Skeuomorphism - How Steve Jobs Hit What Walter Gropius Missed - But Now, Is Apple Throwing Its Soul Away?

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   How has Apple seduced millions while Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus left those same millions cold? Steve Jobs' passion for simplicity was legendary, and his esteem of minimalist Bauhaus design was immense, but Apple products are loved by masses around the world, while the Bauhaus is loved only by design geeks. What's the difference?

   Simply put, Steve knew the difference between body and spirit, and Gropius didn't. Hardware is the body of a computer, while software (and more precisely, the user interface) is the spirit. There's no dispute that a body (whether human or machine) should be as lean as possible… but no leaner. In other words, low body fat but no anorexia. I remember the first time I held an iPod… its design seemed impossibly lean, but after less than a minute of turning the wheel and pushing the button, the question was "what else do you need?" So minimalist design is an indisputable virtue of hardware design.

Macintosh address book screen shot

    Minimalism was a religion to Gropius; a creed to be applied to everything from buildings to typography. To Steve, it was a powerful tool to be used everywhere it makes sense. What Steve implicitly knew that Gropius and most minimalists since him have completely missed is the fact that a minimal spirit is rarely a lovable spirit. 

   And so Steve imbued the spirit (user interface) of all his Apple creations with lovable characteristics on many levels. That lovable interface began by setting people at ease with their machines by using ideas with which they were familiar and comfortable.

   Apple designed things like a calendar icon that looks like a paper calendar, print icons that look like printers, and a note pad application that looks like a yellow note pad. Even the "desktop" itself that is the core of the Mac user interface was originally designed to look like a physical desktop. I call this "allegorical design" because the pixels on the screen are telling a story (an allegory) of something else that people are familiar with. Apple has used allegorical design to great effect for years to make its computers "friendly," as Steve often said.

iBooks screen shot

   It's not just that allegorical design is "friendly;" it's also highly efficient. Unless you're an experienced computer user, you might not know what a "directory" is, but everyone knows exactly what a "folder" is and how to use it. And while everyone using a computer is assumed to be able to read, it's still quicker to look for an icon that looks like a printer than to look for the word "print."

   Minimalist design geeks make the mistake of lumping allegorical design into a larger term with a dark side: "skeuomorphism." Skeuomorphic design is the design of one thing to look like something else. It can be powerful, like Apple's desktop, folders, and note pad, but skeuomorphism can also be cheesy, like fake wood-grain panels on 1970's station wagons. Today, the charge of skeuomorphism is a high insult in most design circles. Even the word itself sounds nasty, like some terrible intestinal disease you might get in the tropics.

Mac Notes screen shot

   Today, skeuomorphism is under full attack at Apple. Jony Ive, Apple's awesome hardware design wizard, was handed the keys to the user interface kingdom at Apple last fall. Unfortunately, it appears that Jony, like so many minimalists before him, doesn't understand the difference between body and spirit, either. And so he's reportedly delaying the release of iOS 7 so that he can stamp out all vestiges of skeuomorphism. Amputating allegorical design in the skeuomorphism witch hunt just may rip the soul out of Apple stuff because what are you left with after you remove the allegories that have made Apple stuff so lovable for so long?

   Apple stuff seduced us (until now) with bodies that were lean but spirits that were warm. Lean bodies and warm spirits are seductive, even sexy. A minimal spirit can't seduce. It can't even be understood unless you go to school to learn how to appreciate it. Saying "go to school" is no way to seduce someone. The inability to seduce leads to sterility… a frequent charge by non-design-geeks against Bauhaus architecture. Jony and Apple should urgently re-learn why Steve hit what Gropius missed… or run the risk of sterility themselves.

   ~Steve Mouzon

© The Guild Foundation 2013