Mark Bramhill: Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 and stayed there until he passed away in 2011. During this second era of Steve Jobs, Apple was known for the rich textures in its software. Introducing Aqua, Apple's new user interface for Mac OS X, Steve Jobs described how
Mark Bramhill: Brushed metal, likable buttons — Apple had a thing for this style of design. But with the iPhone came a new era of this — an era of skeuomorphism.
A skeuomorph is where an object retains ornamental design cues from its predecessors. For example, the "save" icon is a floppy disk. It used to symbolize the disk you were saving to, but, chances are, you haven't saved to a floppy disk too recently. Now it exists as a vestigial shape only meaning "save" to anyone born after the introduction of the CD.
Anyway, with the iPhone, Apple grew obsessed with these skeuomorphs for its apps. From the torn away pages of the calendar to the yellow notepad for notes, Apple's own iPhone apps were hyper-realistic representations of their real-world counterparts. But perhaps none stand out as much as rich corinthian leather.
Rich corinthian leather first appeared in the iOS calendar app, implying rich opulence. It soon spread to the Mac with OS X Lion. It was even prominently featured in Find My Friends, an entirely digital concept. Corinthian Leather was clearly a pet favorite texture at Apple — but what even is "Rich Corinthian Leather"? Turns Out™, it was a marketing term for the leather in luxury Chrysler automobiles. Here's Chrysler spokesman Ricardo Montalban speaking to David Letterman on the term:
Letterman: What is the deal, what the hell is, is there anything really... Corinthian leather, is that anything?
Montalban: They found a leather that was very playable, very soft, and very durable.
Letterman: Uh huh.
Montalban: And so Corinthian.
Letterman: Oh, yeah.
Letterman: But does it mean anything?
Mark Bramhill: It meant nothing. Chrysler even admitted that the majority of it came from just outside Newark, New Jersey — not Corinth. The term was a marketing lie, meant to evoke feelings of old. Somehow, this seems fitting for Find My Friends. The leather made something so conceptually futuristic a little more familiar, even if it was nonsensical. It was a reassuring callback to an old aesthetic. And of course, where would the CEO of Apple find a reassuring, comforting texture?
Dave Wiskus: According to legend, it was the exact leather and stitching on his private jet.
Mark Bramhill: Again: rich opulence.
This is Welcome to Macintosh, a tiny show about a big fruit company. I'm your host, Mark Bramhill. We're brought to you this week by Desk App, an award-winning & beloved desktop publishing client for Mac. Todays show: the rise and fall of skeuomorphs at Apple.
Mark Bramhill: To learn more about the history of skeuomorphs, I talked to an experienced app designer.
Mark Bramhill: So, what are the benefits of skeuomorphism? How can it help users?
Dave Wiskus: The idea of human interaction design, the core concept, is taking things that people already understand and using them to help people understand new things, and a skeuomorph is just dressing one thing up as another. It is kind of inherent to interface design. When we talk about skeuomorphic design today, we’re kind of talking about a certain visual aesthetic, but the truth is the term itself is pretty broad. A skeuomorph is anything that looks like or acts like another thing, and that’s all of software. When you look at the player controls in the music app on the iPhone, they’re there to mimic what used to be hardware buttons on a Walkman. They represent something, but they’re behaving as if they were another kind of thing. Buttons are a skeuomorph, light switches are a skeuomorph. So it’s usefulness is in following that exact guideline, of taking something we understand and helping us to understand a new thing – that’ll never go away. You already understand how a calculator works, so when we make the move to a calculator that doesn’t really exist, it’s just inside your phone and all you have is a flat glass screen, the best way to represent that information is by showing you things that you already knew and understood. It’s just drawing a line from point A to point B.
Mark Bramhill: So skeuomorphs were introduced to make computers more friendly, less cold and intimidating to users. Do they still accomplish that? Are they still helpful to users?
Dave Wiskus: I think that we’ve hit a point where the visual side of skeuomorphism is less and less necessary. You don’t need the calculator to have, like, the plastic texture. We’re sophisticated enough as a culture that we understand digital things better than we did five, ten years ago. It’s okay if it behaves in the same way, but it can look like its own thing, and it can be beautiful in its own way. It doesn’t have to mimic old hardware to be beautiful or to be well understood.
Mark Bramhill: Is it ever tempting to make it look that way though? Even if it's not necessary, maybe to show off your Photoshop skills, or for a sort of self expression?
Dave Wiskus: There’s this misguided notion that what we make is art. As an artist you create things for yourself. The truth is, other people are paying us money for this software. We owe it to those people to give them what they paid for and to really think through what their experience is going to be like. The idea that we only make things for ourselves, or we make things for ourselves first, is very selfish. It puts a bubble around us and ignores the rest of the world, which is the opposite of what interaction design should be. The most unfortunate side of the skeuomorph era of making everything woodgrain textures and leather is that we stopped thinking about what it was like for other people and we kept thinking about, like, well, look how pretty it is, look how well it screenshots.
Mark Bramhill: But, with all these pretty textures and skeuomorphs, it became really difficult to tell what was underneath them. If there was a solid foundation of user-interaction, or if it was all just sugar.
Dave Wiskus: It reminds me of, like, the early to mid-90’s. You had these bands who were the world’s biggest bands, and they would go and do MTV Unplugged. And with MTV Unplugged, there’s no production trickery. It is a live show. You don’t get to use Autotune. You don’t get to, like, layer up on vocals, you just have to sit down and do it. And famously, Nirvana did their entire set in one take. This is a band that was considered by the graown-ups at the time to be talentless. And their whole thing was just it was all screaming and loud guitars, and that’s why you didn’t notice how terrible it was, that’s why you didn’t notice that Kurt Cobain couldn’t sing. Then they go and they do an Unplugged in one take, and it was amazing! Probably the best episode of Unplugged. And you get to really hear, like, Holy Crap! These guys are really good, and not just Nirvana, but, like, even bands that you may or may not like from that era, like Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., all these bands going and doing this. You got a real sense of, there really is something underneath, a musical craftsmanship underneath whatever screaming and distorted guitars and studio production might have been applied to the top. And with software, I feel like we were so focused on that over the top production stuff – it’s kind of like the 80’s in music, where everything was about, like, the synths or lots layers of weird things, or even in rock music with metal in the 80’s, was all about being a guitar virtuoso. Everyone wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. And then you got to the 90’s where things became a little bit more authentic. And it kind of feels similar in software right now, where it was all about, look at these crazy things I can do in Photoshop, look at the designers that I hired to come and do the visual styling of my app, and we’ve moved away from that, and the “look how good I am at Photoshop” era to some real craftsmanship. And the current round of software I think is better. I think software on the iPhone, on the Mac, across the board, is better now than it has ever been not just because the technology has advanced but because the way we think about the way we create technology has advanced.
Mark Bramhill: You know what they say: you can put a skeuomorph on a pig, but... If you haven't thought about user interaction, if all you have is flashy eye-candy, people are going to notice. But even when you start with really good interaction, it's possible to get carried away with skeuomorphs. Between iPhone OS 1 and iOS 6, Apple had let skeuomorphs in its apps grow to be overly decadent, overly indulgent. But, how could this happen?
Dave Wiskus: I think the same thing that led to that style everywhere. Some of it is it looked better on these screens, some of it is it showed off an attention to detail or a willingness to include whimsy. Everything back to the Finder icon being a smiley face. Like everything about the Mac, the "Hello" when the Mac launched, the whole "Welcome to Macintosh" text to speech stuff. Everything about the Mac has been trying to humanize technology. That’s the magic of this box, that’s why it’s been as prevalent as it has been throughout the history of computing and why that sort of ideology has propelled the iPhone. It seems like Apple more than any other company is that the trick is to make interacting with your computer more like interacting with a human being. And some of that is as simple as, when you think of programming language, the best way to distill it is, you’re communicating with software, and the software will communicate to the hardware for you. You’re telling what the software to tell the hardware. And when distilled to that level, it seems a little bit more approachable. But there are many levels of abstraction here, and the best case scenario, if I want to sit down and use a computer, in the old days I would have to pull out the book and figure out what the commands were, and memorize these things, right, and make cheat sheets, and then I would type those commands into the computer. That makes sense because it’s the written word, and what is more powerful than the written word? That works up to a point, but then there’s all the stuff you have to memorize, and when the mouse came along, suddenly we could click on things and drag things, and we had menus that were laid out for us, and it was more like being at a restaurant. The software gave us menus, and we could select from those menus, and it became a little bit more natural. And over time, these little steps towards more and more natural we came up with something like Siri today, where you hold down a button and just tell your phone what you want. Does it work great? No, we’re not there yet, but that’s a pretty great jump forward.
Mark Bramhill: Despite having the best intentions, some users felt offended by these skeuomorphs and texture in their apps. Apple's attempts to make apps less intimidating was seen as condescending by some. People even called it infantilizing. But, if you were to take a random person off the street, if you were to ask someone how they felt about skeuomorphs and textures on their iPhone, chances are good that they probably don't care. A lot of people even found them cute. But there's more to it than that.
Dave Wiskus: The nice thing about technology-inclined people is that we’re gonna spot this stuff first. It’s always been that way, it’s probably always going to be this way. It’s okay if we see it before people get annoyed, in fact, it’s probably better if we see it before normal people get annoyed. Because we’ve come a long way with software and with technology in general, of making it very comfortable for people to use. It would be a shame to hit a point with usability where it just felt too patronizing, it felt too condescending.
Mark Bramhill: Did you ever have designs where you focused on textures and skeuomorphs more than you maybe should have?
Dave Wiskus: I was just as much an offender of that era as anybody. I made the mistake many times of, when we would sit down with a client, to pitch a project or to start something new, one of the first things I would do is, OK, what should the texture be? And the question I would ask was, "If this were a physical object, what would it be made out of, how would you build this?" And it was this kind of design by steampunk. And the trouble with that line of thinking, if it were a piece of hardware, what would it look like is that you’re never gonna be holding that piece of hardware. It’s never gonna feel like wood. It’s never gonna feel like anything but glass or ceramic or plastic or metal that you’re holding in your hand with that particular phone. And when we acknowledge that, we can get a little truer to what it would actually feel like like to hold that because you actually will.
Mark Bramhill: Apple began moving in this direction in October of 2012 with the ousting of Scott Forstall and putting Jonathan Ive in charge of industrial and software design. Previously, Ive had been the designer of Apple's hardware. But with this executive shake-up, he was given control of software as well. Now he was able to make the software be an extension of the hardware — to merge them into a single, cohesive thing. But Ive wasn't the only one working towards a new aesthetic at the time. Dave and his colleagues at Q Branch, John Gruber and Brent Simmons, were working on their app Vesper, which had a strikingly similar design sensibility, AND predated iOS 7's release... if only by 4 days.
Dave Wiskus: Right under the wire, right under the wire. We got a lot of, because of John’s involvement, there was a lot of speculation that we must have known something. We didn’t know anything.
Mark Bramhill: People assumed that with John Gruber's Apple blog, Daring Fireball, he might have known something about the upcoming design language of iOS 7. But that just wasn't the case — in fact, if you look at the evolution of Vesper's design, it started with heavy gradients, embossed text. The Vesper that now sits on my iPhone is tightly focussed on typography. The two versions couldn't feel more different. There was a lot of trial and error in between, but the inspiration came from a game by Loren Brichter.
Dave Wiskus: We really liked Letterpress, and we wanted to kind of make something in that, like use that as a jumping off point. What happens if you take away all this crap? What happens if it’s just the letters? What happens if... well, we're a notes app. The difference between our text and Letterpress's text, not that big a difference. I mean, it's a different context and slightly different sizing, but it's really kind of the same idea, it's just letters on a screen. If Letterpress didn’t need all that fancy crap, then maybe we didn’t need all that fancy crap. We were just big fans of Letterpress, and so that was kind of our jumping off point. And, the more we thought about it, the more we realized, well there’s an opportunity here for everyone to strip away this visual cruft. And we started looking around and noticed that more and more people were moving in that direction. And so we thought "well, here's where the puck is headed," and let's play with this. And the more we experimented, the more we liked it. And I think the similarities beyond just "flat," like the way we handled buttons and the way they handled buttons, the way we did various things and the way they did various things. It’s more a testament to how this isn’t voodoo-magic guessing. There's a real school of thought here. This is an actual field of study, where, when we sit down and we think about "With these constraints the best way to show this kind of information, what do you do?" We arrived at a lot of the same answers as Apple did. That’s not because we’re magical and we had access to something; it’s because some things are objectively true. Or some ideas are objectively better than others. Or, in a lot of cases, it’s just that people with a lot of similar ways of looking at the world, and I think that people designing third party apps and people designing apps inside Apple probably have pretty similar views of the world. It’s not like there’s some magical fortress somewhere where there’s a team of people who have never seen the outside world that are doing these things. They look at our work, and we look at there work. It’s symbiotic, it’s not, it shouldn’t be a mystery. But when you’ve got all these people with a similar view of the world, similar approach to solving problems, it’s not a surprise to me that sometimes different people will come up with the same solutions.
Mark Bramhill: Having the ability to do app design isn't something like in the Star Wars prequels, they identify it young, just take you off and train you?
Dave Wiskus: Yeah, there's no blood test, nobody checked my Midichlorian count before I was allowed to use Photoshop.
Mark Bramhill: After the break, we'll talk about Steve Jobs, and his relationship to skeuomorphs and textures at Apple. But, first, a word from our sponsor.
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Mark Bramhill: As evidenced by his enthusiasm during keynotes, Steve Jobs was a driving force for this style of design at Apple.
Dave Wiskus: His philosophy was about what felt right. He was a very shoot from the hip, Han Solo kind of character where, what mattered to him wasn't thinking eight steps ahead in terms of visual design. It was more about "well, what looks good right now." This is a guy who, he either liked it or he didn't. And he had his reasons for liking things or not liking them, but it wasn't an academic exercise for him. The leather texture in Find my Friends, my interpretation of that is that this is a guy who recognized if you put out an app that just showed you where other people where on a map, that would be creepy. But if you can humanize it a little bit, you can make it seem more accessible, you can soften the blow of the privacy implications. To get anybody at all to use it, to get families using it together, that's a big win. And I think that he just probably thought "well, let's not make it look cold and technological, let's make it look like something we can understand and trust.
Mark Bramhill: I also spoke to Neven Mrgan, a designer at Panic Inc., about his design of an early iPhone Twitter client and Steve Jobs.
Neven Mrgan: My friend Buzz Anderson asked me to work with him on his twitter app called Birdfeed and we made that. And we sort of worked on the design for a long time we really wanted to feel like it belongs on the iPhone, like it came with it. So after we finished it, he heard a story from a friend at Apple who was walking around and ended up in that classic stuck on the elevator with Steve Jobs moment. Because it was still kind of early in the app store days, Steve Jobs apparently would often ask people what apps they were using in their iPhones because apps were kind of new to everyone. And he did so with the friend of Buzz. He sort of say that he was ideally scrolling his twitter client and he said what app is this let me see it. So the guy handed over the phone Steve looked at it kind of scrolled up and down and gave it back to him and said "Needs more texture in the background." Which, if you think about all the hate that is thrown towards linen texture, that is pretty much Steve Jobs. He definitely wanted more texture in the background. And I sort of see his point for this sort of tactual feel about it that he wanted it. I think he wanted like a clear separation of foreground and background.
Mark Bramhill: Did you end up adding more texture to this app after you heard this story?
Neven Mrgan: No because honestly I didn’t know what it would be. We tried a million things. If I look at that Photoshop file for that there are so many textures back there...
Dave Wiskus: I don't think it's a coincidence that the move to a flatter aesthetic happened after his passing. But I also don't think that it wouldn't have happened if he were still alive.
Mark Bramhill: Steve was famously stubborn, but he knew when to move on even if it might have taken him longer. But even so, these skew marks are tied to him. They lived with him because they were his thing. A reflection of the most human side of technology.
Dave Wiskus: I think that those things are already nostalgia. Wood grain texture is looking back at the past fondly. So these are all kind of hints at the past. And so nostalgia for nostalgia, it's a little too meta for me.
Mark Bramhill: Even if we don't have nostalgia for nostalgia, even if we don't miss the rich textures and skeuomorphs, it's still sad to see a part of Steve go. And as for iOS 7's new design style, letting a button be a button, super thin text, its heavy transparency — well that's a story for another time.
Mark Bramhill: Special thanks to my guests today, Dave Wiskus and Neven Mrgan. Our theme music is by Terique Greenfield and our ad music is by Kebu. The show is sponsored this week by Desk App, an award-winning & beloved desktop publishing client for Mac and by listeners like you on Patreon. You can support the show at Patreon.com/macintoshfm. You can find the show notes online at macintosh.fm/1 The show is on Twitter @macintoshfm. And listeners: Welcome to Macintosh as a new show. If you can take a moment and leave us a rating or review on the iTunes Store that would really help us out. Okay, thanks for listening.
Dave Wiskus: I keep wanting to say human and that might just be because the leather texture looked like human flesh.