Apple uses skeuomorphism, but it's not because they are idiots.

Every day there is a new post decrying Apple's tasteless use of skeuomorphism (you know, making calculator programs look like calculators and note-taking apps look like notepads?).

I totally agree that skeuomorphic apps are ugly and stupid. I said that in 2-thousand-freaking-four. But just looking at the latest abomination (it seems to be a sound recorder that looks like a ree-to-reel, of all things) and sneering is worse, because that means you don't have any ideas of where design comes from, and I say this being a person with as much taste as a walrus.

Design comes from people. There is a grander design behind that specific design, which you could call a guideline, or a philosophy, or in some cases a zeitgeist. For 50 years, there has existed a consensus about cleanliness of design being a good thing. It started in some specific niches while others went in other directions (car fins!) and later each area of design has moved, like a pendulum, towards cleanliness or "specialness".

Once you go "clean", and everyone goes "clean" there is very little you can do to make your product distinctive, and a tension is created to make it less clean and more "special".

Google's entry page used to be absolutely clean. A place to enter text, and two buttons. Now it has a menu with 11+ items, 3 buttons, and an icon. Apple's OS9 was ascetic, and now OSX is a sea of bouncy colorful things shouting at you.

The skeuomorphism and other indications of overdesign, of complication, in apple's apps is not unintentional, it's an intentional attempt at making the applications special, appealing, and distinctive. It is ugly and awful, but it is so intentionally, because the very concepts of ugliness and awfulness are just a vague consensus among the users, and Apple surely felt confidence that users, accostumed to Apple's role as kings of taste, would change their taste to fit. And as far as I can see that is exactly what has happened.

Users are not the ones complaining about Apple's design style, other designers are complaining. That signals, to me, a disconnect between the taste of designers and the taste of users. And honestly, the taste of designers is only of vague academic interest to companies trying to sell product.

Apple's hardware stays minimalistic because they have successfully branded it. If you see a squarish slab of black glass with a button, you think iPad or iPhone depending on size, not "generic minimalistic touch device". On software, that did not work. There was nothing interesting or innovative, or distinctive in minimalistic design for applications.

So they started with colorful gumdrops, moved onto brushed metal, and then into fake stitched leather, because they are trying to find something that can be as successfully and powerfully branded as "silvery slim wedge with black keys" is now.

Designers apparently seem to believe there is certain specific "cleanliness" that is the hallmark of "good" design, and that ripped paper and other skeuomorphic affectations are signs of bad taste. That is silly and ahistoric. Cleanliness is just a fashion, reel-to-reel digital recorders are an attempt at creating a taste. It's ambitious, and respectable.

On the other hand, it is ugly as hell.


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