Skeuomorphism and Apple’s New Direction

From Daring Fireball’s John Gruber:

But the big news today is about Jony Ive. I don’t think it can be overstated just how big a deal it is that he now oversees all product design, hardware and software. For the last year, outside observers have been left to wonder just where the buck stopped for UI design at post-Jobs Apple. That question has now been answered: Jony Ive.

Apple’s senior management has had a major reshuffle, with iOS chief Scott Forstall out, and other execs like Bob Mansfield, Eddy Cue and the legendary designer, Sir Jonathan Ive, taking on roles with added responsibility.

The blogs have been alive with much speculation as to why Forstall was fired from Apple, but for me the biggest news is that Jony Ive will be leading the user interface division of Apple, along with his current activities as the company’s leading industrial designer.

From the press release:

Jony Ive will provide leadership and direction for Human Interface (HI) across the company in addition to his role as the leader of Industrial Design. His incredible design aesthetic has been the driving force behind the look and feel of Apple’s products for more than a decade. (source: http://www.apple.com)

In Apple’s recent software products – recent versions of iOS and OS X – the design trend of skeuomorphism has been a growing tendency. Many speculate this to be the influence of Forstall, but it dates back to the Jobs era when Steve himself was a major proponent of the style. For those that don’t know what skeuomorphic design is, here’s the definition of it (from the OS X dictionary on-board my MacBook)

skeuomorph |ˈskjuːə(ʊ)mɔːf|noun: an object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artefact in another material.

The design has made its way into many of OS X’s native apps, such as Calendar and Address Book. The major defining characteristics are leather stitching and textured backgrounds. The idea is to try and convey a feeling of a well-designed product. However, in my design-student’s perspective, I’m not much of a fan of this trend. Computers are technological products, and their design should reflect this. Apple’s integrated hardware/software philosophy seems to fall short in the use of skeuomorphism; the design of apps like Calendar and Address Book run perpendicular to the sleek aesthetic of the company’s Mac lineup. Similarly, apps like Game Centre on iOS devices conflict with these products’ hardware.

Jony Ive, who brought life to ubiquitous gadgets such as the iPod, iPhone and MacBook lines will now also be involved in the user interface of Apple’s software. I am extremely excited about this news; it means that the integration of Apple’s products will indeed be unparalleled. Software is a major part of 1 Infinite Loop’s newer devices such as the iPad, and Ive’s influence in this aspect of the product will indeed be greatly felt.

This news is also important in that it marks a new era for Apple. This is perhaps the single most important corporate development since Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO last year. Sure, Tim Cook is an influential CEO, but it is Jony Ive who is the real soul of the company. He was one of the only designers at a tech company to be reporting directly to the CEO during Jobs’ reign (a symbol of the importance Jobs gave to industrial design over raw engineering), and thus, his leadership of the two highest-level departments at Apple, the world’s most valuable company, makes him quite an influential figure socially, culturally and technologically.

I wish him all the very best, from one designer to another 😉

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