There’s a reason why the place you toss old digital files is called “Trash,” and why it looks like an actual trash can.
In the early 1980s, Apple designers working on Lisa — one of the first and most influential graphical user interfaces, replacing computer commands with easy-to-use icons — needed a place to put files destined for deletion. They hit upon the idea of a trash can, a beat-up old corrugated number like the one Oscar the Grouch lives in. They even thought of using the sound of flies buzzing, just to hammer the point home. They didn’t, of course, but a sweet, pixelated trash can found a home on the desktop; early advertisements for Lisa reassuringly declared, “If you can find the trash can, you can run a computer.” A sleeker and more refined trash can remains a stalwart of the Mac user interface even now. When you drag something to it, you hear the gratifying sound of crinkling paper. When there’s something in the can, crumpled paper mounds at the top.
The kind of metaphor Apple leaned on was skeuomorphism. A term dating back to at least 1889 — using the Greek “skeuos,” meaning “vessel” or “implement,” and “morph,” meaning “form” — skeuomorphism is when an object takes the form or elements of the design of a previous incarnation of the object, typically made out of another material. For a while, this term languished in anthropology journals, in articles about clay pots designed to look like leather vessels. But since the dawn of the digital age, skeuomorphism has had a more specific purpose: to ease a transition to the new digital world by borrowing visual cues from the physical world.
Decades into that transition, though, it’s clear that technology changes not only the digital world, but the real world itself. Digital is the real world. Why should the icon for “phone” on an iPhone be an image of a telephone most people haven’t used since the 1990s? Do we still need trash-can icons, file folders, and other skeuomorphic digital objects?
Modern Apple says no. These days, an iPhone no longer even has to look like an iPhone. At its product launch event Tuesday, Apple introduced a new $1,000 phone packing facial recognition and animated emojis but lacking the round “home” button that’s defined the look of the device for a decade. The new iPhone is a cipher — a black rectangle that, if you didn’t already know how to use it, would be inscrutable.
In the beginning, though, Apple built a company on clever allusions to the analog world. Steve Jobs in particular deployed this approach, often in playful ways. The first Apple-1, hand-built by Jobs in 1976 and launched from his garage, was in part made out of wood; when the iPhone was unveiled in January 2007, one slide displayed a rotary-style dial phone screen. These designs communicated what the thing did in ways that referenced real life.
Some of those early Apple concepts are on display at the London Design Museum’s current exhibition, “California: Designing Freedom,” which showcases how that state’s self-sufficient hippie counter-culture shaped the digital landscape over the last 50 years.
Among the displays are a 1984 Apple Macintosh and early Apple graphic designer Susan Kare’s sketchbooks, including that pixelated pointer finger rendered in pink ink on graph paper. In the 1980s, Apple was introducing a personal computer to an audience that had no frame of reference for one; a 1977 New York Times article, reported from the Computermania expo in Boston, described the personal computer as “a spectacular toy in search of a use.” The company’s skeuomorphic interface helped the computer find a use, and a toehold in global culture. When the company released the iPhone, it faced a similar challenge.
“This was a new type of portable computer that was also a phone, and it was the first phone without buttons,” said Justin McGuirk, chief curator at the London Design Museum. “Really, it was a new form of device. That meant that people in a way had to be taught how to use it, so skeuomorphism was really the tool that enabled Apple to do that.”
In each of its product iterations since the early 2000s, Apple has inched away from skeuomorphic design. By 2013, a cleaner, more minimalist approach had ditched the textures of skeuomorphism. Gone were the subtler touches — the stitching at the top of the Calendar app meant to evoke leather, digital wood grain on the Newsstand, the old-style microphone of the Voice Memo app, bevelling and shadows meant to give everything a sense of spatial reality. (Interestingly, the camera shutter sound effect still remains.)
The intensity of the debate over these changes might surprise non-designers. The move away from skeuomorphism at Apple accelerated after Steve Forstall, head of software development for iPad and iPhone, was forced out of the company in 2012, a year after Jobs died. Among other tensions, Forstall’s use of skeuomorphism grated on other senior Apple execs, particularly Jony Ive, Apple’s long-time industrial design chief and a modernist to the core. “He probably found it rather jarring that he created this modernist phone with all ornamentation removed to have an interface that was quite mimetic, in quite a cheesy way as well,” said McGuirk, pointing to the leather and wood effects the earlier iPhones used. “I’m sure that he couldn’t wait to get rid of it.”
Apple is just one company, but it’s a leader. Its aesthetic choices reverberate through rest of the tech industry and beyond, manifest in everything from stoves to NBA uniforms featuring abstract, stylized designs. The message is that things don’t have to look like familiar things.
But the problem with declaring skeuomorphism dead and buried — and many a design blog has — is that people still like it. And buy it.
“Incrementalism sells,” explained David Rose, a Cambridge-based entrepreneur, the author of “Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things,” and a lecturer at the MIT Media Lab. When a product is too far out there, too unmoored from our daily lives, it doesn’t sell. With skeuomorphism, he said, “you’re just adopting a convention that everyone already knows and understands.”
Skeuomorphism doesn’t just evoke nostalgia for the past. “There is a utility in skeuomorphic design,” Rose said, “which is that you want to give people a sense of how to do something. [You’re] not just doing it for an aesthetic appearance.” Nest, the smart home thermostat now owned by Google, consciously modeled its design on the 1950s Henry Dreyfuss-designed Honeywell thermostat, affectionately called the Round; the battery icon on a phone or laptop that in no way resembles the actual battery inside but nonetheless communicates “battery”; or the charging station on an electric car found generally near where a gas tank would be, because people feel more comfortable, more car-like going there.
Design is an evolutionary process, often carrying the vestiges of the past forward. Think of the tiny pocket on your jeans — no one carries a pocket watch anymore, but it’s still there, just in case you might. “There is no such thing as a brand new invention, because everything, no matter how radically different it appears, is just a novel combination of things that went before,” said Don Norman, author of the influential book “The Design of Everyday Things.”
Norman thinks Apple shouldn’t get hung up on skeuomorphism. Things in the digital world may not need to resemble things in real life for people to get them, but they do need to work. “Apple’s design has plummeted from what used be the best and easiest-to-use system in the world to things that are just plain stupid — just plain stupid,” said Norman. He mentions trying to change the font size on an iPhone; it may take some figuring out the first time, and that’s normal. But if, months later when you want to change it back, you have to go through the same learning process because it’s too hard to remember the exact steps, that’s bad design, he says.
Norman is 81. He says that, when he complains about Apple’s design, especially its iPad and iPhone user interfaces, people often dismiss him as too old to get it. But Norman gets Apple’s design perhaps better than most: He worked at Apple from 1993 to 1998, first as a user experience architect and later as vice president of advanced technology. “I worked with Jony Ives,” Norman said. “He’s brilliant and wonderful, he’s brilliant at making beautiful objects. . . But he’s not brilliant at understanding people.”
The relentless drive to eliminate traces of the pre-digital world isn’t making Apple’s products any more usable by consumers, Norman argued. “Basically, the problem with Apple and Apple’s designers,” he said, “is that they were trained in art schools, and they believe in art, and they want to make things beautiful. And they don’t want anything to get in the way of beauty, like being able to use it or understand it.”
Just as it has influenced design outside of tech, Apple’s high-profile moves to purify and simplify its look have hardened attitudes against skeuomorphism in the wider world. One designer, talking to Fast Company Design in 2012, dismissed the convention as a mere mere flexing of muscles, a way for designers to show off how good they were at rendering physical textures in a digital space. In August, online magazine The Outline identified a “gaudy epidemic” of audio software — including Apple’s own GarageBand — adorned with fake equalizer knobs and mixing boards, intended to imitate the look of retro recording equipment. “Especially now that a generation of musicians has been raised on GarageBand and iPads, does it really make sense to cover a piece of software in wood panelling?” wrote John Lagomarsino. “This is getting embarrassing.”
Embarrassing or not, skeuomorphism isn’t really going anywhere any time soon. Even as technology changes, as the lines between real life and digital life continue to smudge, physical objects will still be ported into the digital world. “As physical things become virtual things or interfaces. . . we’re going to replicate the original objects that are familiar to us,” McGuirk said. He added, “I think it is just how we transition from one human experience to another.”
While rooting out traces of the pre-digital world might make sense as a designer’s obsession, who benefits from it? Both skeuomorphism and minimalism run the risk of becoming an ideological fixation that does the user no good. The trick of good design isn’t just siding with one convention or another. Go too far in any direction, and the object is useless.
The things of tomorrow don’t have to look like today’s physical objects — unless that makes it easier for people to use them.
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent Ideas contributor, is an American freelance writer living in London.