many more besides, all stem from a completely different, and I would say opposite aesthetic sensibility than the plain devices they run on.
It should probably be obvious that my own preference is for design without ornamentation, certainly without a hint of sentimentality, and that I detest these new apps. Why?
Simply put: it's because they are lies. They attempt to comfort us (to patronise us) by trying to show how they relate to physical objects in the real world when there is no need. How are we helped to understand what Find My Friends does by the addition of "leather" trim? And how difficult can it be for someone, even a relative digital newcomer, to understand a list of books? Difficult enough that the only possible way they could understand it is to present them in a "wooden" bookshelf format?
They are an expression of purest kitsch, sentimentality, and ornamentation for its own sake. In Milan Kundera's brilliant defintion, kitsch is "the absolute denial of shit". These are Disney-like apps, sinister in their mendacity.
The newly popular word for this type of design is "skeuomorphism". Strictly speaking it means retaining design features from earlier designs when those features previously had a specific reason for being that way, but do not any longer. A good example would be iPad synthesizer apps that include "knobs" that you can "turn", or "cables" that you can "plug in".
Note that this is not the same thing as metaphor in interface design. Making a fountain pen with a feather on the end, or a car that responded to commands to "giddy up" would be skeuomorphic.
An icon on the computer desktop in Lion is not skeuomorphic; it's just a metaphorical use of the word icon rather than any attempt to replicate the features of one. If they appeared in a wooden gilded frame, they would have tipped over into skeuo-land.
The distinction is perhaps a subtle one, but it's important. Icons on a computer are the way they are because they're a good way to represent the concept of a block of bytes on the disc, a concept that many users do not want to have to engage with. But a calendar is an abstract concept that people already have an accurate mental model of, and therefore it doesn't have to look any particular way at all, especially now that we're just using a bunch of pixels to do the presentation.
These designs are not the only evidence of an infantile aesthetic at Apple. Jobs mentioned "emotion" when launching iAd (he meant "sentimentality"), and Apple's own advertising regularly features sickly-sweet "stories" containing grandparents talking long-distance to their grandchildren on their iPhones and so forth. I understand: many people like these things, they like emotion, however fake (these are adverts they're scripted and acted; they are the opposite of authentic; the emotion is false, corrupt, a lie) and they help to shift vast numbers of devices.
The locus of the infantilist aesthetic seemed to be Steve Jobs himself, if his pronouncements at keynote presentations were an accurate representation. The default book in iBooks? Winnie the Pooh. The trailers he used to demonstrate the video capabilities of the device? Pixar movies. The music choices? Resolutely mainstream, conservative and sentimental. At his recent memorial service on the Apple campus, Coldplay and Norah Jones played. Can you imagine these artists playing at a Dieter Rams memorial?
Of course Apple products need to appeal to the mainstream, no matter how much the company pretends that they are somehow different from the competition, so the use of mainstream popular culture is understandable. My theory is that this is much more than a carefully considered marketing strategy though. The addiction to skeumorphism seems to say that it's a deeply held aesthetic position.
My question is: why does this approach not extend to the devices themselves? Why not make a wooden case for the iMac, like those hideous Sony TVs from my childhood? Or why not a case that makes the computer look like a typewriter?
And why, when we have these beautiful, clean, efficient devices, do we put up with this horrific, dishonest and childish crap?
For me, the most interesting software interface design is being done at Microsoft with Metro on Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8. Here there is no effort to offer spurious concordance with the legacy technologies the software replaces. It is digitally native design.
I can't wait for Apple to turn its back on this regressive aesthetic infantilism.
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