Luke O'Neill on why skeuomorphic UI design is driving him away from iOS and the iPhone
I'm aware of how melodramatic 'I've fallen out of love with Apple' sounds and perhaps how self-involved it makes me appear, but I stand by the statement because for the largest part it's true. Like a long-term relationship that's gradually gone off the boil and over the years has lost its spark and excitement, so Apple has gradually fallen out of my affections and no longer pushes the same designer buttons it once did.
And before anyone accuses me of jumping on the anti-Apple bandwagon, this isn't an exercise in Apple-bashing or some misguided hipster notion of running against the grain of the dominant, corporate behemoth in favour of the underdog. Nor is it even a rant about some of the questionable business decisions the company has made or its approach to censorship (although I could write a word or two on that last one).
On the contrary, I have nothing but respect and admiration for a company that has turned its fortunes around on a massive scale in a relatively short space of time, almost entirely through the design, quality and usability of its products. I fondly remember ordering my first iMac from an Apple re-seller on a grim Warrington industrial estate and having to get it shipped over from the States, long before the shiny glass retail beacon that we now know as ‘The Apple Store’ became a permanent fixture in almost every town and city.
What's really the focus of my grievances is that at the same time that Apple is pushing forward and breaking boundaries with its product design, it seems to be going in the opposite direction when it comes to graphic design. The slick look and overall usability of Mac OS has always been as important as the product itself and you'd be hard pushed to really argue with the functionality, but good God above, when will this skeuomorphic bullshit that's continually being rammed down our throats end?
You know what I'm talking about: the faux leather; the brushed chrome; the contacts app that looks like a leather pocket book; Apple Newsstand that takes the form of a bloody awful pine bookshelf; the iPhoto app that places all your photo albums in, you guessed it, actual leather photo albums on a glass shelf. The list goes on.
Apple's iOS is certainly the main offender, and putting aside my own personal aesthetic preferences I really do struggle to understand why any of it is necessary. This is a digital tablet device with a digital interface – why would you try and make it look like something in the real world? To make it more familiar, perhaps? When was the last time you even printed out any of your photos, let alone put them in a physical album?
This all goes against what I would consider to be good design, but I'm fully aware that good design isn't necessarily what other designers might find visually pleasing and that designing for designers is a self-indulgent masturbatory exercise. Neither am I arrogant enough to believe that Apple should be teaching the general public what good design is. I do, however, think that it should stop treating them like idiots.
Digital displays have been around for years and although the dawn of the tablet device is quite a large leap forward, ultimately it's the navigation and functionality that makes the devices so intuitive to use, not whether it has some dodgy fabric background. Which brings me conveniently onto the Windows Phone and the Metro design language, which in my opinion is a slick, beautiful and functional design system with not an ounce of brushed chrome or tanned leather in sight.
If you’d told me five years ago that I'd singing the praises of anything Windows or Microsoft then I'd have probably laughed you out of the room. But with Microsoft citing "Swiss influenced print and packaging with its emphasis on simplicity" and "way-finding graphics found in transportation hubs" as points of reference, it makes you really believe that they actually give a shit about design. The Windows Phone tile and typography-based interface is not without its slight navigational glitches, and I'm sure there'll be the pedants who argue that even a mail icon is a skeuomorph (although I'd suggest that falls under semiotics) but, for me, it's certainly a welcome step in the right direction.
The time when I unchain myself from my iMac is probably a long way off, and I only hope that Apple comes to its senses and starts to align its graphic and UI design with that of its product design. In the meantime however, the Nokia Lumia Windows Phone looks like a very attractive and viable alternative to the over-priced chain around my neck that is my iPhone.