A defence of the skeuomorph, as seen in iOS 6

Steve Dinneen
Follow Steve
Apple’s new phone has already become the single most coveted thing in the history of human existence, ever, storming past the Holy Grail, basic sustenance, love and even existence itself (posing some difficult ontological questions that people are too distracted by the iPhone 5 to properly consider).

Ahead of the official launch tomorrow, Apple has begun to roll out its new operating system, iOS 6, which, in the geek community, has sparked another round of skeuomorph-bashing. What do you mean you don’t know what a skeuomorph is? You know how the bookstore on your iPhone looks a bit like a bookcase? That’s a skeuomorph. And the way the dictaphone app looks like an old-fashioned microphone? That’s a skeuomorph too. The word literally means an object that has superseded something but retains imitations of its predecessor’s design. The concept can be traced back to prehistoric times, where early pottery bore imitation metal rivet marks on the handles, as earlier pots would have had.

Today, though, skeuomorphs are usually found in user interfaces, and Apple is a massive fan of them. It goes to incredible lengths to introduce them into its products. Its leather-effect calendar, which you can “turn” pages on with a swipe of your finger, even bears a faint impression on the rear-side of the “page”, as if you were holding an actual piece of paper up to the light.

The idea is that people are more likely to relate to a new product if it reminds them of something they already know – and that they will be more able to grasp new concepts because they feel at home with the interface. It certainly seems to work for Apple, which has managed to persuade even committed technophobes like my mother that their products won’t, in fact, explode in their faces if they press the wrong button, like a deadly game of Operation. You see, my mother, to the best of my knowledge, has never seen a bookshelf explode. Or a calendar. These are “safe” items, unlike computers, which are “dangerous,” “terrifying” and “definitely not to be trusted”.

Geeks, though, hate skeuomorphs. They say they hold back user interfaces. Computers are more efficient than bookshelves, unless they are forced to adhere to the same limitations for the sake of design flourishes.

I disagree. I’m with my mother here – I love skeuomorphs. But why stop there? Apple could follow the concept to its logical conclusion, imitating the minutia of our lives. When I open iBooks, it could look like my actual bookcase, complete with its embarrassingly limited selection of paperbacks and several containers of half eaten takeaway, which I could “swipe” with my finger, covering the inside of the screen in a permanent greasy smear.

Before I access the Maps app, I could be forced to delicately “unfold” it with a without tearing the pages and, when I’m finished, fail miserably to fold it back correctly, thereby permanently locking me out of the app and leaving a screwed up ball of paper on my home screen. It could charge 60p to send every message, which may or may not arrive within a period of three weeks. The next iPhone could be shaped like a giant old rotary dial phone that has to be plugged into the wall to make it work. Then it would be just like real life. How’s that for progress?