iPhone 5: Beyond Skeumorphism

February 27, 2013 12:00 am0 comments
Kai Sam Ng

Whenever Apple releases a new iPhone, the reception is nothing short of magical. Lines camped outside the Apple store! Record sales! Supply issues! But with the iPhone 5, something new has entered that hysteria, which frightens the seasoned marketer more than a product recall: boredom. “The iPhone 5 is Completely Amazing and Utterly Boring,” Wired magazine mourned. “The iPhone 5 forecast: a predictable 73 degrees and sunny,” The Verge complained. For a consumer society that has internalized and institutionalized change, “iPhone” and its operating system “iOS” have become words mumbled to express resentment and ennui over shiny icons.

And to be fair to Apple — why would it change? So far, only the gadget bloggeratti are complaining; the average consumer is happy. But the longer I use my iPhone, the more annoyed I am with small design decisions; by now, this frustration borders on neuroticism. What’s up with those glossy icons on system apps and skeuomorphic textures everywhere? Why does the Notes app look like a legal pad and a leather case? How about Games Center, which looks like the green felt on casino tables? It’s not just passé — it’s perplexing. If the Newsstand app was supposed to look like an actual newsstand, why are the newspapers on a wooden bookshelf? How is this compatible with the hardware’s sleek and modern industrial design?

These design flourishes date back to 2006, when companies competed with each other on imitating real life as closely as possible. In order to show the horsepower of these devices, the thought goes, these devices needed to replicate every lifelike detail: the brushed metal textures on Finder windows on early Mac OS X with their diffused lighting effects, the glass effects on Aero in Windows Vista with their reflections. But soon these details became distractions for the sake of distraction: At their best, they served no functional purpose, and at their worst they killed productivity. And, of course, there was still the nagging realization that no matter how hard computers tried, they could never imitate actual life. As Oscar Wilde wrote in “The Decay of Lying,” Art begins with abstract decoration and “takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, refashions it in fresh forms” until life gets the upper hand and “drives Art out into the wilderness.” When Steve Jobs told his designers that he wanted the leather stitching on the chairs of his private jet to be replicated in iPad’s calendar app, he drove Art out into the wilderness.

Other big companies, however, have enticed Art to come back, betting that the next battle in mobile technology will be about design, not raw processing power. The most radical of these is Microsoft’s own Windows Phone, which does away with skeuomorphism all together: flat textures, geometric shapes, typography, big icons, flourishing animations, live updates. My Windows Phone felt modern through and through, designed for my life. But once outside of Microsoft’s strictly-curated experience, the magic was gone — third party apps clashed with the rest of the interface (not to mention were also slow).

I’m more of a fan with Google’s own efforts, which seeks a compromise between Windows Phone’s own stark digitalism and iOS’s cheesy textures. These efforts have shown up in a uniform and quiet revamping of Google’s websites and apps, centered on the idea of subtlety: quiet gradients, soft shadows, subdued buttons, light fonts, muted pastel colors. There’s liberal use of white space and a religious dedication to simplicity and modernism. In comparison, iOS looks carnivalesque and Windows Phone looks garish.

Perplexingly, this redesign has prominently showed up not in Google’s own Android, but within Google’s iOS apps. But nevertheless, its simplicity is stunning. In Google Maps, Gmail, and the Google search app, unnecessary buttons replace intuitive touch gestures. Animations are instant and fluid but always under your control. The transparency garnishes that Windows Phone crushed out exist in Google’s interpretation, a gentle reminder that the phone’s simplicity was not a compromise with “weak processing power” and that your phone is capable of so much more beneath the surface.

The one prominent place it does pop up on Android is within Google’s quasi-competitor to iOS’s Siri, Google Now. Cards pop up information that reveal more than what is written through their positioning and context. If you’re stuck in traffic, a card will tell you exactly how much time is left in your commute. Android itself is catching up to Google’s redesign (most recently with a new Helvetica rip-off system font called Roboto), but manufacturers like Samsung and HTC have always imposed their own skin-deep interfaces to differentiate themselves in the cutthroat Android market. Google has given manufacturers wide berth in this area, but maybe it’s time to push it across the rest of Android—not to crush manufacturers, but in the name of beautiful design.