Turn a new page: Why digital designs shouldn’t mimic physical designs

skeuomorphism ipad apple apps designWhen technology eliminates the need for something to look a certain way, but designers cling to the old look for familiarity, it’s called skeuomorphism. Think of everything from the rivets in your jeans to the “spokes” on a hubcap, neither of which need to exist anymore.

Skeuomorphism is one of the most debated trends currently happening in design, thanks in no small part to Apple’s copious use of them in digital interfaces. This drives designers — and design appreciators, like me — mad. Skeuomorphs are bad design. They should be stopped. Don’t take my word for it, though, take it from industrial design legend Dieter Rams. Here’s why one of the world’s most celebrated designers would probably disagree with skeuomorphs.

Skeuomorphism and the commandments of design

In the late 1970s, Rams asked himself: What are the ten most important principles for good design? The guidelines resulting from his inquiry have since been described by some as the “Ten Commandments” of Design.

Apple’s brilliant designers should adhere to these recommendations in their interface design, right? Surprisingly, they do not, and their skeuomorphs are often the worst violators. Here’s a rundown of Rams’ principles, and how Apple’s most recent designs violate every one.

“Good design is honest.” – D. Rams

Apple’s use of a tape machine in the interface for its Podcasts app is a great example of how to fail at this guideline. A reel-to-reel tape machine is totally unrelated to any podcast production process, almost all of which are recorded to digital media instead of analog tape. A reel-to-reel tape machine is also unrelated to broadcast radio, the media that I would argue podcasts are most similar to.

Creating and distributing podcasts never uses analog tape, calling into question the honesty of this interface cue.

“Good design makes a product useful.” – D. Rams

The Podcasts app’s tape machine does convey “state of system” information when the reels spin, but not in a particularly strong way. It can be easy to miss the differences in their spin speed.

The tape-machine metaphor will also be meaningless to anyone unfamiliar with tape machines, in which case it will just be wasted space on an already-cramped iPhone screen. Both of these problems suggest the space the tape machine occupies could have been better spent on another interface cue.

“Good design is long lasting.” – D. Rams

I’m 29 years old. Though my father has always been a music hobbyist, and a well-equipped one at that, at no point in my life was there ever a reel-to-reel player in my home. I understand the system, but I’ve never had first-hand experience with one.

In fact, very few people my age or younger could say they have. Even among recording studios, only the choosiest engineers even use reel-to-reel tape recorders, due to the cost and difficulty of maintaining one. As time goes on, fewer and fewer people will have experience with the technology that informs Apple’s metaphor.

ical skeuomorphic apple designThe tape-machine metaphor will only become increasingly outdated. Ditto the “bookshelves” in iBooks and the leather stitching in iCal. As these real-life analogs to Apple’s skeuomorphs become less prevalent, these metaphors will be less and less useful to users.

“Good design makes a product understandable.” – D. Rams

Inappropriate skeuomorphs can cause more problems than they solve. Take the “ragged pages” design cue in Apple’s iCal, which mimics a paper calendar.

On a paper calendar, you tear off last week’s page at the beginning of each new week, then toss it in the garbage or recycling.

This is very misleading in a digital environment. You won’t find the pages that iCal “tears off” in OS X’s “trash,” as you may expect. Instead, the pages are retained for later use. In this way, the “ragged pages” skeuomorph implies more limited functionality than iCal actually offers, and misleads the user as to their own ability within the system.

“Good design is unobtrusive.” – D. Rams

Examine the use of screen space in an application like iBooks, and you will realize that skeuomorphs can be very obtrusive. In iBooks on the iPad, a significant proportion of available screen space is wasted on page and page-margin design cues — and this on a device which already has an additional “margin” (bezel) surrounding the screen in every direction.

“Good design is environmentally friendly.” – D. Rams

Clearly, there is little real-world environmental impact from Apple’s use of a leather-stitching design cue in iCal. There is, however, impact to one’s virtual environment.

Bad skeuomorphs pollute our digital environments in the same way that a jackhammer disrupts the austerity of an otherwise serene neighborhood. They are like nails on a chalkboard to many designers: extremely distracting and impossible to miss.

Skeuomorphic pollution is so great in some cases that writing a column on the subject is sometimes all we can do.

“Good design is as little design as possible.” – D. Rams

Good design is accomplished more often by subtraction than by addition. There is no interaction-related reason to add skeuomorphs to an interface. If skeuomorphs do not help the user accomplish their goals, then they are more design than is necessary, and should be omitted.

“Good designs are innovative.” – D. Rams

There is nothing innovative about applying (or, just as often, mis-applying) the metaphor of a real-world object to a virtual system.

ibookshelf apple ipad app skeumorphicWhere is the innovation in a “bookshelf metaphor” for iBooks? Virtually every e-reader includes such an interface these days. Is the bookshelf a significant improvement over selecting a book from a list by title? I’d argue that the latter is often preferable, considering how “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

“Good design is thorough down to the last detail.” – D. Rams

With such wide-ranging critiques against the use of skeuomorphs in software, it is easy to make a case that skeuomorphic interfaces do not result from “thorough” processes considerate of every “last detail.”

Why we can’t have nice things

Of course, that was only nine commandments. Traditionally, lists of “commandments” include ten items. Unfortunately, Rams’ last directive doesn’t help my case against skeuomorphs:

“Good design is aesthetic.” – D. Rams

Paraphrasing Rams further: Well-executed objects can be beautiful and can positively affect our environments.

This is the only way that skeuomorphs can be excused — many users simply prefer interfaces that are lousy with skeuomorphic garbage.

This was Alex Lindsay’s experience in his “previous life” as an interface designer. When the July 23rd MacBreak Weekly turned to criticism of Apple’s skeuomorphs, Lindsay cited the following anecdote:

We showed target audiences … an interface that looked like you could touch it, and it was a real thing — and then one that was all text and much more … not quite Windows 8, but very similar to that look. It was like eight out of ten wanted the one with pictures. … You can decide whether eight out of ten people have bad taste, but I’m just saying, from a pure consumer perspective: we did a ton of testing on it, and it was clear. It wasn’t close.

So, if you’re wondering why we can’t have nice things — eight out of ten people are the reason why. But, eight out of ten people don’t make a good design. People like Dieter Rams do.

Dieter Rams wouldn’t want skeuomorphs in his interface designs. Maybe that means we shouldn’t either.

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