Ive’s To-Do List

Tensions had been mounting for some time now, between head-of-iOS Scott Forstall and other members of Apple’s management:

Inside Apple, tension has brewed for years over the issue. Apple iOS SVP Scott Forstall is said to push for skeuomorphic design, while industrial designer Jony Ive and other Apple higher-ups are said to oppose the direction. “You could tell who did the product based on how much glitz was in the UI,” says one source intimately familiar with Apple’s design process.

But before Forstall, it was Steve Jobs who encouraged the skeuomorphic approach, some say.

Skeuomorphism can be a powerful thing. It can communicate purpose and create emotional resonance. But it can go too far, focusing on how the software looks at the expense of how it works or feels. Apple has been criticized for just this with its recent offerings. Reportedly, they’ve gone so far as to demo a virtual paper shredder used when deleting e-tickets.

Now we’re seeing things shake out. Forstall is being “phased out” and Jonathan Ive, known for his understated hardware designs, is adding UI to his responsibilities. This move signals that the pendulum of skeuomorphism is about to swing back in the other direction, though it probably won’t be as extreme as Microsoft’s flatland or Google’s whiteout.

If all the wood, suede, felt, and yes, even linen, are to go the way of brushed metal, Ive has a lot of work ahead of him. For some apps, it might be a matter of reskinning the interface. But for most, whole models of interaction, currently built on strained metaphors, will need to be rethought. The following apps should be at the top of Ive’s to-do-list.


The tape reel, while well-made, is a waste of real estate and confuses what is and is not an active element. For instance, would you have guessed from the screenshot that you can drag the thin red scrubber, but can’t tap the progress bar to jump to a different spot? All the while, basic functionality like shuffling podcasts or sorting them from oldest to newest is absent.

Game Center

Like the Podcasts app, it’s not evident in Game Center what’s interactive or not. The ribbons at the top aren’t, while the ribbons at the bottom are. So is the photo at the top. The felt and wood theme is cheesy, fitting for a 99-cent poker app rather than the official hub for games of all types.

Find My Friends

The less said about the stitched leather, the better.


While the skeuomorphism in iBooks isn’t quite as objectionable, it has represented a philosophy of keeping faithful to the dead-tree analogue. Contrast its page effects with the Kindle, where everything besides the text fades away. The scroll mode recently introduced in iBooks 3 suggests that Apple’s philosophy may have already started to change.


With Mountain Lion, the stitched leather is thankfully gone but the torn paper remains. The desk calendar metaphor, unfamiliar to anyone under 20 anyway, falls aparts immediately with radio buttons, check boxes, and scroll lists.


Similar criticisms to Calendar can be applied to the OS X and iPad versions of Contacts. The heavy-handed interface screams “book”, but it turns out to be a magic book with scroll lists and embedded buttons that slide panes in and out of the page.

Photo Booth

Fortunately Photo Booth is not a critical app, but the velvet curtains and gold thumb-wheel rank with the stitched leather.

One Last Thing

iTunes doesn’t deserve to be on this list, but warrants special mention. Over the years, it’s grown from an MP3 player to Apple’s most important application. But this growth has been organic, and new functionality has been layered atop the old, creating a complicated interface in desperate need of overhaul.

In fact, Apple announced in September that a completely redesigned version was coming this month (though it looks like that target will be missed), and posted a preview on their site.

The new iTunes, as they call it, is minimal. It shows no symptoms of extreme skeuomorphism. And perhaps it will be the first real taste of things to come under Ive’s reign.

2 comments Write a comment

  1. some points I think you miss by dismissing skeumorphism. 

    – skeumorphism helps people understand new and unfamiliar interfaces.- skeumorphism helps set user expectations.- skeumorphism helps differentiate applications through unique UI chrome.- skeumorphism is effective when it doesn’t get in the way of information and interaction goals.- skeumorphism helps create not only UX analogies, but also emotional analogies. applications can have a casual or more serious tone to them. – skeumorphism critics argue that, by letting go of skeumorphism, a designer can create new interactions. they fail to acknowledge that creating new interactions like pinch to zoom and pull to refresh, have to come naturally, otherwise, drastically changing the way people interact with devices and their behaviors takes time and must be implemented incrementally, just like how Apple has added new gestures to their OSs or the introduction of “natural scrolling”.- skeumorphs often recreate and imitate product interactions which were the result of a long design evolution. some are antiquated but familiar, like the QWERTY keyboard, which sequence was created to prevent typewriter jams. others more evolutionary, like the shutter actuator of a camera. trying to reengineer something like the QWERTY to be quicker would result in huge interaction friction and redesigning a camera shutter actuator would most likely needlessly complicate the experience.

    people are quick to criticize things they don’t understand. have you ever watched a child play with an iOS devise? the look of wonder and delight as the do things as simply as navigate. take a step back and ask yourself why the iPad is so easy to use for a 60 year old. ask yourself if you think Apple hasn’t questioned their designs every step of the way. ask yourself if the skeumorphism Apple uses really gets in the way of UX or if the aesthetic is just a personal preference you don’t favor. do you think Scott Forstall is leaving Apple over design preference or the fact he’s really hard to work with and has an “aggressive management style”. i honestly don’t think Ive will go minimal. he understands that the hardware is just a viewport to the software. he has successfully removed unneeded features of the hardware to allow the software to shine. also, he is now in charge of UX, not all design. even the minimal superhero Dieter Rams used materials like wood, leather, fabric, and glass just for looks and feel, which had no real function. personally i don’t want to live in a world of minimalism. a world of UX wireframes becoming our UI. sounds really really boring. might as well do away with app icons, buttons, folders and just use terminal for everything. oh wait, we already did that with MS DOS.

    • Thanks for your comment. There’s definitely a strong anti-skeuomorph movement at the moment, but I don’t count myself in that group. As you point out with the camera shutter, there are a lot of places it’s used effectively that are easily overlooked. Another more obvious example is the page dragging in iBooks. Say what you will about it long term, there’s no denying that it delights the first few times.

      With that said, I’m not a fan of some of the other executions. At best, they’re ugly to a (vocal) group of users. At worst, they send mixed, confused messages and do detract from the UX. Contacts on OS X looks, but certainly doesn’t act, like a book. When the content exceeds the page, you’d naturally think to turn the page somehow. There are even page edges to reinforce that. But it turns out that you have to scroll, though with the disappearing scrollbars there’s absolutely no indication of that. And then you press a button and this book turns into a Transformer.

      Forstall’s departure is probably due to personality and political issues. But whatever the reason, he’s gone now. And given that he was the strongest advocate for skeuomorphism, his absence will have an effect on Apple’s direction going forward. I don’t think Apple will swing as far as Windows 8 with the minimalism, but I do expect that they’ll roll back some of the heavy-handed design we’ve seen in apps lately.

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