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A Eulogy for Skeuomorphism

With its new OS, Apple is finally killing those leather bound calendars, wooden bookshelves, and tech's most quietly controversial design element. But skeuomorphism deserves a proper sendoff.
Image: Flickr

Yesterday, at the World Wide Developer's Conference in San Francisco, Apple unveiled its new mobile operating system, iOS 7, as well as the newest iteration of its desktop OS, Mavericks, named after a surf beach in Northern California. In Apple's new mobile vision, colors are brighter, typefaces lighter, movement more nuanced and dimensional. Apple CEO Tim Cook called it the "biggest change to iOS since the introduction of the iPhone."

These new operating systems are revolutionary for many reasons, but mostly because they've both shucked a design element that has defined the way users interact with their computers for as long as there have been graphical user interfaces—which is to say from the very first click. This element is called skeuomorphism, and despite the insane and possibly unfamiliar word, it was, until this morning, an indelible part of your digital life.


Rewind: there is a computer beneath all the pomp and gloss of your 13" Retina MacBook display. And in the days before such gloss, you needed to be versed in computer language in order to use it. Back then, it was you and the computer, in direct communication through a sacred channel called the command line.  With the advent of the graphical user interface (or GUI), however, the hallowed tradition of command-line tinkering was sublimated into something palatable to lay users, to folks uninterested in learning the language of code for themselves. Great pains were taken not to spook these people; familiar sights and sounds were summoned into the chimerical space of the personal computer. The so-called "desktop metaphor" was invented; notepads, drawers, and trashcans were diligently recreated in two dimensions. Documents were made to unspool like scrolls of paper. Systems were organized in little manila folders.

In a slim 1999 classic on the subject, In The Beginning Was the Command Line, the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson compared this (perhaps unjustly) to a Disneyfication of computer culture: just as Disney turns mythology, literature, and folk tale into adventure parks and perfectly-manicured replicas, so did Macintosh and Windows turn the arcane and often torturous relationship between computer and user into a theme park of visual mixed metaphors.

Skeuomorphs are those metaphors which have evolved to ape real-world objects: our devices abound with rendered knobs, switches, and sliders, echoing varieties of manual functionality that we can intuitively grasp. Digital clocks are made to look analog, and we can nimbly jam on immaculate replicas of guitars, drums, and turntables. They're not always literal, or even visual: the shutter-click sound on your iPhone is an auditory skeuomorph, a relic from the old world meant to remind you that your chameleonic device has momentarily taken on the role of "camera."


While under the direction of the late Steve Jobs, Apple's design aesthetic tended heavily towards the skeuomorphic. The Apple desktop calendar, famously, is rendered with accents of rich Corinthian leather; its bookshelves gleam with wood veneers, its chrome always brushed, its pages stitched and torn, its tabletop felt green.

These archaic ornamental features were, in Jobs' vision, instrumental in acclimating users to their devices, as well as in delighting their senses. But with Jobs' death and the departure of Apple's senior vice president of iOS software, Scott Forstall–whose advocacy of skeuomorphic design was widely reported to be a primary reason for his getting the boot–the sun seems to have set on skeuomorphism in California. At WWDC, while presenting the remodeled OS, Forstall's replacement, Craig Federighi, joked, "No virtual cows were harmed in the making of this."

It was one of many jabs taken during the Keynote at skeuomorphism, a design philosophy suddenly being as avidly shit-canned by Apple as it was, for years, championed. "We ran out of green felt," Federighi tittered, "Look! Even without all that stitching, everything just stays in place." Scott Forstall's metaphor-heavy design style is said to have been divisive among Apple higher-ups, and the relief they're now taking in sloughing off leather grain and deep-pile felt is palpable even to the casual observer. Apple wants to be hip, and it's hip to find skeumorphism passé—perhaps rightly so. After all, who keeps a leather-bound calendar on their desk anymore? Who shreds paper? Files and folders have been part of my digital workspace since I was a teenager, but I've never owned an actual filing cabinet in my life.


At the same time—and look, I'm with iOS 7 and Mavericks all the way—but must we so ardently slander skeuomorphism? Personal aspersions aside, does poor Scott Forstall deserve to be made the martyr of a design philosophy now rapidly on its way to the (two-dimensional) dustbin of history? I understand that technology moves quickly, and that it's impossibly competitive. In order to function, companies must hurl themselves into the future and embrace cresting aesthetic mores before the tides even shift.

This is not the first time that Apple has urged us, upon the release of a new product, to completely forget everything we'd just gotten used to. But skeumorphism isn't just an outré trend made increasingly irrelevant by higher and higher resolution displays: it's been an instrumental part of our upbringing as computer users since the first Macintosh. It's formed us. It's allowed those of us who don't natively speak the hallowed tongue of code to feel an immediate familiarity with the symbols gleaming across our screens.

Ever since there have been graphical operating systems on the market, we've been buying them, along with the underlying assumption that metaphors are a good way to deal with the world. Computers themselves have no use for metaphor, and their inclusion—in the form of skeuomorphic objects and larger systemic metaphors—has always been a concession to their human operators, from whom, at least at the dawn of the digital age, the brute force of computing needed to be veiled.

Now that enough of us have grown up connected, these stopgap devices can be eased out of use. The skeuomorphic veil can be lifted, and the true nature of our workspace revealed to us at long last. Like cartoon animals mid-chase, we will soon look down and discover that the desktop across which we've been blindly skittering was never there at all. It's Apple's hope that we'll keep running, perhaps distracted by our folderless, desktop-free mobile interfaces, until we reach the other side of the cliff.

But metaphors are tough to shake. Our world of scrolling tabs and nesting folders, despite its lack of bearing to the modern office, is a sticky cultural space: here in 2013, it feels like a set of semantic parameters embeded into the system explicitly to remind us, the users, of our own history. As we employ the desktop metaphors, ubiquitously and unthinkingly, we incant the past. We stopped using scrolls a century ago, but with every web-browse we preserve the idea. Each of the individual skeuomorphic bits now vanishing from the Apple OS—woodgrain shelves stacked with files posturing as leatherbound books, et al—might have been inconsequential, but collecitvely, in concert with the broader metaphors of desktop and mouse, they breathed familiarity into an otherwise flat space, a space built by people but which creeps, perpetually, away from us.

We might not be losing the big metaphors quite yet, but skeuomorphism, as their icecap, deserves to be properly eulogized before it's too quickly forgotten. So let us remember that on June 10, 2013, skeuomorphism began to die. That the breaths it took first in the early 1980s (and which we only named much later) are turning shallow; that its leather, paper, glass and chrome details, having nobly served their purpose in the formative years of the personal computing age, are beginning to rot and crumple, and we will soon bury them along with all the other old metaphors now past their use. May they rest in peace.